Authors: Norma Hinkens
When we pull apart I see Rummy gripping the chain link fence of the neighboring pen with his fists, his eyes boring into mine. The Ghost steps up behind him and begins to whistle softly as he slashes a hand across his throat. My heart sinks. It's an unmistakable gesture. Someone in that pen is going to die if I don't do something. I can't leave this unresolved.
I walk across the foyer and toss my Glock onto a table by the entryway. "First one to the gun, boys," I say, waving the magnetic wand back and forth to unlock the Rogues' pen.
Their faces register a flicker of confusion, then comprehension. They barge through the open door of the holding pen and make a mad dash toward the table.
Sven throws me a stricken look and takes aim.
"I've got this," I say, curling my fingers tightly around the tranquilizer gun.
"Oops," I say, as I pull the trigger.
he Ghost folds
over and drops to the floor. I snatch up my Glock before Rummy can cover the last few feet to the table and grab it. He comes to a screeching halt and stares down at The Ghost's crumpled body.
"That's for taking care of Fu for me," I say.
Rummy looks up and smirks. "Sure wish you woulda used a dang bullet, but I guess you don't owe me no more, Butter–"
"Don't! Go, before I change my mind and dart you too."
He taps his fingers to the side of his head in a mock salute. "Until next time."
"There won't be a next time," I say. "I'm done trading favors with you."
He shoots me a mocking grin as he steps over The Ghost and retrieves the gun from a motionless Schutz Clone. He slings it over his shoulder and disappears through the door without a backward glance.
"Why'd you let him go?" Trout asks.
I blow out a heavy breath. "I owed him one last time. Let's put The Ghost back in the holding pen. He'll be trampled to death once we turn the Rogues loose."
"Good riddance!" Trout mutters, grabbing The Ghost by the leg.
"I gave Rummy a free pass," I say. "This is as much as I'm willing to do for The Ghost."
We drag him back inside the holding pen and I lock the door with the magnetic wand.
"Don't you want it unlocked so he's free to fight the Schutz Clones when he comes around?" Sven asks.
"We'll leave that up to the Rogues to decide," I say. "Along with a note on the viewing monitor to tell them the Schutz Clones are in the docking station. They'll have the advantage of surprise at least."
I throw one last glance at The Ghost's sacklike form as we leave, pushing down the foreboding feeling that niggles at me. If he survives, I've no doubt he'll come for his pound of flesh.
hen we reach
the Biotik Sektor, Dimitri pulls me aside. "Let me talk to the delegation for a few minutes alone. I'm going to try and persuade them to come with us voluntarily, but if they won't we'll take them hostage."
I chew on my lip as I weigh our options. He's right of course. We can't leave them behind in the Craniopolis. They'll either be slaughtered by the Rogues, or escape in a Hovermedes and return with a legion of Schutz Clones. "All right," I say. "You have three minutes to convince them before we tie them up and move out."
Trout and I gather up our stuff, grab a handful of lyophilized meal sachets, and close up our packs.
I throw a couple of uneasy glances over at Dimitri and the other members of the delegation as the conversation grows louder. One of the Sweepers raises his arm, and, for a moment, I think he's going to take a swing at Dimitri. He gestures briefly in an animated fashion and stomps away from the rest of the group.
"It's a split decision," I say to Trout. "Brace yourself."
A few minutes later Dimitri walks back over to us, a resigned look on his face. "They don't trust me. They want to see Fu before they make a decision."
"Not gonna happen." I shake my head. I gesture across to the CommCenter where Sven is bent over the control panel. "Sven's setting the timer on the Intake Sektor doors. We need to go."
"Then we're going to be doing this the hard way," Dimitri says.
n the end
, the members of the delegation don't put up too much of a struggle. They protest, but they quickly realize they don't have a chance with Sven and the military clones at the ready.
I watch as the clones secure the delegation's wrists and separate them into pairs. I'm not excited about the prospect of yet another reluctant faction taking up residence in the city and adding to the tension, but for now, at any rate, I don't have a better place to take them.
Sven strides across the room to me, his face resolute. "We're ready."
"How much time do we have before the Rogues are free?" I ask.
"Ninety minutes. Enough time to get out through the tunnel and make tracks into the forest."
"Let's do this," I say.
"You know we won't be safe in the city for long," Sven says. "No matter who comes out of the Craniopolis alive, they'll come for us."
I grimace. "As soon as Iskra locates the Megamedes I'm going to figure out how to get us on board. If we can take over the ship, we can end this." I hesitate and lay a hand on Sven's arm. "And then Dimitri can help you and Jerome."
"I'm not interested in being an ex-Sweeper's lab rat," Sven says. "Dimitri developed a theory for resolving ossification, but that's all it was."
I frown at him. "What do you mean?"
