Authors: Norma Hinkens
about his tone stops me in my tracks. I stare at him searching his face for answers. My heart thumps so hard it hurts. "Is it Sven?" I whisper.
He frowns. "No!"
I tug on his sleeve. "Big Ed?"
"No! Nobody's dead," he says, but he doesn't look me in the eye.
"What is it then?" I ask, pulling on my boots.
"You'd better come see for yourself."
I grab my pack and gun and follow Trout outside. I don't know why he's being so evasive, but at least it's not what I dread hearing most--that Sven has reached his expiration date.
The sky is overcast, crows scolding up above. Not a good omen for our return trip to the Craniopolis, but I brush it off and tromp down the street after Trout. My stomach rumbles, reminding me that I skipped dinner last night. "Where are we going?" I call to Trout.
He ignores me and turns onto the main street.
"This is stupid, Trout. Just tell me--"
My heart jolts. The caravan of wagons and carts that lined the road yesterday is gone.
I throw a harried glance at Trout.
"They left in the middle of the night," he explains.
The breath leaves my lungs. Owen must have talked the homesteaders into pulling out after our showdown in the courthouse. After everything we've been through together, my own brother betrays me like this. I sink down on a slab of cracked concrete and drop my head into my hands. He didn't even say good-bye.
"Did all the homesteaders go with him?" I ask.
"I guess so."
"Owen hasn't been himself since the Sweepers extracted him," I say. "I should have tried to talk to him about what happened to him, but he's been avoiding me."
"He barely talks to me anymore either," Trout says. "I never know what's going on in his head."
is in his head," I fume. "She's the reason he's shutting the rest of us out."
Trout scratches the back of his neck. "Or maybe she's the reason he's holding it together."
I blow out a frustrated breath and get to my feet. "Neither of them are in a good place. They're not fit to lead the homesteaders to the Deadwood basin."
Trout rubs his one-knuckled finger and stares off into the distance. "We need to go. Sven's waiting on us."
"How many Undergrounders showed up at the gate?" I ask, falling in step with him.
He clears his throat. "You don't want to know."
I roll my eyes. "Just spit it out. This morning can't get any worse."
He frowns. "Five."
"Five!" I groan. I was hoping for at least fifteen or twenty.
"There were eight earlier," Trout says. "But three of them bailed when they heard the homesteaders left. They might be planning on going after them."
"The Ghost and his men will clean their clocks if they come across them. And they'll be easy pickings for a Hovermedes if they set up camp in the Deadwood Basin."
"With any luck, the Rogues are a long way from here by now," Trout muses.
I kick at a clod of dirt in my path. "Either way, we can't worry about Owen anymore. He made his choice. We need to stay focused."
We fall silent as we approach the main gate to the city. Sven and the military clones stand in formation, guns holstered, their expressions schooled to neutral. An elite force, bred for war as The Ghost once reminded me. To their left, a small group of Undergrounders monitors my arrival with skepticism.
I let my gaze travel over their faces and attire, cataloging what we've got. One woman and four men. The woman's hair curtains her face like overgrown weeds, and she's dressed in a frayed skirt that reaches to her ankles. Not an ideal ensemble to weave through the dense undergrowth in.
Maybe my disapproval shows in my face because the man standing next to her puts his arm around her waist and fixes me with a hard stare in return. I turn away, my stomach knotting.
volunteers, and a fifth wheel who didn't want to be left behind. Great. Those two will be too wrapped up in one another to be of real use, but at least they're warm bodies. And right now I only have five of them to fill the Intake Sektor with.
A few spits of rain land on my face and I shiver.
"What do you want to do?" Trout asks. "We're never going to convince the delegation we're an operational base with only five extractees."
"We'll figure something out once we get to the Craniopolis." I wave up to the guards to open the gates.
We follow the squad of military clones through the debris that litters the outskirts of the city. We're underway only a short time before the disgruntled clouds offload their fury on us. Icy rain sleets down at a sharp angle, and I throw my hood over my head and bend into the deluge to protect my face. For some reason, I think of Lou and the raindrops sliding down the glass of her camper van. I was hoping she would have changed her mind about living alone, but I guess she really does prefer her solitude. The worsening visibility hampers our progress, and as the rain builds, I realize it's possible we may not make it to the Craniopolis by tomorrow.
