by Madeline Dyer
(First published by Prizm Books, May 2015; re-released by Ineja Press, January 2017)
“Your mother’s gone.”
The leader grunts at me, then places his fuel can in the shade of the largest boulder, next to mine. He turns to where his nephew is shrugging the emergency packs onto the dry, rocky ground, and both men pant hard. Dust rises up.
I frown and my ears crackle. My legs feel too soft, insubstantial. My mother’s gone?
Corin Eriksen—the leader’s nephew—peels off his button-up shirt revealing a threadbare T-shirt. I watch him tie the damp material around his thick waist.
“You listenin’ to me?” Rahn, the scrawnier of the two men, pushes his dark glasses back up his nose, and jabs a gnarled finger at me. He always wears those glasses. Well, he’s got several pairs actually, slightly different styles, but he always has to wear some sort of eye protection because he has weak retinas or something. The rest of us just wear our sunglasses when we’re raiding. Mine are now folded over the neckline of my shirt. Corin’s aren’t visible, probably in his pocket.
I look at the two of them for a few seconds, then frown. Covered in beads of sweat, their hair hangs in sweaty clumps over their foreheads. Rahn’s finger remains where it is—inches from my nose. It looks like the old tree root I tripped over earlier.
“She’s gone, Seven,” Rahn says. He withdraws his finger, and places his hands over his knees, leaning forward, still panting. “She ain’t comin’ back.”
I shake my head, and turn away. The town of New Kimearo is down there in the distance, rising out of the sand. I fix my gaze on the stone buildings. Blocks. Dark masses. It’s flatter down there: a sort of valley in the southern part of the Titian Mountains.
“Seven, did you hear me?”
My stomach rumbles loudly. I grab my survival bag from the desert ground and empty the contents at my feet. A compass, three squashed energy bars, a map, a pack of water purification tablets, some toilet bags, two boxes of waterproof matches, and a wind-up torch. My foil jacket isn’t there. I curse. I always keep it in my leather rucksack. Numbly, I pick up one of the bars, peel back the dry paper, and take a bite of cardboard-tasting nothingness.
“Look at that.” Rahn nods his head toward me, then turns to Corin.
“Eating is a method of distraction.” Corin rubs at his nose, where the skin’s crimson and flaking off.
“Or maybe she ain’t that bothered, maybe she’s goin’ to choose them too. Like mother, like daughter.”
My spine clicks. I glare at them and the remaining half of the bar drops from my hand. I focus on the tiny specs of sand coating it as it rolls down the slope, stopping at the boulder that shades the fuel cans.
“This…this is your fault.” The words are out of my mouth before I can stop them. “This—you did this. You hate us, you always have…” I clench my fists and stand up straighter. I’m the same height as Rahn. “I know you did it. This is your fault.”
The muscles in Rahn’s neck flinch twice, and his head snaps toward me. The sun glints off his dark glasses. “How—”
“Finn’s driving the truck around the long path.” Corin’s voice is neutral as he pulls a water bottle from his pack. He’s a few feet behind Rahn, still shielded from the town by the rocks. “He shouldn’t be long. We need to be ready to move fast.”
Rahn nods twice, then turns back to me. “Seven, Katya’s a lost cause. We had nothin’ to do with her choosin’ them, because that’s what she did.”
I stare at him, my eyes feel heavy. My mother wouldn’t choose them. I know she wouldn’t. Rahn’s lying. They were getting food, Rahn, Corin and my mother. Now they’ve left her behind. They think it’s some kind of joke, pretending she’s chosen them. But she wouldn’t, she’d never join the Enhanced. None of us would.
Nausea washes over me. My fingers burn with ice.
I look back down at New Kimearo, three miles away. The southern part of the town is there, those buildings… I can see them, there. Smaller ones, and bigger ones. Dark gray stone. Electricity wires stretch from one block to another.
My mother’s down there. I breathe evenly through my nose. It wouldn’t take me long to reach her. I’m the fastest runner we have—a long line of good genetics made me this way—and Corin and Rahn wouldn’t be able to stop me from getting her. If I left my pack here, and—
“She’s with them, Sev.” Corin’s voice is lower, quieter. “She chose to join them. You can’t go after her. We can’t get her back—”
“We always try! No matter who it is—”
“Not when they choose it.” Rahn’s hands fly up in the air, as if tiny strings have jerked them up. He looks like one of those puppets from the shows Kayden and Faya performed when I was young. “There’s no hope. Even if we go after her, she’d fight us. If we have to fight the Enhanced and Katya, to get her back, we have no chance at all. And you know it.” His smile is triumphant.
I shake my head. Electricity snaps through the left side of my body. We can’t leave her. If it was me down there, I know my mother wouldn’t give up. She always promised that if I got caught she’d rescue me before the Enhanced converted and replaced me with their artificiality. She promised it to all of us. My brother and my sister promised it too. Our whole group always promises. So why are Rahn and Corin saying this?
