Authors: Raly Radouloff,Terence Winkless
Terence H. Winkless
Acknowledgments: thanks go out to a raft of supporters, friends, readers, and believers, including John Yager, Susanne Houfek, David Rich, Lara Winkless, Chris Edmonds, Charlotte Cecil Raymond, Alyssa Raymond, and to the folks who most shook us awake in Kaua’i, Jeri DiPietro and Tony Kilbert.
© 2015 By Raly Radouloff and Terence H. Winkless
For Lara, with the hope that even though she’s black-belt equipped,
she’ll never have to fight to find food that’s safe and good.
Eagles soared into the early rays of twilight over the rusted-out remains of a once-bright amusement park. They zoomed up, and blinked away as they ceased to catch the sun’s fading light. They were the essence of untethered freedom.
Eagles, yeah, that’s what they look like, thought Nico Renaldo as he stood at the park’s perimeter. Nico had never seen an eagle in his nineteen years, but he’d read about them, and that’s what he imagined as he observed a group of athletic teenagers using their skateboards to careen off the park’s skeletal remains. The boys, all Neo-Spartans between twelve and sixteen, would catch the light and disappear again as they rocketed from ticket booth roof to merry-go-round roof, deftly avoiding the rust holes. The amusement park was in an area once known as the Palisades, far outside Nico’s usual Sanctuary haunt, and had taken some adroit reconnaissance to locate, but what Julius was paying made it all worth it.
The rusted-out metal waterslide was the main attraction. One after another the boys soared down the long, steep chute, sparks flying off their wheels. Now they looked like seagulls diving for fish, thought Nico, swooping down fast, gaining speed and careening upwards again at the bottom, where the tip had been manipulated into a ramp to re-launch them skyward—shooting them up onto a second level landing where they’d leap off, bop the boards into their hands and trudge up the slide again. Nico had never seen a seagull either… but he’d read about them.
It was the kid on the Ferris wheel that impressed Nico most. Never mind that the wheel had been frozen for decades—this kid spidered to the very top and danced his skateboard down from car lid to car lid. One miss and he’d be hurtled to the bottom and sure death. But his precision was impeccable, his focus, his inner balance, stunning. Each car swung perilously, threatening to dump him off. But this Neo-Spartan was smooth. He leapt the skateboard to the car below him and a wheel landed off the edge. He seamlessly bopped the back of the board with his foot and swung it around 180 degrees so that he was ready when the car tilted and dumped him toward the one waiting below. This Neo-Spartan would be their evening’s quarry.
Nico shifted his attention away to a group of guys on light, scrambler-style motorcycles in the near distance. These were his Vaqueros, all of them as athletic as Nico, all covered in tattoos and piercings. They cruised up, cut their engines and coasted silently into the shadows on the perimeter. There, they lay in wait. One of them removed a helmet and leather jacket to reveal a shapely seventeen-year-old girl. This was Tyra, dark smoldering beauty that invited trouble and made it look like fun. She draped her jacket on the handlebars of her gleaming black bike, red flames licking the gas tank, and giving the bike its name: Phoenix. Nico indicated the Neo-Spartan cartwheeling on the Ferris wheel. She watched for a moment then stepped out of the shadows and made herself visible.
“How about a ride, boys?” she purred.
The boys stopped and stared at her, stunned that this unattainable creature—a seventeen year old at that—had an interest in them. Their brains not as developed as their testosterone, the boys came down and circled her, gawking. She beckoned them with a finger, their eyes glued on her long black vinyl fingernail, painted on it the lurid flames of a phoenix rising, mesmerizing them.
Yeah, she was good, all right, thought Nico. Best there ever was. The routine was always the same. Lure ’em out, split ’em up, and confuse the prey, because at that point, that’s all they were. Nico could sense that his guys were jazzed. Nothing like the thrill of the hunt. It fueled you. Senses sharp, muscles tight. You felt alive. Grab life now, today. Like wolves. Don’t care about tomorrow. We might be dead soon, but right now take life in your teeth, and feel great in the moment.
The Vaqueros, as a unit, tightened the perimeter around the Neo-Spartan skateboarders. It suddenly dawned on the boys that something was off. Their fight-or-flight wiring finally kicked in, and they scattered. Nico moved into the light. With a glance he made it clear which quarry they were after.
Nico and his guys watched for a little while and worked out the geometry of where they could corner him. With a squad of Nico’s guys and only a single target, there was only one possible conclusion. The plan was clear. The guys were waiting for Nico’s signal to close in and end it. Nico hesitated ever so briefly. He wondered why. Something didn’t feel right. It crept into him for a split second like an unwanted voice. Come on, Nico, he said to himself, it’s another bang-fun stunt… but he knew better… this wasn’t just a stunt, a hit-and-run. It was the beginning of the end of something. He knew that when they got the kid, Julius would take him to a fate Nico didn’t even want to know about. He shouldn’t worry about it, he scolded himself, he shouldn’t ask questions. So he gave the signal. The Vaqueros team revved their engines, burned rubber in pursuit, but for him the joy was ruined.
