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For Dr. Melissa L. Torrey, for mylife.
Book 1 :: The Uprising
7. Breaking Point
8. Power and Greed
9. Vivid Dreams
10. Original Plans
Book 2 :: The Union
11. Western Province
12. Somewhere Safe
13. The Latest
14. Maimed, Tortured, & Abused
15. Evan Taylor
25. Soothing Words
27. Backup Plan
Book 3 :: The Ruins
29. Settling In
30. Saying Yes
32. Fully Committed
34. Fighting Back
35. Early Return
38. Catching Up
48. Another Way
49. One of These Days
About the Author
Also by T.H. Hernandez
© 2017 T.H. Hernandez
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, contact the author by email with the subject line: “Permission Request” at the address below.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.
Cover Art © 2017 by Mark Sgarbossa (www.popgroovy.com)
Edited by Barbara Trageser and E.J. Hernandez
The Invasion / T.H. Hernandez. -- 1sted.
ISBN 978-0-9908688-8-0 (Paperback)
“The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers thatfear.”
– Nelson Mandela
The slowing of the A-Train pulls me from a deep, dreamless sleep. I sit up and twist, stretching out my neck, a smile overtaking my face as the events of the past day return to me. Bryce is alive. I left him sleeping in my hotel room while I hopped a train to go meet Tony. We’re finally going to tell the world about the Ruins.
I glance out the window only to be greeted by darkness. There are no lights from the upcoming station. A murmur rises through the car as the other passengers voice my confusion aloud. Across from me a guy stares at his tablet, his eyes widening. His head pops up and his horrified gaze locks with mine, sending a chill throughme.
“We’re being boarded.”
“Boarded? What does thatmean?”
“A bunch of people with guns, calling themselves the Uprising, are boarding the train.”
The chill becomes ice, turning my blood to slush. Two words repeat in my head: we failed.
I get up and cross the aisle to look at the guy’s tablet. He’s reading a news story about A-Trains throughout the Union being taken over by soldiers. My breath stalls in my lungs. The murmur grows louder and someone begins to cry. Panic wells up from my core. Are they looking for me? Do they know I blew up their camps? I move toward the doors, driven by a burning need to escape before they findme.
“Where are you going?” tablet dudeasks.
“I don’t know, but this isn’tgood.”
He studies me for a few beats with pale green eyes. “No, it’s not. If the news stories are to be believed, anyway. We’re not near a station. You know that right?”
“And it’s a long waydown.”
He shoves his tablet in his back pocket and grabs his backpack from the seat next to him, the corners of his mouth lifting in a wry grin. “Then let’sgo.”
I lift a brow. “You’re coming withme?”
He shrugs. “Like you said, this isn’t good. I’d rather take my chances out there.” He leads the way down the aisle to the side doors.
“What are you doing?” a woman screeches.
“Getting off this train,” tablet guy says over his shoulder.
“Are you insane?” someone else calls.
“Maybe, but based on what I just read, staying isn’t proof of sanity, either.”
This guy is different from most Union guys, and yet, he doesn’t speak like someone from the Ruins. He’s missing the accent, for one, plus he lacks the roughness around the edges. While the other passengers are cowering in their seats, unsure what to do, he’s ready to jump from the train with a total stranger.
He notices me staring and winks. “Are we doing this, Red?”
“It’s Evan, andyeah.”
“Chase.” He nods before pulling the emergency release and pushing the dooropen.
The voices grow louder. “You’re going to get us all killed,” one of them yells. But to my surprise, several are lined up behindus.
I poke my head out the door and look at the ground far below. The interior lights spill out the windows and illuminate soft patches on the grass below. At least I think it’s grass.
“How do we get down there?” A young girl, maybe fourteen, with wide brown eyes, asks.
My mind reverts to my Uprising training. “We need a rope of somekind.”
Chase grins like an idiot at my side before moving back down the aisle and opening an overhead bin. He takes a handful of the small, personal-sized blankets they give passengers and returns, handing half of them to me. Between the two of us, we begin to build a blanket rope. Chase is using a regular overhand knot, which’ll neverhold.
“Tie it in a square knot, like this.” I demonstrate the technique, showing him how it won’t pullfree.
Within minutes, we have a decent length, but not nearly enough. Chase grabs a few more blankets, and when we’re done, we’ve got close to fifteen feet, but we’re running out of time. The Uprising will be back here beforelong.
Chase reaches for my arm and turns me to face him. “You go down first.”
“’Cause I need you to help me get the othersdown.”
The group planning on joining us has swelled to nearly a dozen. “Yeah, okay.” Plus, if this brilliant plan doesn’t work, I have more experience falling on my ass without breaking bones than probably anyone else here. “How do you want to dothis?”
Chase scratches his neck and peers over the side. He ties one end of the makeshift rope to the handhold next to the door, tugging hard to make sure it’s secure, before lowering the rest until it hangs about eight feet off the ground.
“Should we add another one?” Iask.
He glances toward the front. “Notime.”
Sucking in a breath, I grab hold of the blanket rope with both hands and back up, bracing my feet against the edge of the train. “You can do this,” I whisper, refusing to look down. I close my eyes and wrap my ankles around the length below me, inching down the way the Uprising taught me. My hands sweat, but the moisture is quickly absorbed by the soft fabric. When I reach the bottom, I drop the remaining distance to the grass in a squat before giving Chase a thumbs-up.
The young girl with the wide brown eyes slides down next, her sniffling growing louder as she gets closer. She reaches the end and her shoes dangle in theair.
“Let go,” I say. “I’ve gotyou.
