Children of Ash: A Meridian Six Novella (10 page)

BOOK: Children of Ash: A Meridian Six Novella
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It took less time than I expected for him to reach the spot two floors below. Before I was ready, he pushed off the wall and kicked open the door into Dr. Death’s inner sanctum. “Now, Six!”

I fumbled for a moment with the rope but quickly tied it to the door handle. I stuck the knife he’d given me in the waistband of my uniform. I was just swinging my feet over the edge of the hole when shouts sounded below.

As I leaped into the chute, a gunshot exploded below me.

Twenty

Z
ed

B
ehind me
, crashing sounds and feminine grunts signaled my partner’s arrival. I didn’t dare look that direction because I was too busy aiming my gun at the servant I’d stumbled into when I came out of the chute. He wore simple gray clothes of a finer cloth than the prisoners I’d seen, which made sense seeing how he worked for the head of the camp. His head was bald and his lips were disconcertingly red, as if he’d recently fed and had forgotten to wipe them with a napkin.

I’d fired a warning shot when he’d refused to stop coming toward me. Luckily, the bullet that flew past his head and lodged into the wall behind him convinced him to stay put, but now we faced one another across the bed. The room wasn’t as elaborate as I’d expected. The bed had a wooden headboard and the bedspread was simple white cotton tucked into hospital corners.

“Oof,” Carmina grunted as she fell out of the chute and landed on the floor.

“’Bout time you made it,” I said. The vampire’s eyes flicked in her direction, and I raised an eyebrow at him to dare him to give me an excuse to fire.

“Who’d you shoot?” Carmina demanded.

“The wall.”

“Um, Zed—”

As she came to join me, I spoke over her to the vampire, who watched us with an unblinking gaze. “Who are you?”

He shook his head, but I couldn’t tell if it signified that he wouldn’t tell me—or couldn’t.

“Zed,” she said.

Another shake of the head from the vampire.

“Maybe he’s in the lab,” I said, pointing to the door on the other side of the bedroom.

“Only Pontius Morordes may enter the lab.” The vampire’s voice sounded like rusty chains dragging along concrete.

“Do you know how to get in there?” I demanded.

The vampire tipped his chin to indicate he did.

“Zed, that’s him,” Carmina said with more force.

I didn’t dare take my eyes from the vampire. “That’s who?”

“Dr. Death.”

I chanced a look at her face to see if she was joking. She didn’t look amused. When I looked at the vampire again, he was still smiling, but he was also halfway around the bed toward us. “Don’t move,” I said to him. To Carmina, I whispered, “How do you know?”

“I know, okay? I knew him…before.” She looked around for a moment, as if hoping proof might present itself. She finally walked toward the wall and pulled a picture from a hook to bring it to me. “Look, here’s a photograph of him with the Prime. Trust me when I say the Prime isn’t the kind of guy who has his picture taken with servants.”

“Meridian Six?” the vampire hissed. “Is that you, my dear?”

Her face paled but she refused to look at him. “It’s him.” She walked across the room to check out the door, as if she needed space. The vampire’s eyes followed her.

“There’s a security pad here,” she called. “How do we get in there?”

The vampire said nothing.

“Open it,” I said.

“I do not take orders from humans.”

I took a menacing step forward. “I will kill you if you don’t.”

The vampire smiled. “Please try.”

“Is she right?” I asked the vampire. “Are you Pontius Morordes? Are you Dr. Death?”

Instead of answering, he lunged. One second he was by the end of the bed, and the next Carmina flew across the room and a streak of gray slammed into me, knocking the gun from my hand. My body slammed backward into a side table that sent a lamp and other items crashing to the floor.

“Zed!” Carmina’s shout was almost lost in the growls and hissing of the pissed-off vampire on top of me.

Dr. Death was slight in frame but not in temperament. He giggled as his hands closed around my throat and his fangs flashed like twin daggers in the low light.

His breath stunk of copper and his eye glowed with the sort of insanity only those truly genius possess. “The only way you’re getting into my lab is as a test subject.”

Black floaters swam in my vision as I gasped like a fish out of water.