My thoughts gravitate to Owen. He's picked the worst possible time to lead a group of vulnerable Undergrounders out of the city. I know only too well how quickly the tide can turn when people become disillusioned and start looking for a scapegoat. I hope for Owen's sake that this storm doesn't drive his band of wet-behind-the-ears homesteaders to abandon him.
I pull my jacket tight around me and increase my stride until I catch up with Sven. The wind is increasing in force, whipping up the forest litter into freakish figures. All around us tree limbs creak and moan.
"It's too dangerous to keep going," Sven yells to me. "We need to look for shelter."
I nod in response and signal back to the others.
We veer off the trail and begin bushwhacking our way through the webbed understory. I can't see three feet in front of me, but Sven's enhanced vision is an advantage even in this deluge, so I stick close behind him as he plows on.
The wind grows stronger until I can barely withstand the force of it. I'm dragging my legs behind me like wooden fenceposts when Sven comes to a halt. He leans down and shouts in my ear. "There's a shack up ahead. We can hunker down inside for a bit."
I nod, eyes scrunched against the icy raindrops pummeling my face. Sven grabs me by the hand and pulls me forward.
Numb, and half-deafened, I don't open my eyes again until the bitter gusts suddenly abate and my face stops stinging. I'm standing in the doorway of a one-roomed, splintered wooden cabin that's buckling at the knees, but in one piece, at least for now. The clones and Undergrounders pile through the ramshackle door after me, drenched and miserable. I do a quick head count to make sure we're all here, before shrugging off my pack and sinking down in the dust with my back to the knotty wall.
A dead ringing reverberates in my head from the merciless pounding of the rain. I hug my shoulders in a vain attempt to trap whatever body heat remains. We won't be able to start a fire in here, and everything in my pack is as wet as I am. My fingers are too raw and frozen to poke around for something dry to put on anyway.
"You okay?" Trout asks.
"Yeah," I say, my teeth knocking off each other. I flick my eyes in the direction of the Undergrounders, staring morosely at the floor. "How are they holding up?"
Trout gives me a rueful grin. "I'll bet they're kicking themselves for showing up at the gate this morning. I'll go talk to them."
Sven wanders over, swiping at the water dripping from his hair.
"We can't stay here long," I say. "If we don't show up at the Craniopolis tomorrow, Viktor might take matters into his own hands. I don't entirely trust him."
"Once the wind lets up, I'll send one of the clones out to check on the condition of the trail." Sven pulls out some jerky and offers me a piece. "Might as well eat something while we're waiting."
"I'll trade you." I rummage in my pocket. "Ever tried a fortune cookie?"
I hold out a handful of packages in the palm of my hand.
Sven stares at them curiously. "What are those?"
"They used to give them out at Chinese restaurants before the meltdown," I say. "There's a piece of paper wedged inside with your fortune on it. They're a bit crushed, but, hey, they make a change from jerky."
Sven takes one and sniffs the package. "Is it a meal?"
I burst out laughing, then quickly compose myself. "It's not lyophilized food. It's a cookie--cookie
." I tear open the plastic and taste a piece. Saliva spurts up from under my tongue. "They're stale but sweet. Try one!"
Sven rips the plastic with his teeth and pours the contents into his mouth.
"Wait! Don't eat the paper!"
He turns aside and spits on the floor. "Yuck! Disgusting!" He wipes the back of his hand across his mouth.
"You just spat out your fortune." I rip open another packet and hand him the paper inside. "Here, read this."
He unfurls the fortune with his giant fingers and furrows his brow.
"What does it say?" I ask.
"The greatest risk is not taking one
" He glances at me, crumpling the paper in his fist.
"What? You don't like your fortune?"
"I already knew it." He smiles sadly and stuffs the paper into the pocket on his cargo pants where he keeps Won's remote device. "But I'll hold on to it to remind me."
I drop my gaze, a slow burn traveling up my cheeks. I reach into my jacket and pull out a fistful of cookies. "Give these to your friends," I say, shoving them into his palm.
"Thanks, but I can't imagine they'll enjoy them any better than I did." He gives me an apologetic grin. "I'll send one of the clones out to check on the trail in a minute. I think the worst of the storm's over."