She releases the rope and falls, limbs wild, her foot connecting with my jaw. I lose my balance and fall back, the girl landing on top ofme.
“Sorry,” she says with another sniffle.
I push up and give her a hand, pulling her to her feet. She wraps her arms around her torso to keep warm in the cool evening air. With so much adrenaline coursing through me, I can spare a layer, and pull off my hoodie, handing it toher.
“Thank you,” she whispers.
The rest come down steadily, some more adept than others, before there is a long pause. Long enough that I begin to fear the Uprising has reached our train car. Before panic can set in, though, Chase begins his descent with smooth, practiced movements. He must be a rescue worker of some kind. He’s far too well-prepared for what we just did than an average Unionite. So why didn’t he know how to tie a properknot?
Chase drops to the ground next to me, eyes wide, fixed on my back. Shit. I gave my hoodie to the girl not thinking about my tank top exposing my tattoo and the scar from where I was shot escaping the Uprising. Adding the inked U on my shoulder to the events of the past hour, Chase has every right to be suspicious of me. There’s no way to explain it, either.
He shakes his head, as if he’s clearing his mind. “Who areyou?”
I open my mouth to tell Chase that I’m no one, but we just worked together to get ourselves and a dozen others off the train. He may have even saved my life. I owe him the truth. “It’s a complicated story, but I’ll tell you when we get someplacesafe.”
He presses his lips into a tight line and his gaze travels over me, head to toe and back again, but gone is the slight humor in his eyes from earlier. His muscular body is tense and distrust oozes from his pores. Between the soldiers and my rapid decision to jump from an elevated train, I can’t blame him. Nothing about tonight has been normal, and now as far as he’s concerned, neither amI.
I scan our surroundings to determine our next move. We need to get away from here. We’re in a sparsely populated area somewhere in the South; beyond that, I’m clueless. Away from the train’s lights, shadows prevail. I’m anxious to put as much distance between me and the Uprising as possible. The others can follow me ornot.
Chase grabs my arm and spins me to face him. My gaze drops to his hand, and he loosens his grip but doesn’t letgo.
“My name really is Evan. Evan Taylor.”
He studies me for a few seconds, likely struggling to place the name he’s no doubt heard.
“I’m who you think I am, but what you don’t know is —” A metallic click makes me freeze. A sound I’m only too familiar with — a rifle being cocked. My heartbeat pauses before taking off at a gallop.
A woman screaming draws my attention to the small group who escaped with us, corralled by a handful of soldiers with long, menacing guns pointed at them. I duck back further into the darkness, staying out of the sweep of their lights. Although I should run, I can’t just leave these people. People who followed me downhere.
“What the hell is going on?” Chase asks under his breath.
“I’m not sure, but my best guess is they want to see who bailed from the train.”
“What do wedo?”
I watch in horror as the soldiers push the group to their knees and make them place their hands on the backs of their heads. “I don’t know, but if they capture me, they’ll killme.”
His mouth fallsopen.
I don’t have time to explain, but if I don’t, he may try to stopme.
My gaze shifts beyond Chase where a soldier is pointing atus.
“Two more over there.”
Two soldiers remain behind to guard the other passengers while the rest march toward us. When they’re close enough for me to make out their faces, I’m relieved not to recognize any of them. I angle myself in front of Chase to hide my tattoo. He seems to instinctively realize what I’m doing and moves closer, blocking their view of my back. I pull in deep breaths, trying to remaincalm.
A narrow man with a sharp nose dressed in Uprising fatigues waves us forward with his long-fingered hand. “Over there with the rest of ’em.”
Chase puts an arm around me, his large hand covering my ink. “What’s goingon?”
A girl not much older than me shoves Chase in the back with the butt of her rifle. “We ask the questions, not you. Over there with the others. Now.”
Chase stumbles and his hand slips from my shoulder. He rights himself, draping his arm across my back again, but it’s toolate.
“Not another step,” orders SharpNose.
I freeze, hoping they won’t hurt Chase simply because he’s with me, but the truth is they probablywill.
My head drops and I turn toward him. “I’m so sorry, Chase.”
Fingers laced, palms plastered to the back of our skulls, Chase and I tread across tall grass, overdue for a cutting, to where our fellow passengers are huddled.
“Everybody up,” the girl soldiersays.
Guns trained at our backs, we’re marched across a grassy patch where a soft glow can be seen in the distance. As we near, I make out a couple of tents and a small fenced-in area. The lead soldier pulls open a gate and herds everyone inside.
He throws his arm out in front of Chase, stopping him. “Not you two.” After securing the holding pen with a lock, he brushes past us. “Followme.”
We traipse after him toward a large tent. The girl smirks, seemingly pleased with herself. She probably thinks she caught a deserter, but she has no idea who she really has. Before they figure it out, I need to guarantee Chase’s safety.
“He doesn’t know me. We just met on the train.”
“Quiet,” she orders. The smirk falls from her face and she uses her angry face. If she wasn’t holding a gun on us, I might laugh. She was not born to play the toughgirl.
Chase narrows his eyes and stares at the ground.
“Chase,” I whisper, “this has nothing to do with you, but they think you’re withme.”
The muzzle of the girl’s rifle introduces itself to my stomach. “I said shutit.”
Chase’s face darkens and anger flashes in hiseyes.
“Chase, there is nothing you can do for me,” I wheeze out, catching my breath. “It’s too late. Just…don’t provoke them, okay?”
Something hard slams into the side of my face and stars dance across my vision before it goes black. The next thing I’m aware of is Chase pulling me to my feet. I blink, trying to orient myself, searing pain racing through my skull.