His shoulders heave up and down. "I talked to some of the other members of the delegation. The clinical trials were never completed. There were too many inherent risks that came to light."
I stare at him in disbelief, a sickening feeling swirling around inside. That's why Dimitri couldn't make any promises about the outcome.
It can never work in the long run.
Dimitri wasn't talking about a relationship between a human and a clone. He was warning me about the risks they uncovered. My eyes burn with unshed tears. I thought Dimitri could cure ossification, but he's been snatching at straws. I can't ask Sven to suffer needlessly for my sake. He has a right to enjoy the few years he has left. But I won't give up. There's still the Megamedes. None of us know for sure what's on board, or what scientific advances the world government has made since the meltdown.
a lot longer than we'd planned to get everyone out through the tunnel. The members of the delegation prove uncooperative once we're underway, arguing with our orders at every opportunity, and the military clones are forced to half-carry, half-drag them along at times. My muscles are cramping up by the time we reach the forest and climb back out into the cool evening air.
"We'll have to avoid the trails in case we're pursued," I say to Sven. "It'll be a tough overnight hike through some dense brush, especially with uncooperative hostages."
He nods. "The doors to the Intake Sektor should be opening about now."
Fear prickles like icy dew along my skin. My mind spins through the frightening scenario set to play out in the Craniopolis. "Who do you think has the better odds?"
Sven looks off into the distance. "The Schutz Clones are superior fighters, but they're grossly outnumbered. And opening those doors will be like letting the hounds of hell loose."
I shudder at the thought. I've seen first hand what the Rogues can unleash when they've been crossed. Sven's right; incarceration has only ratcheted up their hunger for blood.
Rays of evening sunshine blink through the trees as we begin our long hike back to the city. A thick bed of leaves and fallen twigs crunches beneath our feet, an oddly comforting sound after the hard clacking of our boots on the gleaming Craniopolis floors. The lyophilized food we packed will save us valuable time, but even without stopping to eat, carving a path through the dense undergrowth is time-consuming and exhausting. Without Sven and his men clearing the way with their Schutzmesser, it would be almost impossible.
I glance back over my shoulder. The delegation and the two military clones who are escorting them have fallen way behind, but I can still hear them moving through the brush. Viktor and Dimitri are somewhere at the rear of the pack, no doubt catching up on the past decade.
"The military clones are getting too far ahead of us," Trout says, coming up alongside me. "Shall I tell Sven to take it down a notch?"
"If only the delegation would quit dragging their heels," I grumble. "Tell Sven he needs to keep us in sight. We can't risk getting separated."
Trout takes off into the brush and I lean back against a tree to wait for the delegation to catch up. My thoughts drift to the Megamedes. Even if Iskra locates it, we still have to figure out a way to get on board.
An angry yell from farther back on the trail startles me upright. I reach for my gun and begin plowing my way back through the brush, brambles tearing at my clothes and skin. I leap over a moss-covered boulder and collide with an ossifying clone tipped forward in the dirt. My heart lurches. I look up at the sound of someone thrashing toward me through the undergrowth.
"Go that way!" Viktor yells, pointing to his left as he runs by. "The delegation split when he expired." He dives back into the brush and disappears from sight. I surge forward into the undergrowth in the direction he pointed. My pulse pounds in my throat. I wonder how long it will be before Trout and Sven realize we're not following them anymore. The last thing I wanted is for us to get split up.
Up ahead I catch a glimpse of one of the members of the delegation. I grit my teeth and pick up the pace. We can't let them any of them make it back to the Craniopolis and escape on a Hovermedes. I edge closer and take aim with my gun. "Hold up or I'll shoot!"
He throws a harried glance over his shoulder, then ducks beneath a branch and disappears from sight.
I take off running after him again. "Last chance!" I yell as I skirt around the tree, weapon raised. His frightened eyes meet mine. Someone's already got a gun to his head.
almost buckle beneath me. Dark, metallic eyes in a shaved skull study me with a flicker of amusement. "This the skunk you're after?" Blade asks in a slow drawl. His lip twitches and the scar gouging the whole left side of his face writhes in concert.
I'm shaking inside, but I fight to hold my voice steady. "Him and a few other Sweepers. You could make yourself useful and help us find them."
For a moment, he looks mildly curious, but then he seems to remember something more important. He jabs the gun into the Sweeper's temple. "Where's The Ghost at?"
"How would I know?"
Blade eyes me skeptically. "Musta seen him. He tracked you to the Craniopolis."
I shrug. "Last I heard he was tracking you."
Blade's lips slit and tug up at one corner. "He ain't the type takes kindly to being made a fool of."
I stiffen at the sound of Trout's voice.
"Derry! Where are you?" Trout yells more loudly.