Behind his head, Carmina appeared wielding a lamp, but before she could strike the vampire with it, he let go of my neck long enough to strike her and give me a few seconds of much-needed air. The lamp shattered on the ground and Carmina cried out in pain. Even though she was hurt, she didn’t give up and came at him with her fists this time. This was my chance. If I didn’t manage to dislodge him we’d both be dead soon.

I bucked with my hips at the same time I threw all my weight to the left. He fell toward the right and I managed to pull myself out from under him. Carmina immediately intensified her attack, swatted him with her fists like two pistons. Though my windpipe felt crushed and my neck throbbed, I pulled myself up to go help her.

The gun lay near the chute. Before I could reach it, Carmina screamed. I looked back in time to see the vampire’s fangs sink into her forearm. The bastard growled and ripped a chunk out like a dog with a juicy bone. Carmina’s skin went white and she fell, cradling the arm to her chest. I grabbed the gun and spun around.

The first bullet lodged in his shoulder. The impact knocked him back, but he stayed on his feet.

“Stop or the next one goes into your skull.”

Carmina’s blood smeared across his lips, which spread into a smile. “Your bullets don’t scare me, human.” As I watched in horror, he reached into the bullet wound in his shoulder and dug around until he pulled the slug out of the hole. He didn’t even break a sweat. “The humans have a name for me, yes? Dr. Death.” He chuckled. “It’s precious, this name. Do you really think I’d have access to all of this technology and wouldn’t formulate a way to become even stronger and more immune to your puny weapons?”

I pulled the trigger. The bullet exploded from the muzzle and drilled into the space between his eyes. His face exploded.

An instant later, Carmina started screaming.

Twenty-One

M
eridian Six

T
he instant it happened
, I felt as if I’d been shot. One second, Zed faced down Dr. Death while I waited for the right moment to attack. The next, Zed had done the one thing I’d explicitly asked him not to do.

When the gun fired and blood mist slapped against my skin, it took me a moment to comprehend what had happened. I screamed, not because I was afraid or sickened by the blood or the stench of copper. I screamed because it was better than attacking Zed.

“Carmina, hush.” He grabbed my arms and shook me. I fought him off and went to check Dr. Death’s pulse. Zed pulled me away. “Stop it. He’s dead.”

I fell back on the floor, not caring about the blood and bone shards.

“Come on,” he said. “We have to get out of here.”

I wiped the blood from my face. “You said you’d give me the kill.”

His mouth worked for a moment, as if he couldn’t make sense of my words. “I had an opening, so I took it.”

I looked him in the eyes. “You had no right.”

He reared back as if I’d struck him. His expression hardened. “You weren’t getting the job done.”

The verbal jab hit home, but I wasn’t ready to accept that if Zed hadn’t been there, I’d be dead. “You didn’t give me a chance. I was about to make a move. I just needed you to distract him for two more seconds.” I stopped talking as the pressure of my frustration pushed against my ribs and made my head feel like it would shatter just as surely as the vampire’s had. When word got back to Saga, he’d use this to trap me. He would use this as an excuse to back out of our agreement. He’d claim that since I hadn’t dealt the deathblow that I’d broken our agreement. I looked at the terrible, bloody display beside me. There’d be more missions, each worse than the last. Each putting me one step closer to my own grave.

Zed ran his hands through his hair. “I don’t get you. You—”

Something collided with the door that led out to the corridor. Guards pounded the metal panel and shouted for Dr. Death.

Our conflict momentarily forgotten in favor of survival, Zed and I jumped up. “The lab,” I said. “Quickly.”

We ran to the panel opposite the one being worked on by the guards. Zed’s bullet had fried the control box the guards were trying to access, but I didn’t hold a lot of hope that they wouldn’t find a way to manually bypass the system. The corresponding panel next to the lab door had lots of flashing buttons and a pad about the size of a palm.

“Do you think he was telling the truth about no one else being allowed to go in there?” Zed asked.

I punched a few buttons in a vain hope the door would magically open. “Maybe he has a card or something to open it.” I jerked my head toward the body.