“Was that really necessary?” Chase growls.
“I said be quiet.” She grinds the words out through clenched teeth, and I no longer find her humorous.
I run my fingertips gingerly over my cheekbone and wince. Lesson learned. Keep my mouthshut.
We wait what seems like ages before another soldier approaches, a beefy guy with close-cropped hair. “Followme.”
My stomach tightens as we turn and trail behind him, Chase in front of me. The girl jabs her gun barrel between my shoulder blades, reminding me she’s still in charge. Buzz Cut stops at a smaller tent, opening the flap and holding it for us to enter. Solar lanterns illuminate the interior, giving it a warm, deceptively inviting glow. My eyes are immediately drawn to a group of soldiers in an animated conversation in the corner. Buzz Cut clears his throat, halting all talk as six heads turn ourway.
My jaw hinges downward and for a few moments I can’t move or even breathe. When my brain begins functioning again, I realize Draya is looking at me with the same expression of surprise mixed with horror.
She recovers first, rearranging her facial features into a mask of indifference. I inhale a deep breath and steel myself as she approaches. She pauses a foot away and crosses her arms, her gaze traveling over Chase first, thenme.
She turns to Sharp Nose. “Where did you find thesetwo?”
“On the ground. They jumped from one of thecars.”
Draya’s eyebrows lift along with the left corner of her mouth. “And why did you bring themhere?”
Buzz Cut grabs my arm and spins me to display my tattoo. He releases me, and I turn back to face Draya. Her eyes are filled with shock and another emotion that doesn’t make sense — hopelessness.
Taking a cleansing breath, I raise my knuckles to the door. It’s early and I give a passing thought to getting coffee and coming back a little later, but the need to see Evan is more powerful than a desire not to wakeher.
I knock and my teeth clench as I wait for a response. Rustling comes from the other side, but no footsteps, so I knock again. More rustling is followed by silence, then heavy footfalls approach the door. Not Evan. This must be the wrong room. I pull the paper Eddie gave me out of my pocket to read it again. Unless he made a mistake when he wrote it down, this is the rightone.
The door opens and my eyes widen to the point I’m sure my eyeballs are going to escape their sockets. Son of a bitch. I blink to make sure I’m not hallucinating, and a huge smile splits my face. “Fuck, man, you’re alive.”
Bryce runs a hand over the top of his head and steps back from thedoor.
I take in the room, confusion replacing my initial shock. One rumpled bed. My attention returns to Bryce, wearing nothing but a pair of jeans, his T-shirt discarded on the floor.
My face is hot like I’m too close to a fire. I take a step back. No way would she sleep with him. Not again. Not when she knew I was coming back. My hands rake through my hair while I try to sort it all out. Eddie was weird when I showed up at his place. Did he know Bryce and Evan were holed up together in a hotel room? Fuck.
Dick turns and glances around the room, as if he’s searching for something before turning back to me. “Look, she says you guys splitup.”
Bile rises in the back of my throat as I struggle against the building rage. My eyes lock onto his side where red, angry burns wrap around his torso. Before I can stop myself, my fist connects with his face with satisfying force, sending a sharp jolt up my arm that I relish.
He stumbles back, but doesn’t fall, and I step forward to hit him again. My head throbs, on the verge of exploding. Douche braces himself for the next blow but doesn’t move to defend himself. As I draw back, I notice the burns again and check myself.
He rubs his jaw and stares at me, anger flaring across hisface.
I unload a few choice words, and his eyes widen in response, like my language offends him or someshit.
“Forget it,” I spit, turning and storming down the hall. I slam my hand into the elevator button, but I can’t wait for it to arrive, opting for the stairs instead.
White fury scorches through me and I punch the wall, feeling the crunch, the searing pain that temporarily distracts me from the storm raging in my chest.
The hum of activity in the station draws my attention away from my dark thoughts. No clue how I got here. The blood on my knuckle has dried and my fist throbs, although I’m considering putting it through another wall. A harried woman rushes past me on her way to the ticket machine, her destination most likely known. Mine on the other hand … not somuch.
I wander over to the elevators and push both buttons. Whichever one arrives first will decide my fate. Up will take me to the A-Train. Back to the Northwest before heading home. Down, means I’m staying. At least fornow.
A bell chimes and the doors slide open, the down arrow illuminated. I step to the side as people pour out in a hurry to catch a ride to their final destinations. Stepping into the now empty car, I press the button for the lowest level and descend to the beach. Hours pass as I walk along the shore, going over everything in my head, anger surging in waves. Being pissed off may not be rational, but nothing about this is rational.
Hell, she disappeared into herself because she thought the asshat was dead, but he’s alive and in her fucking bed. Morning gives way to afternoon and finally evening, and I’ve probably clocked twenty miles without eating.
Pivoting away from the water’s edge, I trudge through the sand to the closest commuter station and hop a train to the back wall. I ride an elevator up, putting maximum distance between me and the ocean. As much as I love it, being there reminds me too much ofher.
On the top level, I enter the first pub I find with every intent of getting piss-ass drunk. When I sober up, I’ll head back out to the Ruins. Fuck fate, I’m done here. I shove my way through the crowd to an open stool at thebar.
A middle-aged bartender with a starched shirt and a crazy mustache that curls beyond his face flips a cocktail napkin onto the counter. “What’ll itbe?”