I elbow Trout and we watch the clones' reaction as Sven hands out the fortune cookies. They treat them with even more suspicion than he did, sniffing them dubiously, and electing to read each other's fortunes without as much as a taste test.
When they're done, one of them gets to his feet, grabs his gun and heads outside. He's not gone five minutes before a blood-curdling scream lifts the scalp from my head.
a frozen moment of disbelief before we scramble for our guns and dash for the cabin door. I'm the first one through, and I leap from the wooden porch and take off running as soon as I spot the clone's huge footprints in the sodden ground. Icy drops of rainwater shower me as I run. The trail beneath me is slick with mud, and saturated leaves skate out from under my feet. I flinch at another spine-chilling scream as I push through the foliage. The Rogues must have caught the clone. I don't dare picture what they're doing to him to make him scream like that.
I skirt around a massive granite boulder and come to an abrupt stop. My stomach slides into my throat. The clone is writhing on the ground in agony, his leg clamped in a steel-jawed bear trap. I drop to my knees at his side. "We'll get you out of this, I promise," I say, staring in horror at the rusted metal spikes driven mercilessly through his flesh. Big Ed showed me once how to open a bear trap, something about standing on the flat spring and setting the release lever, but I can't even see it for blood.
I glance up at the sound of thudding footsteps. Sven and the others come tearing around the boulder and pull up short, their faces taut. Sven immediately drops to the ground at the clone's feet. He grips the iron trap in his bare hands and pulls it apart with a loud roar. The Undergrounders exchange frightened looks and back up several paces, glancing dubiously around at the other military clones. A shiver goes down my spine. How did Sven do that? My heart races. Despite how I feel about him, he's not exactly human. He's something more.
"How bad is it?" Trout asks, peering over my shoulder.
Sven grits his teeth and examines the wound. "The bone isn't fractured thanks to his tensile strength, but he's bleeding profusely. We have to get him to the Craniopolis." He pulls out a grubby shirt from his pack and rips the sleeves from it.
"We should wash the wound first," I say. "That trap was badly rusted."
"His enhanced immune system will fight any infection." Sven tears several more strips from the shirt and begins wrapping the clone's leg. "But if he loses too much blood, there's an increased risk of ossification. We'll stitch him up once we reach the Craniopolis."
I silently hand Sven another shirt from my pack. Back in the city there were times I could almost forget that he's a clone, but in these never-ending moments of crisis our differences are glaring--frightening even. His extraordinary vision, his enhanced immune system, the constant threat of ossification, his looming expiration date. Am I ready to set that all aside for love?
Sven helps the clone to his feet and he attempts to hobble forward.
"We'll have to carry him," Sven says to the military clones. "I'll take the first shift."
They help him lift the injured clone onto his shoulders and adjust his weight.
"Let's make tracks," Sven says.
"We're going to have to push through the night,' I say to Trout as we make our way back to the cabin to gather up our gear. "Let me know if the pace becomes too fast for the Undergrounders."
I pull the rickety door to the cabin shut behind us, and we hit the trail, grimly determined to reach the Craniopolis before the injured clone ossifies on Sven's shoulders.
early afternoon the next day when we arrive at the secret tunnel that leads inside the Craniopolis. My legs are so tired I feel like I'm tromping through quicksand in concrete shoes. The sounds of the forest around me are dampened and fading, a muted background my exhausted brain can barely hold onto. I wait until all the clones and Undergrounders descend into the tunnel before I flick on my flashlight and slide down into the dirt after Trout. A centipede scuttles across the floor in front of me. The darkness closes in around the dime-sized beam from my flashlight, and the damp familiar smell of the underworld fills my nostrils once again.
I push through my fatigue, imagining my aching limbs sinking into the soft, cushiony matrix of the pod chairs in the Biotik Sektor. If I have any energy left I might even swallow a lyophilized roast beef dinner capsule before I collapse into a coma.
I've lost all track of how long I've been in the tunnel when voices drift toward me, coaxing my brain back to life. I shine my paltry beam along the dirt walls and spot the ladder leading up to the Biotik Sektor. I force myself toward it, my legs almost going into spasm from exhaustion. I reach for the ladder and pull myself up, rung by torturous rung, until a meaty arm yanks me the rest of the way out.
