Authors: Norma Hinkens
he line sputters again
. "Acknowledge orders, I repeat. Acknow–"
The lights on the CommCenter flicker and the line goes dead. Dimitri slams his fist on the counter.
"It doesn't matter!" I blurt out.
The shell-shocked faces in the room turn to me.
"We've got the coordinates now," I say, excitement swirling up from my gut. "We can launch the Hovermedes from the Craniopolis and land a raiding party on the Megamedes. The Sweepers will think we're part of the evacuation. They won't realize what's happening until it's too late."
Dimitri stares at me as if I'm some alien species he has inadvertently whipped up in his lab. "Are you out of your mind?" he asks.
"Not entirely. Sven and the military clones are trained to operate the Hovermedes. They can pose as Schutz Clones while you man communications from here between the ships. The Undergrounders can pass themselves off as scientists. Once we're on board we'll attack."
"Count me in," Lou says, giving an approving nod.
Gustav steps forward. "I can help Dimitri manage communications."
"There are six Hovermedes in the docking station at the Craniopolis," I say. "Enough to land a large raiding party. And we have the advantage of surprise."
Blackbeard grinds his jaw like he's chewing on something. "What about getting Jerome and the deviations out?"
"If we attack the Megamedes first we may not need to evacuate the deviations," I say.
"I can send Jerome a message about the change in plan," Dimitri offers.
"No." I shake my head. "We'll tell him once we reach the Craniopolis. The deviations need to go ahead with their preparations to leave in case things don't go as planned on our end."
I turn back to Dimitri. "Are you sure you're up for this?"
He blinks, trying hard to hold back tears. "I've never been more sure about anything."
Gustav squeezes his shoulder gently. I give him an appreciative smile before turning to leave with Blackbeard and Lou.
"We need to pull Sven and the military clones off the barricade and head to the Craniopolis right away," I say, as we exit the Superconductor.
"What about the Rogues?" Blackbeard asks.
"They're under your command now." I look directly at him. "I need you to stay here in the city. There's no one Jerome trusts more to guard it in his absence than you."
"Just bring him back," he says in a hoarse voice. "That's all I ask."
"I swear to you I won't leave him behind."
Blackbeard's plea haunts me as we make our way across town.
Bring him back
. Maybe I can save Jerome from the Schutz Clones, but he's already twenty-four units. I can't keep him alive past his expiration date. His only hope of surviving beyond it lies with the secrets onboard the Megamedes.
ack at the container gate
, Blackbeard moves some of his men into new positions around the barricade to free up those he's picked to supervise the Rogues. I'm not worried about leaving him behind with the Rogues. They're weakened and outnumbered, grateful we gave them refuge. The Ghost will have no takers if he tries to rally them to go up against Blackbeard and his men.
Sven and the military clones betray no emotion when Trout and I update them on the developments and brief them on our plan to attack the Megamedes. I'm reminded again that they don't fear war because this is what they were engineered to do. It's at times like this when Sven seems more machine than man, and yet I know by the way he looks at me when we're alone that he's capable of loving me as much as any man.
The Ghost watches the proceedings as the military clones fall into formation behind Sven, but he keeps his thoughts to himself. He's been subdued since he arrived back in the city with only a third of his men. I can't imagine he's thrilled about the shift in the balance of power. But for now, at any rate, he seems willing to toe the line.
I swing my pack over my shoulder and reach for my gun. All of a sudden the Undergrounders and Rogues start shouting to each other along the barricade.
"What's going on?" Trout yells up to them.
"Riders! Coming in hard," an Undergrounder shouts back.
I push my way through the crowd to the gate and wait with bated breath for word to come from the guards. It can't be good. Moments later, I hear the dreaded words. "Schutz Clones!"
My thoughts splinter inside my head.
All around me men and women scramble up on the barricade, weapons in hand. Lou and Trout run to take up positions alongside the Rogues and Undergrounders. The container gates groan open and the horses bearing the riders gallop through, nostrils flared and heaving.