Moments later he sets my drink in front of me, and I down it in one gulp. The alcohol burns my throat before warming my stomach on its way to my arms and legs, taking the edge off. When I catch the bartender’s eye, I signal for another. Between sips, I stare at the ice cubes, forcing myself to think about the scotch, the scratches in the wood, anything but what I saw in that hotel room this morning. Soon the booze works its magic, leaving me pleasantly buzzed. Guzzling the last of the amber liquid, I set the glass down a little harder than necessary and order a third.
Bodies fill the large club, voices droning above the background music. A group of girls to my left are all wearing body-hugging outfits, an over-abundance of makeup, and screaming as they do shots. They’re all very attractive, or at least they are in my alcohol-induced state.
One girl in particular is extraordinarily beautiful in an artificial way. She’s tall and slender with dark silky hair and overly-made-up eyes that are so blue, they nearly look purple. She spots me checking her out and her bright pink lips pull into a smile, showing off straight, blinding white teeth.
She slinks over to me, her flowered dress hugging impressive curves, mesmerizing me with her moves. The knowing smile says she’s aware of her effect on me. She reaches out and places a tan hand on my arm. “Whoever she is, she’s afool.”
I throw her a smooth grin, the kind that always gets me into plenty of trouble. “Is it that obvious?”
“I’ve seen guys drink that much scotch for only one reason. She must have been an idiot to let yougo.”
Her voice is rich and velvety, and my body is responding even if my brain isn’t engaged. Maybe what I need is a night of distraction. What could it hurt? I can catch the first train in the morning.
I signal the bartender and turn to the girl to find out what she wants. “I’m sorry, I don’t know yourname.”
“Violet,” she purrs.
The girl from the bar pushes her bedroom door closed and presses me against it, kissing me hard, desperate, wrong. She feels and tastes like a mistake. What the hell am I doing? I slam my fists back into the door and push heraway.
“What’s going on?” She gives me a sexy pout. “I thought you were intome.”
“Look, uhh…” I can’t remember her name. “I shouldgo.”
She crosses her arms over her chest and narrows her eyes. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Guys don’t turn medown.”
“I’m sure they don’t. You’re beautiful, but you deserve better than a drunkfuck.”
The side of her mouth lifts in a confident smirk and her gaze roams down my body before rising back to meet mine. “I do, but I’ll make an exception for you. One night, no regrets.”
“That’s a tempting offer, but I’m gonnapass.”
“Are you forreal?”
“It’d just be revenge on my part and…I can’t do that to you. Or me.” I reach back and fumble with the lock on herdoor.
She takes a step toward me, the heat from her too-close body overwhelming my senses.
I shut my eyes and push back against the scents and warmth and desire. This is wrong. “I gotta go.” I fling open the door and head through the living room, bumping into the couch on my wayout.
“You’ll regret walking out on me,” she yells.
Yeah, pretty sure I won’t.
I wander the neighborhood, drowning in my dark thoughts and lingering traces of all the alcohol I consumed — a dangerous combination. With nothing better to do, I hop a train and ride south a couple of boroughs, not wanting to run into the girl or any of her friends.
The echo of live music trickles out of a nightclub not far from the station. Curious, I head in the direction of the sound and wander inside. This place is less crowded, with round wood tables spaced throughout, small groups of no more than four huddled around them. Two dudes play guitar on a raised stage as an older woman with long straight jet black hair streaked with gray sways and sings into a microphone with a hauntingtone.
I signal the bartender and order a beer. He places it on my table, and I down it in one long pull before ordering another. Two sets and four beers later, I’m better than numb. Except when I stand to make my way toward the exit, my feet don’t work right and I knock into the table. Paying closer attention, I do a decent job of navigating my way to the door, at least until my shoulder bumps a guy on his way in as I try to squeezepast.
“Hey, you okay, buddy?” the dudeasks.
“Yeah,” I mumble.
The cool air outside helps me shake off some of the brain fog, though I’m still a little unsteady. With a sudden urge to be on the beach, I stagger to the elevators and push the button, using the wall to steady me while Iwait.
When the car arrives, I sway while the group inside exits before I stumble inside. The world spins around me as the elevator descends to the ground level. The doors slide open and I find the nearest terminal, hopping a train to the coast. Settling back in my seat, I rest my head against the window and shut myeyes.
Waiting is its own special kind of hell. One hour gives way to the next without anyone coming to see me, talk to me, or tell me anything. My brain is busy with so much free time, churning out every way they might kill me. If they were going to execute me, I think they would have done it by now, which means they know what I did. It’s the only explanation for why I’m still alive. They want to know who else was involved.
Fear crawls through my veins like fire ants. Everything we did, every risk we took, was all for nothing. The Uprising invaded the Union anyway. Maybe this was the Uprising’s strategy from the start. They were bringing people in here for months.
Jamming my palms into my eyes, frustration, anger, and fear war inside me until I’m being torn apart, one piece at a time. I slump to the ground and blow out a steady breath of defeat.
A rustling draws me from my thoughts and I turn to the opening where Draya stands flanked by two soldiers carrying folding chairs. Both guys could be distant relatives of Hercules. I swallow hard, trying to push back some of my anxiety, but all that does is make me choke.
Hercules One sets his chair in the middle of the space, and Draya takes the seat. The other guy drops the second one across from her. “Sit.”
I eye the chair and weigh my options before reluctantly sitting and facing Draya. Unease hums across my skin as I raise my gaze to meethers.
She turns her head and studies me for several long, uncomfortable moments. Staring into her piercing blue eyes, I’m transported back to the house in the Ruins where I first met her, the day I woke for the first time after they rescued me. She was wary of me eventhen.
“So, do you want to tell me how you got that tattoo?”
