Authors: Ann Aguirre
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For Jenn of the eerily similar brain, and Karen of the Twitter taunting
I woke to the cold kiss of steel on my throat.
Though I’d grown accustomed to sleeping safely since our arrival in Salvation two months ago, I’d lost none of my edge. Before my attacker realized I was awake, I knocked the knife away and tumbled him over my head. While Stalker recovered, I rolled to my feet and scowled. Momma Oaks would skin us both if she caught him in my room. People took reputations seriously, and mine was already bruised, due to my insistence on being myself.
“Good work, dove.” Stalker’s grin flashed in the moonlight.
“What are you doing here?” It was the middle of the night, but he loved his little tests.
“We’ve got incoming. I heard the second bell.”
My ire cooled. He wasn’t just checking my reflexes in spite of our precarious situation. Belonging to no one, we had to make sure we didn’t wear out our welcome or anger the townsfolk by flouting their rules. Most seemed designed to discourage unauthorized breeding, and they didn’t like it when I went off to spar with Stalker. It hadn’t taken me long to figure that I wasn’t a normal girl—at least by Salvation standards. So we trained in secret these days, no daylight matches.
“Let’s have a look. Turn around.”
With minimal fuss, I dressed in Huntress attire and strapped on my weapons, which I hadn’t permitted anyone to take, despite complaints of how “inappropriate” it was for me to carry them. Most of those came from women who dropped by the Oakses’ house to whisper their disapproval of my heathen ways. Savages raised me in a cave, to hear them tell it, but as I’d informed Momma Oaks, I earned my scars and blades. They could pry the latter from my cold, dead hands. Respecting the teacher’s sensibilities, I did wear long-sleeve blouses to school to hide my Huntress status.
Stalker slid out the open window, the same one he’d climbed in a few moments before. If I didn’t look forward to our nighttime matches so much, I’d latch it, but only those fights made me feel like a Huntress these days. Following him, I leapt to the branch of the tree and then swung down into the quiet yard.
It was a warm night, bright moon patterning the ground with silver. Each blade of grass felt heavenly beneath my feet. Once, I’d walked on broken stones and hard cement, deep in the belly of the earth. It had been a noisy place, full of echoes, soft moans, and whimpers in the night. But that world was gone.
Now I lived in Salvation, where the buildings were sound, white-washed, and clean, where men had their work and women did different tasks. I struggled with that reality. Down below, my sex hadn’t mattered much. Most of our titles there were neutral with the exception of Huntress, and we retained that one because in the early days—before we realized females could fight as fiercely—only male Hunters protected the enclave. When the first Huntress changed everything, she wanted an acknowledgment of her achievement … and so the distinction remained, unlike the Builders and Breeders who had always been both genders.
They treated their young differently in Salvation as well. Regardless of the threat, brats weren’t allowed to fight … but I’d spent too long defending the enclave to feel comfortable about lying abed while others battled on my behalf. They had built the town like a wooden fortress with strong fortifications and a sturdy gate; a protective wall with walkway and sentry towers kept the Freaks out, safeguarding the populace, but I wasn’t sure it would hold forever. Both Stalker and I had asked to assess the numbers Salvation faced, and how well the guards drove them off. It seemed like a reasonable request, but the folks in charge—elders who were actually
—preferred that young people spent their time puzzling how to read and cipher numbers. There were also history lessons and endless tests on information that nobody in his right mind would ever be required to know.
I found it insulting. If someone already knew how to weave cloth, why would anyone waste time making him learn how to bake bread? It was a waste of effort, but they had rules for everything in Salvation. Breaking them had consequences, which was why I had to be careful.
Along with Stalker, I stole through the darkened town, avoiding dogs that would set up a racket. I found it curious that people kept animals for companionship and not food. When I’d asked Momma Oaks when she planned to cook the fat creature that slept in a basket in the kitchen, her eyes almost popped out of her head. Since then, she’d kept her pet away from me, like she suspected I meant to turn it into stew. Clearly, I had a lot to learn.
“I smell them,” Stalker whispered then.
Lifting my head, I sniffed the night wind and nodded. Anyone who had encountered Freaks—or Muties as they called them Topside—wouldn’t forget the stench: rotting meat and oozing sores. Once, a long time ago, they had human ancestors … or so the stories said. But something bad happened, and people got sick. A lot of them died … and some of them changed. The dead ones were lucky, Edmund claimed, but Momma Oaks always shushed her husband when he talked like that. She had some idea that we needed to be sheltered. Her protective instincts made me laugh, considering I’d fought more than most town guards. I paused, listening.
Weapons weren’t quiet in Salvation, so if the fight had started, I’d hear the boom of their guns. That gave me time to scramble up to the southernmost sentry tower, where Longshot stood watch. He wouldn’t run me off with angry words about how I ought to be in bed. Over the past weeks, he’d showed great patience with my questions. Other men said it was none of my business and reported me for unfeminine, improper behavior; more than once I’d found myself in trouble with Momma Oaks over my nocturnal jaunts.