Zed shot me an annoyed look. I didn’t give two shits about his feelings. He’d killed the guy—he could be the one to search his corpse. Without a word, he turned away to go inspect his pockets.

The pounding on the other door grew louder, as if they’d found a ram of some sort to batter against the metal. Now I knew how it would feel to be trapped inside a steel drum.

“Carmina.” Zed raised his voice to be heard over the rhythmic pounding. “There’s nothing.”

Seconds pounded down in time with the beating. I spun to look at the panel again. I touched the screen with the tip of my finger. Instead of pulling up a digital keypad as I’d expected, it flashed the words, “
Place palm in the designated area
.”

“Of course,” I said.

“What?” Zed called.

Instead of answering, I walked over, ignoring the sound of the guards trying to get in and the large bulges in the door, and grabbed one of the dead vampire’s hands. “Grab his other hand, but be careful—we need that one.”

Twenty-Two

B
ravo

W
e were in luck
. Dusk hung heavy on the horizon, but it wasn’t quite full night, which meant the guard shift change hadn’t happened yet. According to Matri, the human guards were mean, but they were also dumb.

The old lady led the way as the pair of us approached the guard station on the platform. Almost immediately, a guard I recognized from earlier in the week strolled out of his post and crossed his arms. “You aren’t authorized to be here, Matri.”

She hunched her shoulders, really playing up the helpless old lady thing, and shuffled forward. “My assistant was here earlier today to unload the trains and lost her ration card. We need to search the cars she worked in before the train leaves.”

He laughed. “Dumb bitch.”

“Please, she’s new. She didn’t know.”

“What’s in it for me, eh?” He raised a black eyebrow and ran his gaze over my body like an unwanted caress.

I tried to look meek, but it felt about as natural as wearing someone else’s skin. “Please, I’ll do anything.” Matri had told me earlier that ration cards were more important than oxygen to the prisoners. The vampires didn’t ration food for the workers. Instead, they used the system to control how much water prisoners could drink. If you misbehaved, water would be withheld. It was a clever system, since the human body could starve a lot longer than it could go without water. No doubt the asshole I was trying to bargain with had sold out his own species for access to all the fresh, cool water he could store in his belly.

“My shift is over in thirty minutes,” he said. “Meet me behind the station and, if I like what you offer, I’ll let you search the train.”

The train’s whistle blew.

“We don’t have thirty minutes,” Matri said. “By then the train will be long gone. Let her look now and she’ll go with you after.”

It took all my strength not to protest. I knew she was bluffing, but if our plan went wrong I’d have to go through with her promise or risk the guard turning us in.

“Let me have a sample now and you can go search.”

Bile shot up the back of my throat. I started backing away, but Matri’s surprisingly strong hand squeezed my arm.

“Just a taste,” she said.

I realized then that I’d made the mistake of trusting a woman who’d survived by offering up children’s veins to monsters. Of course she’d offer up my body, too, if it meant saving her own neck.

“Come on, then,” the guard said, “give us a kiss.”

“Back behind the building,” Matri said. “If someone sees, we’ll all be punished.”

He nodded and walked around the side of the building farthest from the main entrance. Even though I knew sacrifices had to be made, I hadn’t expected to be the lamb.

Matri shoved me forward.

“No,” I gasped. “I don’t—”

“Hush, girl,” she hissed. “This is the only way.”

I allowed her to push me after the guard, but inside, every cell in my body rebelled against what I was about to do.

When we reached him, he moved excitedly from foot to foot. Matri urged me toward him and his hand shot out to pull me in.

He smelled of cabbage and sweat. His feral smile revealed grayed teeth, before he flicked a pale tongue at me. I gagged and fought the inevitable. My resistance only seemed to excite him.

I’d never kissed a boy before. Zed was the only available candidate I’d known, but he was too much like a brother to consider sharing kisses. Now, under the cold stare of the guard’s shark eyes, the idea that my first time would be with this human who’d betrayed his own people wasn’t bearable.

“No.” I pulled back, but ran into Matri’s surprisingly solid body blocking my escape. The guard’s hands tightened on my arm.