It’s a stupid question. She knows how I got it. Same way everyone gets one, the same way she gothers.
“What camp did you trainin?”
I stare back. There’s nothing to be gained by answering.
“When did you desert?”
“Were you responsible for the attacks on the camps in March?”
She narrows her eyes and folds her arms over her chest. “Did you attack the supply trucks?”
Draya stands and takes a few steps forward. I pop up, tensing. Her eyes never leave mine as she approaches, but she merely walks past, slamming her shoulder into me on her way out, her entourage grabbing the chairs and following.
“Hello,” I yell for at least the tenth time. “I need topee.”
“Shut up in there,” someone answers for at least the tenthtime.
With a sigh, I walk to the corner of the tent to relieve myself before settling on a patch of grass far from my pee spot. I sit and hug my knees to my chest.
Draya hid the fact that she knew me, but also never asked my name. She might have convinced the others she didn’t recognize me, but I saw the shock flicker across her face before she recovered. She didn’t expect to see me, and she gave up too easily when I refused to answer her questions. Those two things are inconsistent.
I don’t see any way out of this mess, which means my chances are better out there, where I have a fighting chance at survival. Laying on my belly, I lift the edge of the tent and peer under only to come face-to-face with soft black leather. Boots. Frustrated, I drop the canvas and roll to my back. I texted my mom not even a day ago that everything was going to be okay. This is not even a littleokay.
I open my eyes to morning sun striking the exterior of the beige canvas, warming the inside and illuminating my surroundings. My stomach gurgles like marbles in any empty bowl. My muscles are tight from sleeping on the ground, and I get up slower than normal.
After a quick glance around verifies I’m alone, I crawl to the side and lift the bottom edge. No boots. I poke my head out and look both ways. This is it. My chance to escape.
“Get up!” comes a deep male voice from behindme.
Heart pounding in my throat, I scramble forward, toward freedom. A hand grabs my ankle and yanks me back hard, the joint popping. When I roll over, Hercules One and Two are standing over me, faces pinched with anger. Working in unison, they reach down and grab my arms, yanking me to my feet. A large hand shoves me forward, and I stumble before finding my footing. They flank me as I make my way outside, my eyes squinting as they adjust to the sudden harsh sunlight.
As they march me across an open field, I search for buildings, a place to hide if I can break free, but there aren’t any. This strip of the Union is primarily for agriculture. Based on the pile I just stepped in, I’m guessing livestock. My head swivels, searching for Chase to no avail. In fact, the only other people I see are wearing Uprising fatigues. The rest of the passengers who escaped with us are nowhere to beseen.
They direct me under the elevated tracks, where the stalled train still sits, and approach the back wall. The ride down is silent, but when the doors open, a swarm of soldiers is humming about, some escorting other Unionites. I doubt any of them are sporting an Uprising tattoo, so they must have done something extreme to warrant an armed escort.
Hercules One grips my right elbow with his meaty hand and drags me into a narrow hall. His fingers dig in and I bite my lip to keep from reacting to the pain. He halts in front of a windowless door and pulls it open, shoving me inside. The room is empty. Four cinder-block walls are sandwiched between a concrete ceiling and floor with a single overhead light.
He pivots and takes a step toward the door, but before he leaves I croak, “Water?” My throat is so dry it hurts to swallow.
He pauses and glances over his shoulder before leaving and locking the door behind him. The door cracks open and a water bottle rolls toward me. I scramble across the floor to grab it, barely registering the door closing again. Twisting off the cap, I down half the contents before slowing down to save some. There’s no way to know when I’ll getmore.
Sitting back against the wall, I take stock of my situation. Once again I’m locked in a small room with no apparent way out. I don’t have too long to feel sorry for myself though. Hercules One and Two are back, with Draya thistime.
Her two overly large protégés haul me to my feet, dragging me to the middle of the room. Draya stands opposite me, her eyes travelling over me, head to toe, as if she’s appraising me. Yet she still doesn’t let on that she knows who I am. Her eyes give nothing away, the same way Cyrus was able to mask his feelings from me after he became an Uprising commander.
Draya pushes off the door. “Let’s try this again. Where did you train?”
We stare at each other for a few long moments.
“This will be better for you if you cooperate.”
“How can this be better?” The words fall out of my mouth before I can stopthem.
She presses her lips together, as if she’s mulling over her response. “It will be…lesspainful.”
To illustrate her point, Hercules Two wrenches my right arm up until my shoulder screams in pain, and I let out an unbidden, “Ung!”
Draya nods with an unreadable expression and H-2 letsgo.
“Where did you train? Was it up in the Northwest?”
I reach up and rub my sore joint while I study her, wondering if she’s planning on beating a response out of me. Draya might not be my biggest fan and may still blame me for Lucien’s death, but I don’t think she’s capable of abject cruelty. At least I hopenot.
Without taking her eyes off me, she lifts her chin and H-1 grabs both of my arms, pinning them behind my back. H-2 walks around in front of me, and for the first time I get the full impact of him. He’s a massive block of muscle with bulging biceps that stretch the sleeves of his T-shirt. He balls up his fist and thrusts it into my midsection. A dull ache spreads out from my stomach, doubling meover.
My knees buckle and I gasp, desperate to refill my lungs. When I regain my breath, I lift my head to glare at Draya. “What the hell?” I wheeze.
For a split second, before she realizes I’m watching her, her face is twisted, like merely the act of looking at me is a painful reminder of everything she lost when Luciendied.
She quickly schools her features. “Where’d you get the tattoo?”