I press my face up against the shell of an abandoned car and angle my head as far as I can. When I scrunch my eyes up I detect a flicker of movement on the horizon. Minutes go by and the flicker turns into a steady crawl, like locusts darkening the earth. My blood runs cold.
The barricade fills up as more Undergrounders flock to help. The military clones resume their positions, faces set like steel. I spot Jakob and Hannah climbing into an abandoned truck built into the base of the barricade. Seems the entire city has turned out for the last stand. Men, women, and children old enough to hold a rifle, are tucked into perches all over the tangled steel and concrete wall. Lou kneels behind the burned-out cab of a truck beside me, bow in hand.
Sven walks up to me. "So much for attacking the Megamedes. We'll have to fight them here first after all."
"Keep everyone off the ridge line." I tuck my braid inside the collar of my coat and climb onto the barricade. "We don't give the Schutz Clones a clean shot."
Sven strides off giving orders to the military clones. I tent my hand over my eyes and study the shifting horizon for several tense minutes.
The black fatigue-clad troops come to a halt a quarter mile outside the city. Without binoculars or Sven's enhanced vision, it's hard to tell if the Schutz Clones are making camp or regrouping. I send a message down the line to the guards in the tower to let me know what's happening.
Blackbeard runs up to me with an update. "They're advancing again, but they've split into groups. I'm not sure what they're up to."
"Sven will know," I say, as he comes back into view. He strides over to us.
"What's going on?" Blackbeard asks. "Why are they dividing into groups?"
Sven grimaces. "To wear us down. They'll send in one wave of clones after another until we're out of firepower, and then they'll scale the barricade and take the city. The Sweepers don't want to obliterate us. They need our DNA."
"We haven't come this far to give up now," I say.
Sven smiles down at me. "I had a feeling you'd say that. Let's do this, Derry Connolly." His molten eyes search mine for some assurance I can't give him. I don't know if either of us will live beyond this day.
I pass the word down the line to hold all fire until the Schutz Clones are within range. We can't afford to waste any ammunition. I dig into my position a few feet from Sven and steel myself for what's to come.
When the Schutz Clones begin advancing again, my throat goes dry. They march in mechanical unison, gripping their guns tightly in their massive hands. A cloud of dread descends over me. No matter how many Schutz Clones we mow down, the Sweepers will churn out more. This isn't the battle I wanted to fight. I need to get on board the Megamedes.
The air is still and cold, and the sky a dirty white, but the snow has stopped falling now. I wonder what the Schutz Clones made of it. Tears prickle my eyes when I realize I never got a chance to ask Sven what he thought of the first snow he's ever seen--maybe now I never will.
I flinch when a single shot rings out. A Schutz Clone at the front of the pack drops to his knees and tilts forward on his helmet, ossifying like a sacrifice before the city gates. I didn't give the command to shoot, but everyone on the barricade opens fire, spraying the advancing troops with bullets. The Schutz Clones surge forward, firing back as they run. Lodged like bats in the steel and concrete barricade, we have the advantage of cover, and, despite their speed, the Schutz Clones make little headway. We mow them down them faster than they can reach the barricade.
Within minutes, it's over. An eerie silence settles over the carnage. The Schutz Clones' ossified corpses lie scattered around the barricade like macabre sculptures. I rest the barrel of my gun on a piece of rebar and pull out my water canteen with trembling fingers. Before I can raise it to my lips another shout goes out from the watchtower. I squint into the horizon. The second wave of Schutz Clones is on the move. "Sven!" I yell.
He crawls across to me. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, just trying to work something out. If the Sweepers release a new wave of Schutz Clones after the first one has been decimated that gives us about fifteen minutes before they're within firing range, right?"
Sven hefts a questioning brow. "What are you thinking, power nap?"
I frown at him to keep from laughing. "If we let them get closer this time before we eliminate them, we'd have enough time to open the gates and retrieve their weapons before the third wave reaches us. With the increased firepower, we might be able to outlast the attack."