“Lookin’ at it from a practical way, it could’ve been worse.” Rahn brushes his hands on his shorts now, leaving behind huge smeary orange marks. “Someone else could’ve switched. At least she’s not a big loss. She wasn’t a great Seer anyway.”
I gulp hard, tears blurring my vision. Not a big loss? I want to scream at him, shout at him, hit him—this is my mother we’re talking about! And I know my mother—she wouldn’t have given up. All her life, she’s been drilling into me how bad the Enhanced Ones are. She would not join the people who ambushed our villages and forced everyone to convert themselves into pathetic excuses of humanity. Kidnapping children, forcing augmenters down their throats—stuffing them with so many artificial feelings that they no longer know who they are, only that they’re with the ‘good’ people now. No. I shake my head. My mother wouldn’t join them! She wouldn’t join the people who killed her oldest child. The people who make us live like this, in fear, as they hunt us down, pretending what they’re doing is for the greater good.
My mother would never voluntarily become an Enhanced. She raised me, and my siblings, to hate the Enhanced. I grew up attacking Enhanced bases, trying to save the freshly converted with her. It never worked—the addiction to the Enhanced Ones’ life, and their augmenters, is too strong; a person can never go back to how they were before. But it was the attempt to save everyone that proved who my mother was. She never gave up.
“Sev.” Corin steps around Rahn, and looks down at me. I feel a jerk of something through my body, like a scalpel’s running along my veins. Corin’s eyes are dark and warm, like chocolate—the only part of him that isn’t burnt and angry and raw. “It was what she chose.” He shrugs, and the bands of muscle around his thick neck ripple. “We’ll wait for Finn. Then we’ll get back to Nbutai.”
Behind him, Rahn nods, then turns slightly, and sits in the shade of the boulders, folding himself into a rangy knot of arms and legs. I stare at him. I don’t understand. He shouldn’t be sitting down. He’s our leader; he should be making plans, discussing tactics of how we’re going to rescue my mother.
Biting back tears, I move to the side, melt against the edge of another rock. I slide down it, the clamminess of my skin pressing into the jagged surface, skin abrading, until I can feel the fine sand sticking to my legs. I sniff loudly, the tang of fuel tainting the air.
I’ll cry later. Not in front of them. The traitors.
I glare at the side of Rahn’s head. He’s facing the grainy surface of the large boulder, his huge nose jutting out in front of him from beneath his wrap-around sunglasses. His nose is massive. I narrow my eyes, until all I can see is that monstrous construction protruding out from under his sunglasses. I could easily hit that beak-like target if he were the mark during gun practice.
I watch as he flexes his fingers. They’re resting on his knees now. I grit my teeth. He set her up, he must have. Any of them could have—Rahn, Corin or Finn.
“It’ll be for the best.” Rahn makes a sort of cackling noise under his breath. “You’ll see.” He turns toward me. The bright light flashes from his glasses and I flinch. “After all, what’s the good of havin’ a Seer who can’t even warn us ’bout stuff?”
What’s the point in having a prejudiced leader? I narrow my eyes at him, tasting bile at the back of my throat.
My fists burn as I watch the two men. I want to jump up, slam my fist into Rahn’s face. But I can’t. I know better than to attack our leader.
I wipe at my face angrily, but Corin notices.
“Save your tears for someone worth crying over.”
My face burns—I can feel the color rushing to it like the heat of a fire pressing against tender skin. “But she didn’t choose them!”
“She did,” Rahn says. “You weren’t there. Walked straight toward them, she did. No hesitation.” He sighs heavily; I know he’s lying. “We tried to stop her, but she was determined.”
My knees sink even deeper into the hard ground. I clench my fingers tightly, dragging them across the rough stone. I watch three of my knuckles split open, like the old leather of a roadkill carcass. Redness oozes out.
“She chose them, Sev,” Corin snaps at me. He sits down with a sigh, his legs wide, and his bare, muscular arms rest on his knees.
No. If she’s joined the Enhanced, it’s because Rahn and Corin and Finn let her be caught. Or maybe they got her killed, and this story’s a way of nursing their guilt.
I clench my jaw so tightly my gums throb. I think of my father, back at the village. I try not to think how he’s going to react. Or my brother, Three. They’ll be angry. Blame themselves. My sister will scream and scream and scream. We need to get back quickly. The sooner we’re there, the sooner we can all set off, the whole group of us. We can storm into New Kimearo, and get her out. I haven’t got a chance on my own.
“Where’s Finn? He should be here by now. It doesn’t take long to fill up from the stone pool. And he’s got the truck.” Rahn’s voice breaks the silence.
He pulls the smallest foxhole radio from his pocket and clicks the button. No sound comes from it at all. He glares at me.
“And your brother needs to do better than this.” The radio jerks in his hand. “How’re we supposed to stay alive if we’ve got no communications—no way of knowing if our people have been caught? We need back-up ones too. The radio Finn’s got is probably a dud. This ain’t good enough, Seven. Tell Three that we ain’t got time to play at this.”