Even though I’m aware that not answering is going to bring more agony, I can’t tell her. I won’t put people I love in danger. My abs tense just before H-2’s fist slams into me, and I immediately realize that was a mistake. Bile mixed with the water I drank climbs my throat before spewing forth all over his boots.
“What the fuck?” he yells, steppingback.
His dark eyes narrow into slits, his thin lips press into a tight line. His next blow is aimed at my face, and I turn my head in time to prevent a direct hit. His fist still connects with my jaw, sending mind-numbing pain through my head. Stars burst in my eyes, and if H-1 wasn’t holding me up, I’d be on the ground. My vision clears and I stare at the man before me, wondering what kind of person hits a teenage girl half hissize?
“That’s enough for now,” Draya orders, turning on her heel and opening thedoor.
I still don’t know what game she’s playing, but at least she’s calling off the dogs. H-2 isn’t done with me, though. He backhands me and pain explodes across my face before everything goes black.
I open my eyes and immediately slam them shut. Something is beating on my skull with a hammer, and the smell of alcohol swamps me. With care, I pry my eyelids up, squinting against the harsh light. Confusion hits me hard, my brain is fuzzy as hell, and my mouth is as dry as the summer desert. My eyes regain focus, zeroing in on the lime green vinyl in front of me. I’m on a commuter train with no clue how I gothere.
The reek of booze is evidently coming from my pores. I rub my hands over my face and slide out of my seat, heading for the doors. The floor slopes under me and my guts lurch, ready to expel their contents. I swallow and breathe through my nose until the urge passes. When we pull to a stop, I step out into a station and head for the closest map. I’m only a few stops away from the coast. Right, I was heading to the beach. Must’ve fallen asleep.
I could use a walk to clear my head, and opt for walking the rest of the way. The last thing I remember was going to a bar to get drunk. Apparently, I accomplishedthat.
In fact, I fucking nailedit.
A vision of a brunette comes into focus. Flirting, drinks, dancing, her body rubbing up and down mine before she led me back to her place. Before I ran from her like some emotional girl. I can’t even do a revenge fuck properly.
The pain that started in my head is now rampaging through my body. I exit the tunnel as the sun slips above the horizon, casting a pink glow. The briny air hits my lungs and some of the tension erodes. Not a lot, but enough that maybe I can figure out my next move. I walk over to the boardwalk and kick off my shoes before sinking my toes into the sand. The pounding in my head subsides with each deep breath I take and each step closer to the ocean. When I reach the water’s edge, I wade in and let the gentle surf lick my ankles. The cool water bites at my feet, allowing me to focus on something other than my hangover or the sight of a half-naked dickwad in my girlfriend’s hotelroom.
I still don’t know what to do. Going back out to the Ruins and being back in that house without her might be too much. Maybe it’s time to settle someplace new, somewhere I’ve never been. First I owe it to everyone to let them know what I’m doing.
My shoulders drop with the weight of my decision, and with a slow pivot, I head back toward drysand.
The gaping hole in my chest grows until it devours my guts. My stomach rumbles. Right, I’ve been on a liquid diet for the past day and a half. Ducking into the first café I come to, I order a coffee and breakfast burrito.
The girl hands me my drink and I sip it, lulled by the murmur of conversation around me. When my food is ready, I grab it and head for the door, nearly bumping into a couple of girls on their way in. One girl sniffles. Shit, did I hurther?
“Hey, sorry,” I say, reaching for herarm.
She lifts her face, her red-rimmed eyes meeting mine. She gives me a small smile. “My fault. I’m just…” she waves her hand. “You know.” She shrugs and her friend nods in agreement.
The sidewalk is thick with people, more than there should be this time of the morning. At least based on my experience in the Union. Maybe this is normal in the East, though. I eat my breakfast as I walk to the A-Train station two blocks away. At the top of the stairs, I bump into a gathering crowd hovering around a roped-off area. Several people in transit uniforms mill about on the other side of the ropes.
“Hey,” I callout.
The closest guy pivots to face me. “We’re closed.”
“Indefinitely.” He turns his back and resumes his conversation with his coworkers.
The big dude beside me leans forward, his shirt gaping between the buttons where it pulls over his extended belly. “Hey, asshole.”
The transit worker walks over to us. “Haven’t you heard?” His voice catches, betraying just how young he is. He can’t be much more than sixteen.
The faces of those around me wear the same dumbfounded expression Ido.
“Heard what?” the big guy asks, the anger lacing his words earlier replaced with confusion.
The kid merely shakes his head and moves further away from therope.
While the group continues to shout questions, I go back downstairs, this time paying close attention to everyone I pass. An air of tension runs through the population, as if they’re on edge, nervous. In all my time in the Union, the one constant has been consistency. Trains run on time, stores open as scheduled, Unis tend to be calm. And why the hell not? They live in Utopia. But this morning, something’soff.
I enter the nearest pub and push my way through the throng to the monitors over the bar. The fact that a pub is this packed so early in the morning is yet another sign that today is anything but routine. The crowd between me and the displays is five deep, but I refuse to be deterred and squeeze my way through.
Someone elbows me in the ribs. “Hey!”
My eyes are fixed on the screens, my brain unable to comprehend what I’m seeing. The hair on my arms stands on end. A-Trains across the Union are swarming with Uprising soldiers, unloading cars at gunpoint. The volume is turned down, but words trail along the bottom. My basic reading skills only give me the gist ofit.