"Don't answer," Blade growls. "Or the Sweeper dies, and then Trout."
I breathe slowly in and out. If I direct Trout this way, there's a good chance Blade will shoot him. But if I let him pass by, he'll waste precious time looking for me and run the risk of encountering Schutz Clones or Rogues, either of which is a sickening proposition. I squeeze my eyes shut and listen with mounting anguish as the sound of Trout's voice grows fainter.
Blade nods in my direction. "All right, walk toward me and set the gun down at my feet, real slow."
The Sweeper's eyes dart helplessly to mine. I grit my teeth. Now he wants me to save his hide. But it's his fault we're in this mess to begin with. Whatever I do next, it won't be with his safety in mind. I take a few steps forward, and then bend over and lay my gun down on the pine needles. Instinctively, my fingers seek out the switchblade in my jacket pocket. I get to my feet and stare glumly at Blade. The moment his face relaxes in a victory sneer, I make my move. I arc my right arm and slice the knife across his neck, knocking his gun upward with my other hand. Blood sprays me. Blade makes a guttural sound and staggers backward. Without a second glance the Sweeper bolts. I snatch up my gun and take off running low and hard, weaving my way through the brush, oblivious to the branches flaying my flesh. My only thought is to make it as difficult as possible for Blade to get a clean shot at me.
I can tell I'm making quick work of putting some distance between us. I'm faster and lighter than he is, and he's hurt. He's breathing heavily, cussing up a storm, thrashing through the brush. A shot rings out behind me. I throw a terrified glance over my shoulder and leap over a boulder, landing on a slope of half-mulched forest litter. My feet slide out from under me and I roll, trembling, beneath a clump of ferns. Blade's footsteps tromp closer and I tense, waiting for his next bullet to find its mark. Instead, I hear a heavy thud as something hits the ground.
I listen intently for several minutes, but I don't detect anything more than the faint stirring of the wind through the trees and the occasional chatter of squirrels. I peek out from beneath the waving fern fronds. The evening shadows have lengthened, and I can just about make out a body lying ten or so feet from me in the brush. If it's Blade, his stalking days are over. There's an arrow through his chest.
I scoot along the ground on my belly until I get close enough to confirm that it's him. My mind races to one conclusion.
Who else prowls around in the forest hunting Rogues with a bow and arrow? I call out her name several times, knowing full well it's a waste of time. She'll show up in her own time, on her terms.
I get to my feet and tentatively approach Blade's body. Lou's arrow has found its mark with deadly accuracy. I force myself to feel for a pulse. If I ever run into Rummy again, I can tell him I did that much at least. I stare down at Blade's face, eyes open, but strangely flat and bereft of emotion. I'll never see him again, and the thought cheers me.
"Derry!" It's Sven's voice, faint and frantic.
I jump to my feet, cup my hands to my mouth and yell repeatedly, directing him to me.
Seconds later he barrels out of the brush and wraps me in his arms. "Thank goodness you're safe."
"Blade was shooting at me but he's dead now," I say when we pull apart. I point at the body.
"Who killed him?" Sven asks, staring at the arrow.
"Lou's the only person I know who can shoot an arrow with that kind of accuracy, but there's no sign of her anywhere," I say. "Did you find the Sweepers?"
Sven shakes his head. "By the time Trout and I found out what happened, they were long gone. They must have doubled back in the direction of the Craniopolis. We gave up pursuing them once we realized you were missing."
"Too late to stop them now," I say. "We need to make tracks to the city."
of the hike back is long and treacherous as night falls. The moon drips little light on our path as we slog through the forest and over gurgling streams. So much for the lyophilized food sachets–I don't even have the energy to tear one open and throw the contents down my throat. As dawn breaks, I finally make out the outline of Shoshane City and I allow myself a sliver of hope. Up until now, I didn't think we'd make it. I kept looking over my shoulder all through the night expecting to see a horde of Rogues or Schutz Clones descending on us.
The container gates groan open upon our approach and we troop through, exhausted and famished. The Undergrounders and riders stare at us, wide-eyed and silent. At first, I'm not sure why we're such a spectacle. Then I glance down at my tattered clothing, spattered with mud and Blade's blood. Trout's covered in scratches like ruby-colored whip marks over his sunken face. Sven stomps along on my other side, eyes locked forward, his fatigues ripped and filthy. Dimitri and Viktor chicken walk behind him, eyes glazed over. The rest of the military clones, scientists and Undergrounders take up the rear in similarly ragged shape.
I scan the faces as we go by, but there's no sign of Owen. I've been harboring some small hope that he would change his mind and return. Jody tilts the brim of her hat at me from her horse as we pass by. After a few minutes I spot Rocco elbowing his way through the crowd toward us.
"What happened?" he asks, directing his question at Sven.