I look at the ground, refusing to rise to his bait. It isn’t my brother’s fault—Three had to improvise, making these foxhole radios after Corin smashed the decent ones that transmit and receive in a fit of anger a few months ago. It had taken my brother two days to make each of the new foxhole radios. I’d seen the blisters on my brother’s hands from the coating that the Enhanced treat their copper wire with to stop us from using it, but Rahn didn’t care then, and he wouldn’t care now. He’s just annoyed because all we can try and do now is tune into the Enhanced Ones’ channels and listen out for their announcements—such as when they capture one of us. Because of Corin, we’ve got no way of contacting Finn directly, but Rahn nearly always takes it out on my brother.
Corin stretches his arms out. “How long do we wait?”
Finn. Tall, lanky. Huge ears. The unsolicited image of him invades my mind. At eighteen—a year older than me—Finn thinks he’s a man—that he can boss anyone around. I’ve hated him ever since he emptied a toilet pot over me when I was six.
Corin takes an unopened pack of cigarettes from the pocket of his khaki shorts, and pulls one out, along with a lighter. It’s a new lighter—the fluid almost reaches the top.
I watch him, wrinkling my nose as the smoke curls around me. I taste it on the roof of my mouth and behind my front teeth, darkness and ash. It reminds me how useless I’m being. I should be doing something to save my mother, but I’m not. I’m just sitting here.
“Did you get any mouthwash?” I look over at Corin, but my eyes settle on the dusty ground in front of his feet.
Rahn snorts. “We ain’t got time to get luxuries. We got to survive.”
Corin purses his lips, blowing a thin line of smoke away from him, toward the town. I watch the smoke dissipate.
“Right,” Rahn says a few minutes later. He stands up slowly, and I watch as he looks over the top of the rock, down the rugged mountainside, toward New Kimearo. “We need to get back to Nbutai now—for the Gods’ sake, Seven, stop snivelin’. We’ll send a search party out for Finn later. Once we’re safe.”
“What about my mother?”
Corin turns away from me, and Rahn makes a grunting sound. I bite my lip, narrowing my eyes at the two men as I stand. Adrenaline races around my body. Yes. I need to run. I need to get back to the village before Rahn and Corin, and I need to tell our people what really happened back there, before they infect everyone with their malicious lies. Those two have always hated my family, because my mother’s a Seer.
“Take the fuel,” Corin barks at me, blocking the sun from his eyes with one stocky hand as he gets up.
I gather the small containers and packets from my bag, shove them back into the leather rucksack, then pick up the fuel cans. Rahn adds a shoulder bag to my load. Inside it, glass clinks against glass. I straighten up. I’m tall for my age—my body’s a strange build: childlike, not in the least bit curvy, but I’m taller than my sister who’s twenty-five. Out of all my siblings, I look the most like our mother. I gulp.
“Seven, you take the long route, past the black rocks—it’s safer. Corin and I will go the direct path. We’ll meet by Mountain Rock.” The usual meeting point, two miles from the village. “Any trouble, you follow the lessons.”
I nod. The heat of the sun feels strange on my wet face, like unwelcome fingers caressing my skin. I shudder. It’ll be a long run, taking that detour, and the terrain will be mostly uphill. But Rahn’s right—it is safer. I frown, instinctively.
“Take this.” Rahn hands me a gun.
I stare at him, and my fingers wrap around it slowly. It’s a Luger. My lips start to form a word, but Rahn shakes his head.
“We’ve all got them.” His voice is flat.
I tuck it into the back of my waistband. It feels cold against my sweating skin.
“Go now. You’ll need a head start.”
Timing’s important, as always. I scramble backward, turning and lunging over the sand and shingle. The sun leaps in my eyes.
Keep your breathing even. Don’t overdo yourself before you’re really going.
I speed up, my feet finding a regular rhythm. The fuel cans and shoulder bag are bulky, and the rucksack bruises my spine. Pain grips my shoulders. More tears blur my vision.
I will get you back, Mum. I will.
I punctuate each step, each slamming of the bags on my back, with a word. Over and over. I. Will. Get. You. Back. I’ll get my brother and sister, my father and a truck. We will not give up.
Ahead, the horizon’s rocky, rising above me.
A minute goes past. Two. Five. Ten. Dust kicks up under my feet. A few solitary trees rise ahead of me, reaching over ditches toward each other with skeletal fingers that will never meet. I jump over a small pit. Loose gravel and sand. Shards of rock, sharp.
I slow down, my lungs burn. I try to push the straps of the bags higher onto my shoulder with the momentum. Long strands of my hair flap into my eyes. I curse. Have I got time to stop? Sharp breaths. Yes, I can afford a ten second stop. There’s a band on my wrist—I can feel it cutting into my skin. Five seconds at the most, that’s all it would take.
Turning, I put the fuel cans down and ease the shoulder bag off. I let out a short sigh. I cough as I tie my hair back, phlegm flying from my mouth onto the dry ground.
There. Five seconds. That allows another stop later on.
I stoop, scooping my fingers under the cans’ handles, and—
I whirl around as the flash of a mirror captures my eye.
That’s when I see them: the figures rising out of the sand.
The people who kidnapped my mother.