The Neo-Spartan was magnificent in his escape attempt. But Nico’s Vaqueros were skilled bikers in their twenties, old hands, and no matter where the young Neo-Spartan tried to escape, Nico’s boys were there to stop him. A black van pulled up a short distance behind Nico. The doors whooshed open and an African-American man the size of an armoire moved his feet onto the pavement and pushed his way out. Nico turned and cast a look at him. Armoire man pointed at his watch. Nico nodded and whistled at his boys. A couple of them stepped off their bikes and moved forward to corral the Neo-Spartan once and for all. Like lightning the Neo-Spartan swept a leg into one Vaquero’s stomach while another caught the Neo-Spartan’s forearm in his face.
Nico watched, dazzled at the kid’s skills. “You gonna let him treat you like that?” he called. Nico gestured to three more of his boys. “Let’s get this over with, huh? We got people to see, places to be.”
Three more bikers joined the fray. Neo-Spartan whirled and kicked, taking out two of them with one leg and the third by leaping over him and belting him across the face as he turned around, shocked.
Neo-Spartan straightened for more but a huge brown arm came down heavy from overhead. Armoire man had made his way forward when the Neo-Spartan was otherwise engaged. The sheer weight of his arm pounded the Neo-Spartan into unconsciousness.
Nico grinned, “Yessir, the winner and new champion!”
But Armoire man remained stone-faced. He climbed into the van as the Vaqueros hustled the Neo-Spartan aboard, and the van took off. As Nico watched it go, he produced a cell phone and quick-dialed a number.
“Package is on the way,” said Nico flatly.
“Good work,” said the low-toned voice of Julius at the other end. “Come by later,
, we’ll settle up.”
“I’m there, brother,” said Nico.
There was a slight pause before Julius asked him, “Are you?” And he clicked off.
As he climbed aboard his bike the question reverberated in his psyche.
Am I there? wondered Nico. It was a legitimate question. And that bothered him.
West Hills High stood perched on a hill among the vast urban sprawl, trying to get a gulp
of fresh air above the ochre haze that wrapped the city. The last bell rang and students poured out onto its steps. Among the first was Quinn McKenna. Not because she was anxious to escape
school and give in to the exploration of teen fun, but because she was a girl with a schedule, a girl who needed to be somewhere, taking care of some business. She was also a girl, however, who had to wait for somebody, and whoever that was, was already slowing her down and wreaking havoc on her timetable. She stood to the side of the school steps and fixed her gaze on the front door. She caught herself tapping impatiently with her foot and took a deep breath to rein in her irritation. The building exhaled its wispy inhabitants as if they were an unwanted burden, and Quinn distracted herself by watching them saunter down and pool briefly into little conspiratorial groups before they dispersed into the city haze.
Her eyes roamed the crowds ebbing and flowing on the front steps: dozens upon dozens of pale, complacent teenagers. It looked like a wax museum. The thought gave Quinn a shudder. These were her classmates. She was not exactly tight with most of them, but she still hated the fact that the majority would be dead in fifteen or twenty years. Did they care? Apparently not. So how come she felt guilty? Because she was a sinewy girl with a healthy glow? Because she didn’t have a quick-ticking timer on her life span? Because she was a much feared and despised Neo-Spartan? For what? For making the right choice?
Her community had opted out of the Eugenics program a century ago and had decided to be normal. You know, like be born, grow up, fall in love, have some kids, get old and die of natural causes. Today, it sounded like heresy because normal was to have new, genetically improved organs. Don’t get stuck with the old ones for life when you can have the latest model of heart, lungs or kidneys delivered to you by the awesome team of Eugenics, Inc. They don’t last as long, but they make it possible to enjoy the cornucopia of delicious junk, made available to you… again, by Eugenics, Inc. It was a simple life choice, yet people detested them for making it.
Quinn shooed off the bothersome thought and focused on the bane of her existence—her brother Gabriel. Where the heck was he, and why couldn’t he, for once, be on time? Her blood began to boil, turning her cheeks into setting suns, emphasizing her healthy radiance even more when the glass door swung open again. She looked up and met the instant gaze of James. James, the tall, slender boy with the petulant hair, whom she had caught checking her out during math class. His gaze had felt as if ants were crawling up her spine; it was her heightened awareness of people watching her that she had been trained to develop ever since she was a tiny kid. But when she had turned around and met his eyes, those warning ants had morphed into butterflies in her stomach. It had been a whole new sensation—warmer, lighter. And now, it returned again when she spotted him at the top of the steps. He was undeniably cute. In a Eugenic sort of way, but still cute. Somehow his genetic modification made him look elegant rather than sick. Nobility transpired behind his delicate features, not decay. He looked vulnerable but stoic. Quinn could see herself offering him a strong shoulder. He would need it; after all, dating a Neo-Spartan was the biggest social taboo. He would be rejected and ridiculed. But she’d always be there for him… Her hard-boiled reason cut her unfurling fantasy short: right, you’re going to date a Eugenic?
Sure, that’s likely to happen, somewhere between the five hours of regular school and the three hours of Neo-Spartan seed class, or maybe later between the two more hours of self-defense training and volunteering at the grow-op farm. For a moment, her teenage brain entertained the rebellious possibility of hating who she was, of even wishing she were one of them, the Eugenics—the guys who died young but had it easy. The thought sloshed around her smart, pretty head, then quickly fizzled out. No, she’d never trade places with them. Quinn watched James join one of the groups of frail Eugenics without looking at her again, and the clarity of her convictions returned to her. It was hard being a Neo-Spartan, but she was proud of it.