"Are you all right?" Sven asks, a worried expression on his face.
I nod, swaying back and forth on my feet. The room spins around me. Sven sweeps me back up and plants me in a pod chair next to Trout.
"We're taking the injured clone to the Medical Sektor to stitch him up," Sven says. "You and Trout wait here with the other Undergrounders. Get some rest. We'll hunt down Viktor and Jerome when we get back."
I let my gaze travel over Sven's muscled neck and shoulders.
No ordinary man
is the last thing I remember thinking before I drift into oblivion.
to the sound of raucous laughter. I wrinkle my brow and stare blankly up at the ceiling, unable to place what planet I've flown to.
"Derry!" Trout hisses at me.
I bolt upright and look around in horror at the tattooed faces milling about the room.
I'm in a nightmare.
I rub my eyes, but it doesn't rid the room of the Rogues. They're sprawled out everywhere, sampling the endless menu options from the food dispenser and wreaking havoc with the pod chair controls. My eyes widen when I spot The Ghost heading my way.
"Rough night?" he asks, leering at me.
I shrink back in my chair. "How ... what are you doing here?"
"Looting, pillaging, stocking up on some of those lyophilized steaks that don't need skinning when a man's hungry." His eyes bore into me, then narrow to slits. "Or maybe I'm tracking down horse thieves." He curls one corner of his lip at me. "I see you've been busy resettling the Craniopolis without me. What exactly are you up to?"
I throw a quick glance around hoping to spot Sven and the military clones.
"You seem antsy." The Ghost sneers at me. "I would have slit your throat in your sleep by now if I'd come for you."
I sit up and scratch my scalp hard to get the blood flowing.
"What do you want?" Trout asks.
The Ghost rubs his jaw, his eyes glinting. "That traitor Blade."
I frown. "I thought Blade was with you."
"Not anymore. He disappeared during the storm. And he came this way. Figured you could shed some light on it seeing as you're in the habit of poking around in my business."
A shiver tingles down my spine. So Rummy pulled it off. Hopefully, now he has his brother back he'll disappear for good. But I'm still left with The Ghost, and to say we have unfinished business would be an understatement.
"We haven't seen him." I reach behind for my gun.
The Ghost twists the gooseneck on a pod chair and sinks down opposite me. "Blade's no loss." He gives me one of the psychotic grins that accompany his rapid mood shifts. "I'm glad to be rid of him, and those dang horses. I could even be persuaded to forget all about that little horse-thieving incident if you let me in on whatever it is you got cooking here. My men tell me you're shoring up the tunnels we destroyed."
Trout shoots me a wary look.
I raise my brows a fraction and give him a reassuring nod. My mind is racing with a daring proposition. I can put the Rogues to good use now that they're here. But first, I have to snag The Ghost's interest.
"One of the scientists intercepted another transmission yesterday," I say.
The Ghost leans forward in his chair, his breathing slow and shallow. "What kind of transmission?"
"It was from the Megamedes. The Sweepers are sending a delegation here to do a productivity audit." I pause and lower my voice. "This could be our chance to strike at the heart of their operation."
The Ghost's penetrating stare bores into me as he digests the news. For the longest moment I don't think he's going to bite, and then his lips split in a wolfish grin. "Tell me you weren't fixing to hijack the galaxy's only luxury superliner without me?" His eyes glitter with a hint of recklessness.
"Don't get ahead of yourself." I frown to hide the fact that I'm weak with relief. "First, we have to pass the audit."
Trout turns to The Ghost. "If we work together we can fool the Sweepers into thinking the Craniopolis is operational and buy ourselves some time to figure out how to infiltrate the Megamedes."
"This place look operational to you?" The Ghost throws back his head and laughs. "So where are you gonna tell them Lyong's at? On a white sandy beach somewhere using up his vacation days?"
I scowl at him. "Shut up and listen. The story is that Won tried to take over the Craniopolis. The records show that his Cybernetics program was a dismal failure. Lyong was losing patience with him."
The Ghost rubs his forefinger and thumb across his jaw. "Never gonna fly. Not without Schutz Clones or extractees."
"Sven and the military clones will stand in for the Schutz Clones," I say. "There's no way to tell who's under those helmets. As for the extractees," I grin across at him. "You couldn't have come at a better time."