I rake a hand through my hair as the sickening reality sinks in. Backing away from the bar, I find a table and slump into a chair. We didn’t stop anything. Fuck. Despite the early hour, I order a beer when the waitress comes by. The crowd gathered around the monitors starts to dissipate, either leaving the pub, or finding seats at tables. My brew is delivered in a frosty mug, foam slipping over the rim and sliding down the side. I take a sip and lean back, watching the horror unfolding on the screen.
The same footage is shown over and over, with new details added from time to time. The Uprising captured or killed most of the Union’s leaders, including the Prime Minister. If Evan’s uncle is among them, she’ll be devastated. Evan. Shit, she could be in danger simply by being related to a governor.
The need to do something crawls through me, making me restless. More than once I get up, ready to fight, but I always stop myself, unsure where to start. Running off without a plan won’t fix anything. As the day progresses, new reports detail the Uprising moving further into the Union, rounding up police officers and other lower-tier officials, until they’re in charge of all seven provinces, with a concentrated presence in the Southern Province. That must be ground zero for their operations. If I can get there, I may be able to infiltrate, convince them I’m still in the Uprising.
Eventually my own thoughts are interrupted by conversations around me, particularly one among a group of Unis at the next table.
“We should try to do something.” The guy is around my age and for a second, reminds me of my brother, Lucien.
A pretty, dark-haired girl with large brown eyes leans forward. “What can wedo, Dom?”
The dude next to her looks like he’s allergic to dirt. And disorder. His pants are pressed with a crease running down the front, and not one of his blond hairs is out of place. “We can help somehow.”
“Like how?” the girlasks.
The dark-haired guy, who I’m assuming is Dom, points at the screen. “We go there. I’ve seen a ton of war movies and there’s always a central command. I’ll bet that’sit.”
The girl scrunches up her nose. “The trains aren’t even operating. How do we get there?”
Dom leans back in his chair, thoughtful. “The commuter trains are.” Now they’ve really got my interest. “We can ride borough-by-borough till we get there.”
Clean-cut dude nods toward me and the other two turn myway.
“Sorry, couldn’t help overhearing,” Isay.
The girl throws a megawatt smile my way before glancing down at her drink, her dark eyelashes fanning bronzed cheeks.
“We can’t sit around and do nothing,” Dom says. “They attacked us, and maybe they’re in charge now, but we can fightback.”
They’re so naive it’s almost comical, but that kind of naivete will get them killed. I reach out a hand across the narrow gap between our tables. “Cyrus.”
Dom shakes my hand. “Dominic. This is my sister, Valencia, and my buddy, Nate.”
Nate and I shake hands and Valencia glances up with a small smile.
“You know we can’t just show up there and attack them, right? They’ve gotguns.”
Dominic raises an eyebrow. “We?”
I huff out a short laugh, not even realizing I’d made the decision to go with them. “Guess so. Like you said, we can’t just sit around doing nothing. Might as well go together. Plus, there’s strength and safety in numbers.”
“You watch a lot of war movies, too?” Nateasks.
I smirk. “Something likethat.”
Darkness settles across the Southeastern Province as we walk to the commuter station the next borough over. Traveling with Unis helps me blend in, but I don’t necessarily trust them. I keep one eye on my surroundings and one on my traveling companions.
We’ve made good time over the past day. Dominic felt the upper levels would be safer, but I’m not convinced. The orderly efficiency of the Union is working to our advantage now, but anything can change. We’re too boxed in uphere.
We round a corner and hike up a flight of stairs to the platform to find Uprising soldiers headed in our direction. I drop my head, wishing I had a ballcap to obscure my face. Some of them could be troops I commanded or trained with, and I can’t risk being recognized. Before they’re close enough to make me, I duck into an open café, something rare this evening. The others followme.
The place is nearly deserted since most Unis are holed up at home, hunkering down, scared shitless.
“What’s wrong?” Dominicasks.
I can’t tell him I used to be in the Uprising, so I settle on a partial truth. “Too many soldiers here. We should lie low until they clearout.”
Nate runs a hand across his smooth jaw, and I wonder when was the last time he didn’t shave. “Why?”
I raise an eyebrow at him. Was he not watching the same information I was allday?
He shakes his head. “They’re not grabbing random citizens, they’re looking for government officials.” He even talks like a starched shirt.
“Yesterday that might’ve been the case, but who knows what they’re doing today.”
Dominic nods. “Maybe you’re right.”
Outside, a soldier hauls a Uni down the sidewalk, hands bound behind him, reinforcing my point. The line we were fed during training was that the Uprising wanted access to the resources in here, fairness for the people of the Ruins. The only Ruins people I’ve seen so far are soldiers. And whatever they’re up to, it’s not making sure everyone in the Ruins has food, water, and medicalcare.
“What do you think they want?” Valenciaasks.
“I don’t know, but I’m sure they’ll tell us when they’re ready.”
Nate shifts on his feet beside me. “Where are theyfrom?”
I contemplate telling them about the Ruins, but that will only raise more questions I don’t want to answer. “Your guess is as good asmine.”
“You guys gonna order anything?” the guy behind the counter calls.
“Uh, coffee,” Isay.
We grab a table and spend the next several hours watching the activity outside. Hopped up on caffeine, I’m antsy and second-guessing my decision to hook up with theseguys.
“What are you thinking?” Dominicasks.
I turn toward him, working to keep my face neutral. “I think it’s too risky to go to the Southern Provincenow.”
I lift an eyebrow and nod at the Uprising presence through the window.
Valencia swallows hard. “Oh. Maybe we should just gohome.”
Dom shakes his head, his fingers gripping tightly to his mug. “No way, Val. Then what? Wait for them to take over our apartment? Kill someone welove?”