As usual, Longshot didn’t protest when we slid up the ladder and joined him. From this vantage I saw by flickering lamplight the land unfolding before me. If I pushed past, I could gain access to the walls, but then his fellow guards would yell at me for getting in the way. I didn’t have a gun, so I couldn’t shoot Freaks anyway. Plus, Momma Oaks would hear about my misdeeds again, which led to extra chores and a lecture about how I wasn’t trying to fit in.
“You never miss a fight,” Longshot said, cocking Old Girl.
“Not if we can help it,” Stalker answered.
“It doesn’t feel right … I’m used to helping. How many are there tonight?”
“I counted ten, but they’re hanging back, just out of range.”
That information sent a cold chill through me. “Trying to draw you out?”
“It won’t work,” he assured me. “They can prowl outside all they want, but if they get hungry enough, they’ll charge, and we’ll put ’em down.”
I wished I shared his confidence in the power of walls for keeping bad things out. Down below, we had barricades, of course, but we hadn’t relied on them exclusively. Patrols went out to keep our territory clear, and it made me uneasy to think of Freaks gathering. Who knew how many were out there? I remembered Nassau’s fate; that was the closest settlement to where I’d lived down below. When Silk—the commander of the Hunters—sent Fade and me to investigate, the reality was worse than anything I’d imagined, Freaks feasting on the dead after they annihilated the living. It scared me to imagine such a fate here, where citizens weren’t as tough. They had more guards, of course, and not all of them hunted, as we did down below. More citizens lived in Salvation, so they could spread the work out.
From the other side of the wall came the distant bark of someone’s gun, and then the bell rang. Just once, which meant a kill. Two bells indicated incoming. I’d never heard more than two bells, so I didn’t know if there were other warnings.
“How many signals are there?” I asked Longshot.
“Twelve or so,” he answered, raising his weapon. “It’s based on some kind of old military language, dots and dashes.”
That didn’t clarify anything, but before I could ask, movement in the perimeter caught my eye. As two Freaks ran toward the wall, Longshot sighted with Old Girl and dropped the first. It didn’t seem sporting when the creatures had no ranged weapons, but most of the citizens here weren’t trained to fight, either. A breach in security would be disastrous.
As I watched, the surviving Freak knelt beside its fallen friend and then shrieked as if we were the monsters. The sound echoed in the trees, full of grief and loathing. I glanced at Longshot, who was holding fire. The thing didn’t run, although it could have. Its eyes glittered in the lamplight, showing madness and hunger, certainly, but tonight I saw something more. Or thought I did.
It’s a shadow, playing tricks.
“Sometimes they sound like they have minds in their rotten heads,” he said, as if to himself.
Then he took the second shot, so the other died beside the first. Afterward, Longshot rang the bell once, paused, and then once again, reporting his kills. The townsfolk had learned to sleep through the racket. This information was for the guards, so they could track how many bodies surrounded the town. In the morning, they would send an armed crew to drag away the corpses, far enough that if they attracted other Freaks, they could feed without the good folks of Salvation having to watch. I approved of the practice; fortunately, the people here didn’t have to be lectured on the importance of proper hygiene.
That was the only thing Salvation had in common with College, the enclave where I had been raised. Up here on the safety of the wall, my knives couldn’t do any damage, and I hated being useless. Stalker took no better to being cut out of the action. He had a valid point when he’d said, months ago:
You, you’re like me.
You mean a Hunter?
Yes. You’re strong.
It was true … but here, physical strength didn’t matter. Neither did training. They wanted us to learn new roles and forget that we’d once led different lives. I found it tough, as I’d loved being a Huntress. Yet Salvation offered no similar role for girls; I couldn’t even wear my own clothes.
For some time, we listened to the gunfire, until the bell stopped tolling death. Gradually the night noises resumed—and that was another way you could tell Freaks had retreated. When all the animals went still and silent, an attack had to be imminent. Now the hush filled with the peculiar churring of a bird whose name I didn’t know.
“What is that?” I asked Longshot.
He always had the utmost patience for my questions, and this was no different. “Nightjar. They come for the summer before heading south again.”
Not for the first time, I envied the birds’ freedom. “Thanks. We’ll get out of your way before someone catches us here.”
“Appreciate it.” Longshot kept his eyes fixed on the trees.
Stalker glided down the ladder with the grace that made him such a phenomenal fighter at close range. We took every opportunity to keep our skills sharp because, deep down, I couldn’t believe the guns would last forever. Life down below had taught me to believe in nothing as much as my own abilities; Stalker’s upbringing in the Topside gangs had given him a similar philosophy.