The Ghost narrows his brows. "You want my men as live bait?"
I level my gaze at him. "You pay to play if you want a share in that luxury superliner. If it eases your mind any, Trout and I will be in the Intake Sektor too with some of the Undergrounders."
All five of them
"I want something in return," The Ghost says, after a moment's contemplation.
"Land. Time you and I worked out a deal to go our separate ways." He pulls his lips into a disturbing smile. "I want everything east of Deadwood River."
My throat constricts. Trout and I trade uneasy glances. The homesteaders are on their way to the Deadwood River basin. I can't promise The Ghost what Owen has already claimed. The knot in my stomach tightens. Maybe The Ghost knows that.
The doors to the Biotik Sektor retract, saving me from having to commit. The military clones storm in and take aim at the Rogues scattered around the room.
I jump to my feet. "It's okay." I raise my palms in the air. "Don't shoot!"
Sven strides over to us, his expression grim. "What are they doing here?"
"They tracked Blade here," Trout says. "He disappeared during the storm."
"I told The Ghost about the transmission and he's agreed to help us," I add.
The Ghost sneers. "Bail you out, you mean."
Sven reaches for The Ghost by the throat. "You're lucky it's clones and not riders you're looking at right now."
"Those nags weren't worth the trouble," The Ghost scoffs. "We'd be barbecuing horse meat by now if you hadn't taken them off our hands."
Sven shoves The Ghost away from him in disgust. "Better watch that mouth of yours. I wouldn't want that getting back to the city. The riders adhere to cowboy retribution when it comes to horse thieves."
I lay a hand on Sven's arm. "Let it go. That's Jody's fight. How's your friend doing?"
"We stitched him up. He's resting in the Medical Sektor."
"Then let's head over to the Research Sektor and find Viktor," I say.
The Ghost grins around at us. "Now that I got shares on that galactic luxury liner, I'm in on the powwows."
iktor looks up
, startled when we walk in. "You made it."
"You didn't know we were here?" I raise my brows.
"The cameras are still down," Sven reminds me.
I frown. "Get someone on them right away. The security system has to be in working order by day's end. It's the first thing the Sweepers would restore. We need to start thinking like them if we're going to pull this off."
I turn my attention back to Viktor. "Is Jerome down in Terminus?"
"No." Viktor flicks a finger over his mole. "He's ... sick. He must have picked up something from the deviations. Their immune systems were compromised by their stay in the city. They were never successfully enhanced so they're susceptible to everything."
I suck in a silent breath. "Where is he?"
Viktor blinks around at us.
I flinch when The Ghost suddenly slams his forearm to Viktor's windpipe. "Tell her," he growls, "before I squeeze it out of you."
"Medical Sektor," Viktor wheezes out. "He ... needed fluids."
"I was there a few minutes ago," Sven says. "I didn't see him."
"He's in Sektor Sieben. We're keeping him isolated." Viktor drops his gaze, squeezing his hands in front of him. A sheen of sweat glistens on his forehead.
My stomach churns with dread. Whatever Jerome has, it has nothing to do with the deviations and everything to do with what Viktor's been hiding from us. I turn to The Ghost. "Stay here and don't let Viktor out of your sight until we get back."
Trout and I race through the gleaming tunnels after Sven. I'm not sure what Viktor's up to, but I only hope we manage to reach Jerome before it's too late. He must have found out whatever it is that Viktor's been trying to hide from us.
Sven punches the entry code into the keypad outside Sektor Sieben. The doors swing wide and we walk through the entry door. A scientist in a hazard suit and mask jumps up from behind a desk. "You can't come in here. We have a deviation in quarantine."
"Where is he?" I say, glancing around.
The cubicles are lying open, empty of their macabre participants, except for one. I race over and peer through the viewing monitor into the room. Dread fills my lungs like glue.
Jerome lies motionless on a gurney, eyes sealed shut, a single drip line in his arm. For a moment, I think he's dead. Then his chest rises and falls. My knees almost buckle beneath me with relief. "He's breathing," I whisper.
Sven pushes open the door. The scientist follows us inside, flustered and still protesting, but reluctant to confront Sven.
"Jerome! Can you hear me?" I shake his arm gently, but he doesn't respond.