"The Rogues gave us away to the delegation. We left the Schutz Clones and Rogues to fight it out. Jerome is safe with the deviations in Terminus for now."
Rocco raises his brows. "Where's the delegation?"
"One of the clones who was escorting them expired on the way here. They split when they saw their chance."
"They'll never make it back to the Craniopolis," Rocco says.
Dimitri looks grave. "If they do, they'll board a Hovermedes and be back at the outpost in a matter of hours. We could have Schutz Clones descending on the city by tomorrow."
"You should have eliminated them when you had the chance," Rocco says.
"We hoped it wouldn't come to that," I say.
"Is everything stable in the city?" Sven asks.
"Some of the homesteaders returned a few hours ago," Rocco says. "hey were afraid they wouldn't make it to the Deadwood River because of the storm."
"Was Owen with them?" I ask, fighting to keep my voice steady.
Rocco gives a quick shake of his head. "He's pushing hard to reach the river basin. He wants to have shelters built and food stocked before fall."
It doesn't surprise me to hear he's not giving up. Owen is too stubborn to admit this was a mistake. Leaving with so many unknowns, and with too few people to defend themselves. If they encounter Rogues or Schutz Clones it will be an efficient bloodbath.
"How's Big Ed holding up?" I ask.
"The old man's close to expiring." Rocco corrects himself before I can respond. "Dying."
"Where is he?" I ask, my heart lurching in my chest.
"At the rider's barn."
"We need to go there," I say to Trout.
He nods, his eyes clouding over.
"Find Blackbeard and fill him in on everything," I say to Sven. "We'll be at the courthouse as soon as we can."
I turn to Viktor. "You and Dimitri head to the Superconductor. Find out if Iskra has made any progress on pinpointing the coordinates of the Megamedes. You need to man the CommCenter day and night until we make contact."
Viktor bobs his head and slips away through the crowd with Dimitri.
Despite my fatigue, adrenaline spurts through me as I hurry to the rider's barn with Trout. My thoughts are in turmoil. I knew the day would come when I would lose Big Ed, but I was hoping it wouldn't be anytime soon. If only the world wasn't so twisted, maybe the Sweepers would be able to save him.
We find Big Ed curled up in a bunk at the back of the barn, his chest heaving and falling, the ominous rattle of fluid the only background noise in the space. Tucker is stretched out across his legs, and for once he doesn't look overjoyed to see me. He lifts his head and stares at me reprovingly, before dropping it again. I rub his neck and hug him, grateful he's stayed close by Big Ed's side through this ordeal. He licks my hand once in response, a gesture that tells me I'm barely forgiven for leaving and bringing on this crisis.
I turn at the sound of the barn door opening. Hannah comes in and greets us.
I stare at her in disbelief. "I thought you and Jakob left with the homesteaders."
She sets down a basket of food and walks over to us. "Jakob didn't want to leave Big Ed in this condition. And he wasn't happy about Owen pulling out in the middle of the night without telling anyone either."
"What's wrong with Big Ed?" Trout asks.
Hannah grimaces. "The doctor says it's pneumonia. He refuses to go to the clinic. Jakob and I are taking shifts to make sure he's not alone."
Jakob and I.
The words are innocent enough but telling. I look at her curiously as she adjusts Big Ed's covers, her blond hair tucked beneath a dingy cap, her faded skirt swishing above her boots as she moves.
"Jakob talks about you all the time." She smiles warmly at me. "What you did for us was unbelievably brave."
I nod and scratch at a non-existent itch on the end of my nose, blocking her clear-eyed gaze. Has she any idea what I've done? And how I feel inside about taking a life? How could she? The only blood on her hands is the blood of those she's saved.
Big Ed lets out a moan which dissolves into a sharp coughing fit. I swallow back a sob and lay my hand on his shoulder. He smacks his lips together and rolls over with another groan.
"Big Ed," I whisper.
His feverish eyes pop open and search the space around him.
I lean in closer so he can see me without his glasses. "It's me, Derry," I say, my voice breaking.
He blinks, staring past me as if trying to associate the information with some distant memory. But it doesn't come together. His eyelids drift closed again.
Tears trickle down my cheeks. Trout squeezes my arm gently.
"He doesn't even know me." I choke out the words between sobs. "I wanted to say goodbye at least."
"Give him a few minutes," Trout says. "He needs to orient himself."
We turn our heads at the sound of voices. A moment later, Sven barges into the barn. He pulls up short at Big Ed's bedside and signals to us to join him outside. I turn to Hannah. "If I'm not back in five minutes, take him to the clinic," I whisper. "He's too weak to protest now." I give Tucker a quick neck rub, before exiting the barn with Trout. My blood runs cold when I see who's waiting for me.