“So, what then?” Nate asks, directing his question tome.
Except for Evan and her friends, most Unis seem happy letting someone else make the decisions and take the risks. They appear to genuinely want to do something, but dragging them into an Uprising camp, jumping into this without thinking it through, is beyond reckless. “We bide our time, regroup, and figure somethingout.”
Total darkness greets me when I open my eyes. The stench of vomit invades my nostrils and I gag. I scoot back to get away from the odor and just that small movement is enough to make my head spin. Every inch of me screams in pain as I lay back down on the harsh concrete floor. Even my lungs hurt when I attempt to take a deeper breath.
With nothing but blackness surrounding me, it’s easier to close my eyes and let the nothingness drag me back into oblivion.
Liquid fills my nose and mouth and I claw in front of me, searching for the surface. I gasp, choking on a combination of air and water and shove my drenched hair out of my face. Hercules One holds an empty bucket at his side, water still dripping from therim.
Dizziness takes hold when I sit up, my body tilting. H-1 grabs my biceps, yanking me to my feet mere moments before my head would have conked on the concrete. Guess he wants the honor of doing the head conking himself.
Something about my face doesn’t feel right. My fingers run over the planes of my face, hitting a tender spot on my cheek. Pain shoots through my jaw and into my head while stars dance across my vision until everything disappears.
Another blast of water hits my face and my eyes fly open to a pair of cold blue ones staring back at me. “Where did you train?” Drayaasks.
My lips part to tell her off, but the words catch on their wayout.
Hercules Two approaches me, and without warning his fist is in my stomach. A yell tears from my raw throat and I double over, screaming through my teeth.
“Where. Did. You. Train.”
“In the Northwest,” Igasp.
“Where in the Northwest? Whichcamp?”
The pain begins to ebb, allowing me to control my mouth. If I tell them what they want, they’ll have no reason to keep me alive. I’m just not sure how much I can tolerate before I verbally vomit the truth along with the threatening bile. H-2 strikes the left side of my face with the back of his hand, sending blinding pain racing from my head into my spine.
“Northwest Seven,” I scream. Shit, at this rate, I’ll tell them everything and be dead within anhour.
Draya’s eyes dim rather than brighten with the information. “Now we’re getting somewhere. Who was withyou?”
“Other recruits. There was a whole truckload of us, plus all the kids already there.”
She narrows her gaze before turning on her heel and leaving the room, returning a few moments later with a tablet. “Several soldiers left that camp unauthorized, including the commander. Who was your commander, and where is henow?”
What the hell? First, I’m not telling her anything about Cyrus, even if she tortures me, but second… “Don’t you know who the commanderwas?”
Her only response is an unblinking stare.
The open-palmed slap doesn’t hurt any less as it rocks my head to the side. The stakes are too high now, and I manage to keep my mouth shut. “Answer the commander,” H-2 snarls.
I bite my lips together and prepare for the next blow, another backhand across my face. In an instant, the face of the first girl I shot to save Marcus’s life flashes before me. I close my eyes and do my best to stand a little straighter and take the next strike as penance for her. The fist in the gut is for the boy I killed, and I crumple to the floor. The boot to my ribs is for the kids blown up when the explosives went off. I hear the first crack, more than feel it. What they’re doing to me pales in comparison to what I did. I can take this, I deserve it. But I can’t prevent the small whimpers from escaping with each kick until the merciful darkness comes to take me again.
My shivering body drags me from peaceful oblivion back into the unbearable hell of consciousness. A puddle of frigid water spreads out across the concrete floor like an ink blot, cubes of ice scattered. I clamp my jaw shut to stop the chattering of my teeth.
A pair of brown leather boots comes into view. “We’re wasting our time,” comes a deep male voice I don’t recognize. “She serves no purpose. Dispose ofher.”
Fear chills my insides to match my outsides.
The boots pivot and recede. Draya’s voice is low and hushed, making it impossible to hear what she’s saying.
“Fine,” the deep voice says again. “You’ve got a day. If you don’t get anything out of her by then, move on. We have bigger fish tofry.”
Someone lifts me to standing, supporting me from behind, which is good, since I’m not sure I can stand on my own. I let out an involuntary groan and silently curse myself. It’s not like they can’t tell by looking at me how messed up I am, but my ability to not react may be the only thing I’m in control of at the moment.
“Did you blow up the camps?” Drayaasks.
Her face wavers, refusing to come into focus. My mouth moves but nothing comes out. A boot connects with my shin. This time, I keep my screams in myhead.
Draya’s next words are slurred, or maybe only to me. “Were you involved in what happened in the camps in March?”
I weigh my options. If I want to live, I need to give them something. Might as well cop to this. They can’t kill me twice. Inod.
“Now we’re getting somewhere.” The satisfied smirk I can’t see is evident in her voice. “You didn’t do it alone. Who was withyou?”
“No one,” I croak, finding my voice.
“As much as I’m enjoying this, I really would rather not have to do it. It’s taking too long. Just tell me who was withyou.”
“No one. It was onlyme.”
A blow to my back knocks me forward and a sharp, blinding pain darkens my vision as I slump to the floor.
“How did you do it?” Draya’s voice penetrates the darkness.
The cool concrete beneath my cheek is soothing, and I see no benefit in getting up. “I bought…explosives and a motorbike…in the Northern Territories.” I drag in a painful breath. “It was easy to sneak in. The Uprising taught me everything I needed to know. It was easier than you might think.”
“That’s a nice story, but I don’t believe you. You couldn’t have been in multiple locations atonce.”