A somber expression comes over Sven's face. "The third wave of clones could charge us."
"We only need a couple of minutes. We crack open the gate, send out the runners--we'd be back inside before the Schutz Clones realize what's happening."
Sven rubs his jaw. "I'll station additional snipers at the gate to give the runners cover."
"Blackbeard can move some of his men over," I say. "And round up the fastest runners."
"No!" Sven lays a hand on my arm. "Send out the military clones. They're as fast as the Schutz Clones and they can carry a lot more weight than Undergrounders."
I grip his sleeve. "Not you."
He raises his hand and smooths my hair from my face before he gets to his feet. "I can't ask my men to do what I won't do."
I swallow the lump in my throat as he walks off. There's nothing I can say to that. It's how I operate.
reath on pause
, I watch as the second wave of Schutz Clones treads ever closer, the rhythmic pounding of their boots numbing us into silence. We hold our fire until they reach the marker we agreed on, a pile of corrugated metal siding overgrown with weeds. As soon as the first Schutz Clones steps over it, we let loose with a volley of bullets. Our fire is returned with a vengeance. The clang of bullets bouncing off metal fills the charged air. Undergrounders shout instructions to one another, scrambling and ducking for cover as they weave through the barricade like rats in a sewer. A piercing scream from above makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. A Rogue tumbles backward to the ground below. Perspiration beads on my forehead.
I spend my last three bullets, eject the clip and slap a new one in. That's when I see the kid on top of the barricade.
to take a closer look, but the kid hunkers down just out of view behind a steel girder on the ridge of the barricade. A moment later he pops his head back out and takes aim at the advancing Schutz Clones.
The blood freezes in my veins. What is he doing? He's dangerously exposed. I have to reach him before it's too late. Heart pounding, I scramble to my feet. Adrenaline rushes through me, propelling me forward, but a lean figure bounds past me, scaling the barricade in seconds. I glance up in time to see The Ghost throw an arm around Brock's waist and pull him down, covering his body as a barrage of bullets pepper the girder.
When the volley dies down I leap over the last few feet between us and drop behind the metal girder.
"Get off me!" Brock yells, scrambling out from underneath The Ghost to retrieve his gun. His face is flushed with excitement. "I got this!"
The Ghost doesn't move. A creeping ameba of blood fingers its way out from under his torso. I yank Brock back down, hugging him to me as another hail of gunfire ricochets off the tangled metal we're crouching behind.
When the shots die down again I release my grip on Brock. He stares at The Ghost's body for a long moment. "Is he dead or something?" he whispers.
I nod, my eyes unexpectedly prickling as I check for a pulse to be sure. It's the second time today I've been moved by the death of a Rogue. "Yeah, he's dead," I say, reeling from the realization that whatever tune The Ghost was stuck on, he'll never whistle it again.
"I killed a Schutz Clone," Brock mutters.
"I'm sure you did." I squeeze his bony shoulder. His recklessness has cost The Ghost his life, but I think deep down he knows that.
I peer cautiously around the girder. The Schutz Clones are at the barricade now and several are scaling it with frightening speed. As quickly as the Undergrounders and Rogues pick them off, more take their place. But their reinforcements are dwindling. Without any cover, it's impossible for them to make it over the top.
To my horror, I spot a Schutz Clone squeezing through the barricade directly above Jakob and Hannah. Before he gets a round off, Hannah fires up at him. The Schutz Clone shudders and then ossifies in place, trapped between a chunk of concrete and a snarled roll of wire fencing. My heart slowly slides back down my throat. Hannah has blood on her hands now too, but she's still saving lives.
I focus my attention back on the remaining Schutz Clones and get a few more rounds off in between keeping Brock low and out of sight. Within minutes, the shooting dies away again and this time, it doesn't resume. I grab Brock by the arm. "Let's go." We scramble down the barricade to the ground and take shelter behind some corrugated sheeting.