“No kiss, no ration card,” he taunted.

Behind us, the train hissed and chugged impatiently. If I didn’t hurry, the conductor would pull out of the station and we’d all be dead.

“Don’t be a fool, girl,” Matri hissed. “You’ll kill us all.”

I swallowed hard and licked my lips. The guard’s eyes flared. He leaned in. Matri’s hands urged me toward him. I didn’t want this, but I couldn’t be the reason the plan failed and we all died.

The instant I stopped resisting, my body slammed into the guard’s chest. Before I could regain my equilibrium, his rough mouth found mine and that pale tongue slithered between my lips. I gagged but couldn’t dislodge the invader. His hand clamped around my breast, and I whimpered against the pain.

Matri pulled me back and I stumbled out of the guard’s grasp. “We promised you a sample and you’ve had it,” she said.

The guard spat on the ground. “She better be more willing next time.”

I gagged at the thought of allowing him to touch me again, but then I remembered that if things went according to plan I’d never have to see him again.

“She’s a virgin,” Matri said. “Whether she’s willing or not, you’ll have fun, yes?”

He chuckled. “Five minutes, no more.”

Matri grabbed my arm and dragged me back to the platform. “Quickly,” she urged me. “And wipe your tears.”

I swiped at my eyes, more angry than afraid. “If this doesn’t work, I am not going behind the station with him.”

“Hush.” She squeezed my wrist. “You’ll do whatever is necessary to survive.”

I wanted to tell her I wasn’t like her. I’d never betray myself or anyone I cared about. But a voice in the back of my head wondered if being a martyr was better than living to fight another day. Either way, I didn’t have time to debate morals with Matri.

While I’d been enduring my first kiss behind the station, Wu and Cleo had snuck the children and several other prisoners onto the train. Elsewhere, Tuck’s people were placing dynamite throughout the camp. The plan was for them to catch up to the train before it crashed through the gates and the charges went off. When Tuck had agreed to the plan he’d had a weird little smile, like he was humoring us when he said he’d catch the train.

Wu waited for me on the platform. Matri ducked into one of the cars to check on the children, and I continued on with Wu toward the engine. According to Meridian Six, the train was engineered by a single vampire. Two human prisoners took turns shoveling coal into the engine.

I glanced back over my shoulder. The guard still hadn’t come back around the corner, but wisps of smoke told me he was sneaking a cigarette while he waited for me to return. I shuddered and sped up.

The door to the engine was open, and shouts emerged from inside. “Hurry, hurry. We have to stay on schedule, maggots.”

Wu and I exchanged a look. My hand itched for a weapon, but it had been too risky for me to carry one for my meeting with the guard. Luckily, Wu had a knife he’d made from the handle of an old comb. I resented being used as bait again, but Wu’s size made him the smarter choice to be the killer.

At Wu’s nod, I took a deep breath and stepped into the doorway. “Excuse me—”

I broke off as I took in the scene inside the engine. A short, round vampire in a conductor’s cap had a hand raised as if to slap one of the two humans huddled in the corner by a large coal bin. As one, all three turned to look at me.

“Who are you?” the vampire demanded.

“Excuse me, but the station master told me they needed to see you in the office before you go.”

He lowered his hand slowly. “I got a schedule to keep.”

I kept my posture meek and apologetic. “Sorry, sir, they said it was urgent.”

He turned his back on the two humans and advanced toward me. Despite his small stature, his angry expression told me he had every intention of punishing me for interrupting the beating he’d meant for his prisoners. I glanced over his head at the pair. With their tormentor’s back turned, they stood a little straighter. I raised my brows at them and prayed they understood the signal, but before I could move, the conductor’s fist slammed into my belly.

I gasped and doubled over. The second blow landed on the side of my head.

“I told you I had a schedule to keep.” More blows punctuated his words, but his voice remained calm, as if violence was simply a language to him, instead of the product of anger.

A blur of motion signaled Wu’s arrival. He pushed me out of the way and went at the conductor with his makeshift knife. Male grunts and the wet sound of Wu stabbing the conductor’s fat belly filled the engine.

“Start it up,” Wu shouted.

I turned to the pair of prisoners. “Help me.”

The stared at me blankly, as if they didn’t understand the words. I shouted at them, “Coal, now!” The anger in my voice seemed to help them understand what I wanted. While casting curious glances at the fight, they scooped piles of coal into the firebox.

The engine’s control panel lay before me like some sort of alien technology. Before the Blood Wars, humans got around on high-speed, electric trains run by computers. But once the vampires took over, they shunned most human technology, worried we might be able to take them over in the same way they had overthrown us. So it was back to basics with modified coal engines of their own designs. The panel in front of me didn’t have any handy digital monitors with instructions. Instead a series of handles and knobs with no labels mocked me.

“Bravo,” Wu yelled. “Any time now.”

A glance over my shoulder revealed that Wu had the vampire pinned to the wall. The vamp’s torso was a mural of bloody stab wounds, but he wasn’t dead. He wouldn’t die without his brain being destroyed somehow, and Wu’s little knife couldn’t get that job done. His only choice was to keep the vampire so wounded he couldn’t stop us.

I grabbed one of the humans. He was taller than me, but backbreaking labor and starvation had wasted him to little more than skin stretched taut over bones. “How do I make the train go?”

His eyes were blackened, as if he’d withstood a recent beating. Those twin black holes blinked slowly at me. I shook him. “The train? How do I make it move?” I dragged him toward the panel. “Which one?”

He looked at the panel and back at my face. Maybe at one time he’d been a person with dreams and a family. Maybe he’d told jokes with his friends and laughed so hard his sides hurt. But now, the lights were on but the house was abandoned. I grabbed his arms and shook him. “Listen to me, if you help us, you’ll be free. Understand?”

Behind us, the only sounds were the wet slurp of knife to open wound and the methodical whoosh of coal sliding into the furnace. The man next to me with the blackened hands and the empty eyes didn’t move. In my gut, fear and frustration boiled over into rage. I slapped him, hard.

He didn’t blink, he didn’t shy away, and he didn’t speak. I shoved him out of the way because I couldn’t stand to look at him anymore. I should have felt guilty, but I didn’t. Guilt could come later, when I had the luxury of a conscience again.

“Bravo, we’re running out of time,” Wu said.

“I’m on it,” I snapped. Giving the panel all of my attention, I stared hard at each button and knob. None were labeled, of course, but after a moment I realized that one of the buttons was more worn down than all the others. I punched it and a loud hissing sound immediately filled the air. The prisoner pushed me out of the way.

“You’re gonna make it explode,” he said.

I was so shocked to hear him talk, I fell back out of his way.

He grabbed a lever and wound it several times. “The reverser,” he said. He moved another lever. “Release the break and wait for the valve to reach enough pressure.”

We both watched the valve reach twenty-one. He nodded. “Release the throttle. Easy, now, don’t want to flood it with steam.”

I nodded and released the throttle a couple of inches. The train lurched forward. I yelped from both surprise and excitement. “Thanks, uh, sorry, I don’t know your name.”

He smiled, revealing lots of gums but few teeth. “Stellen.”

“Faster,” Wu yelled. He’d stopped stabbing the vampire but still had his hands full holding him down.

I turned to my new ally. “How do we make it go fast?”

He rejoined his friend by the firebox and began shoveling again. With double the coal, the train gradually started moving faster, but nowhere near fast enough to barrel through the large gate looming a quarter mile ahead.

“More coal!” I called. “We have to get through the gates.”

“It won’t be enough,” Stellen said. “We need more fuel. The coal takes too long to build speed.”

“Any suggestions?” I asked.

He tipped his head toward the door. “Fat is fuel.”

I gritted my teeth and turned to Wu. He raised his brow, leaving the final call up to me.

Suddenly, I realized I had a lot more in common with Matri than I’d expected. Because faced with my own death or making another person suffer, I took the easy road. “Throw him in.”

BOOK: Children of Ash: A Meridian Six Novella
13.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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