My heart thuds loudly as I eye the groaning container gate. As soon as it creeps open a few feet, the military clones bolt through the opening and make a run for the abandoned weapons. Sven leads the charge, pounding over the debris that litters the ground outside the barricade. I swallow back the spiked lump in my throat. He has so little life left and yet he's willing to sacrifice it over and over. I'll never forget how he took Owen's place for my sake.
Brock watches, mesmerized, as the military clones pick their way through the ossified Schutz Clones' remains like vultures, stripping them of ammo belts and weapons.
One of the guards shouts something unintelligible from the tower. I look up in time to see the next wave of Schutz Clones thundering toward the city like a herd of elk. A tsunami of panic hits me.
"Run!" I yell. My voice is drowned out by the guards shouting over a loudspeaker to the military clones to retreat. All around the barricade Undergrounders scream the same urgent message. The military clones abandon what few weapons remain and flee toward the gate. I press my knuckles to my lips until Sven is safely back inside and the container gates are sealed. It doesn't surprise me that he's the last one through, but it does little to calm my fear of losing him before the day is done.
"Let's get you out of here before the next onslaught," I say to Brock.
He starts to protest, but I narrow my eyes at him. "You want to end up like The Ghost?"
Brock throws me a wounded look, but he shakes his head and gets to his feet. Seeing The Ghost's body was a wake-up call for him. A grim reminder that this isn't a game and that mistakes can be fatal.
"I have something important for you to do." I rest my hands on Brock's shoulders. "I need you to stay with Big Ed and defend him, no matter what happens."
He blinks, and then shrugs. "Sure, I guess."
"Take Lou with you," I say. "I want her to check up on Big Ed and let me know how he's doing."
He walks off and a moment later Lou strides up to me, a thunderous look on her face. Before she can say a word, I pull her close and whisper. "I need you to go with him to the rider's barn and tell whoever's there not to let Brock out of their sight until this is over." I straighten up as Brock comes walking back. "Brock will show you where the rider's barn is," I say, loud enough for him to hear.
I watch them disappear around the corner, but my relief is short-lived. Shouts alert me to fresh movement on the horizon. I climb back into position before the third wave of Schutz Clones begin their assault.
Over the next few hours, three more waves come and go. I sink down after the sixth attack ends and close my eyes, dreading hearing the sound of more boots crunching over the debris toward the barricade. I'm falling off my feet with exhaustion. I lean back against a stack of sheet metal, my eyes brimming with tears. How can we ever defeat a suicide squad like this? The Ghost's bloodied body flashes to mind. We're all doomed. Even the Rogues are no match for this. I wish I could see Tucker one last time, but I'm glad for his sake that he's safe with Big Ed at the rider's barn. Lou returned with the welcome news that they're both doing great so that's one bright spot in this dark day.
"They're retreating," an Undergrounder above me shouts.
My eyes pop open. I scramble up on one knee and peer through the barricade. A sliver of black flickers on the horizon and then disappears. I blink, scarcely daring to believe that it could be anything other than a trick. I jump to my feet and run down the line to find Sven.
"Hey!" He waves down to me from the barricade.
"Are they really gone?" I call up to him.
"For now," he says, an ominous note in his voice. "But they'll return. It's just a matter of when. Tell everyone to hold their positions."
Hours go by and there's no sign of the Schutz Clones returning. "We can't sit around any longer waiting for the next attack," I say to Trout and Lou, as we munch on some jerky. "We need to come up with a plan."
I convene an emergency meeting beneath the watchtower and pass the word down the line to fetch Blackbeard and Sven.
"The Schutz Clones may not return for days, if at all," I say when everyone is assembled. "Let's go over our options."
Blackbeard frowns. "We still need to get Jerome and the deviations out before the Sweepers move them."
"First, we should work on fortifying the barricade," Trout says. "And we need to start building explosives out of whatever materials we can jury-rig together."
Sven folds his arms across his chest. "I say it's time to launch the Hovermedes and beat them at their own game."
I throw Lou a questioning look. "You're a neutral party. What do you think?"
"Secure the Megamedes," she says without hesitation. "You need to hit the bullseye to end this."
"She's right," I say, looking around at the others. "Everything hinges on finding the sovereign leader. I'll take half the military clones and a small group of Undergrounders with me back to the Craniopolis. Everyone else can stay here to defend the city." I nod to Blackbeard. "Under your command."
the north side of the city using the secret passageway out through the abandoned school bus. If there are any Schutz Clones watching the container gate they have no idea that we're on our way to the Craniopolis.
The forest is cool and inviting after the intensity of the last few hours. Despite the respite it offers, I can't relax. We're heading into more danger than ever, the heart of darkness. Thick, scented pine branches undulate up and down like arms spurring me on as the enormity of the task ahead grows heavier.
The evening shadows lengthen around us and the trees take on the ghostlike greenish garb of night. Lou walks in front of me, her lithe movements never faltering as the light fades. This is her world and it embraces her like a daughter, a keeper of the secrets it shares with a chosen few.
"Keep an eye out for the scientists who escaped," Sven remarks.
Trout grunts. "If they're not back at the Craniopolis by now, they're already dead."
The words sound harsh and unfeeling, but the stark truth is that danger lurks everywhere in the forest for the inexperienced and unarmed, and the scientists fall into both of those categories.
"Take them alive if you find them," I say. "They may prove useful."
hortly after midnight
we reach the concealed entrance to the tunnel leading into the Craniopolis.
"Don't take any chances once we're inside," I say. "There could be Schutz Clones posted throughout the Craniopolis."
"The Sweepers don't know about the tunnel," Sven says. "They're not going to waste resources in the Biotik Sektor. We only need to worry about Terminus and the docking station."
"Leave the guards outside Terminus to me," Lou says.
Sven nods. "We need to hit the docking station before dawn. Hovermedes aren't designed to fly at night so the Schutz Clones won't be expecting any action while it's dark out."
"Let's go," I say, climbing down into the earthy darkness. For once, I don't find the tunnel claustrophobic. I'm dreading leaving the safety of it. Terrified of what I've committed to do on the other end. But I'll find my courage and do it anyway like Big Ed taught me.
When we exit the tunnel, the Biotik Sektor is eerily silent, which I take as a good sign. We do a quick scout around to make sure there aren't any Schutz Clones lurking in the shadows.
"What's that?" Trout asks, frowning at a nearby pod chair. I turn and flinch. A glistening rust-colored patch streaks the back of the white chair.
Lou examines it. "It's fresh."
Sven puts the military clones on alert. He goes over to the doors leading out of the Biotik Sektor and peers into the main tunnel. "Clear out here," he says.
"Could be one of the escaped scientists," Trout says. "They knew about the tunnel."
"Then we're in trouble," I say. "If the Schutz Clones find out about the tunnel we have no escape route."
Sven loads a cartridge into his gun, his face grim. "Whoever it was, they won't attempt to launch a Hovermedes until it's light out. Let's head to the docking station."
We exit the Biotik Sektor and creep along the main tunnel as silently as possible. My pulse hammers with each leaden step. The element of surprise we were counting on is no longer a sure thing. If even one of the scientists made it back to the Craniopolis, then the Schutz Clones are on full alert.
Halfway to the docking station Sven motions for us to hold up.
"What is it?" I whisper.
He points down a feeder tunnel. "The doors to the Sweepers' living quarters are open. Someone could be hiding in there."
"We can't go in blind," I say. "The place could be crawling with Schutz Clones. Where's the closest place we can access the vents?"
"We just passed a mechanical room," Sven says.
I turn to the others. "Wait here."
Sven and I double back and slip into the mechanical room. He lifts me onto his shoulders and I shimmy up into the vent and assume a half-crouch as I make my way along the shaft to the Sweepers' living quarters. My neck is cramping up by the time I reach the first grille. I flatten myself on my stomach and rub the feeling back into my neck as I peer through the mesh. My skin turns clammy and cold when I see what lies beneath me.