Children of Ash: A Meridian Six Novella (4 page)

BOOK: Children of Ash: A Meridian Six Novella
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Eight

M
eridian Six

C
hildren’s laughter
bounced off the corridor’s packed-dirt walls. On my way to my sleeping cell, I paused to listen.

It had been so long since I’d heard such a happy sound. In the barracks where I’d been raised, there had been lots of other children, but very little laughter. Now, I sometimes got to enjoy the gift of Rabbit’s giggles, but his voice was already changing into the deep chuckle of an almost-man.

Edging forward, I peeked around the corner into the room where the sound originated. Zed waved his arms to punctuate his animated voice as he told the children a story. The candle in the center of the circle illuminated their faces and made their eyes twinkle with wonder…or was it adoration?

My stomach clenched. Maybe it was my exhaustion or the stress of the conversation with Saga, or maybe it was seeing such unfamiliar innocence in such a dark place, but the scene depressed me. Something like a clenched fist unfurled in my chest and tears rushed to my eyes.

I fell back before any of the children or Zed could see me and ran down the hall to my room. By the time I reached the doorway, the tears fell freely.

Closing the door behind me, I turned to indulge in the privacy of the dark room. But a light flared in the corner—a single match floated through the air, carried by a hand, to light a hunk of wax in a metal holder. Once the wick caught the flame, light illuminated Icarus’s scarred face.

Luckily, the meager light didn’t extend to my side of the room, charitably leaving me in shadow long enough to swipe at my eyes and nose with my sleeve. Icarus squinted at the sound of sniffling. “You’re crying?”

I shook my head. “Not really. Just tired.”

He nodded to dismiss the topic. “We need to talk.”

“Can it wait?” I’d hoped he’d take the hint and leave me alone. Apparently it was just not my lucky night. Hell, it wasn’t my lucky
life
.

He limped forward. With the light behind him, I couldn’t see the scars on the side of his face and body, and he looked almost handsome. “Afraid not.” He nodded toward the cot and waited until I was settled to pull over a stool for himself.

The dim light and the close quarters created unwanted intimacy. I folded my legs in front of me on the bed to gain some distance.

“What’s up?” I sounded brittle, but I was too tired to disguise it.

“We have to talk Saga out of his plan.”

I didn’t bother asking him how he knew. Despite his dramatic exit from the conversation, I should have known better than to assume he wouldn’t eavesdrop.

“I refused.”

A lazy laugh escaped his lips. “We both know he’ll convince you tomorrow.”

“I would have thought you’d love the idea of killing Dr. Death.”

“I would if I thought it was possible. Saga means well, but he hasn’t been on the inside. Hasn’t seen what Dr. Death is capable of. Even if you could get inside and kill him, which is highly unlikely, you’d have no chance of escaping the camp.”

“You escaped.”

He lifted his ruined left arm. “Barely. And that was just me. You’re talking about getting at least two other people out with you.” He shook his head to indicate the mere idea was futile at best.

“Look, I already said I’m not interested. There’s no point arguing about whether his plan can work.”

“Okay, all right.” He rubbed the scars on his left forearm with the palm of his good hand. “You can’t let him intimidate you.”

Now it was my turn to laugh. “That’s funny, coming from you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’ve done nothing but threaten and coerce me since the moment Sister Agrippa introduced us in the tunnels under the convent.”

“You don’t get it, do you?”

I shrugged.

“If you die, every hope of defeating the Troika goes with you. Have him send that kid alone, I don’t care. But you’re not going.”

Cold spread from my scalp to my chest. I wasn’t sure what I’d been hoping he would say, but telling me the only reason he wanted me alive was for his precious rebellion? For someone so set on saving the human race, he was incredibly mercenary when it came to caring for individuals.

“I get it,” I snapped.

He frowned and leaned forward. “Why are you angry with me? I’m trying to save your life.”

“No,” I said, standing. He had to lean back to get out of my way. “You’re trying to save the rebellion.” I opened the door. “I’m tired.”

He froze and watched me for a few moments, as if I were a riddle he was trying to unravel. Finally, he slapped his hands on his thighs before rising. “Just promise me you’ll be strong tomorrow.”

I looked him in the eyes as he approached. “I’m always strong, Icarus.”

He met my gaze steadily. When he spoke his voice was unexpectedly soft. “I know you are.”

With that, he brushed past me and disappeared down the corridor like a ghost.

I slammed the door harder than I’d intended, but it felt so good that I didn’t regret it. Using dry fingers, I pinched the wick to snuff out the flame. The bite of pain felt good too.

Plopping onto the cot, I realized Icarus had done me a huge favor. As usual, talking to him made me so angry I forgot to feel sorry for myself.

I settled back against the wall and began to formulate my plan.

Nine

Z
ed

A
door slammed
down the corridor just after I’d gotten the youngs settled onto their pallets on the floor.

“Pa?” Blue whimpered. She was still panicky after the run-in with the Troika and the loss of Bravo and Mica. I knelt beside her and made the appropriate little soothing sounds. One she’d settled back down, I went to lie on my own thin blanket.

Before the door slammed, I’d heard raised voices. One had been the girl’s—the one they called Meridian Six. The other sounded too young to be the old man, so I assumed it had come from the scarred man who’d stalked out of the book room earlier.

I rolled on my side and tried to calm my thoughts, but there would be no sleep for me. That I knew. What I did not know was how I was going to convince the old man to allow me to join the others on the mission.

After I’d left the book silo earlier, I’d snuck back down the corridor to listen to the conversation. I’d missed some of it, but heard the old man say that his real goal wasn’t to save Bravo and Mica but to kill someone he’d called Dr. Death. I’d been so angry at the time that I almost stormed into the room, but I’d managed to hold back. It was an argument I’d never have a chance of winning. Instead, I’d retreated back to the cell. While I’d told the youngs silly stories, my mind had been turning the situation over to come up with the solution.

I had to go to the camp with them.

It’d be a hard sell, I knew. First of all, Meridian refused to do the mission. And I’d seen enough of the scarred man’s reaction to the mere mention of the camp to know that he’d never make it. The other one—the vampire—wouldn’t be able to pose as a prisoner, either. From what I heard, there was a special camp set aside for vampires who betrayed the Troika. If Dare tried to blend into the population at the human work camp, she’d be found out immediately. Which meant the only person who could truly do the mission was Meridian Six. I had to convince her to agree to go to the camp and convince her to take me along for backup.

And if she refused, I’d have to fight until they gave me the information I needed to find the camp by myself.

I rolled over. Maybe I was just delaying the inevitable. The instant the Troika captured Bravo and Mica, I should have just gone into mourning instead of letting hope get ahold of me. There were so many obstacles—each more impossible than the last.

God, I was tired. For ten years, I’d managed to eke out an existence in the hell that our world had become. First on my own, then with Bravo and the youngs. In some ways life had been easier when it was just me to worry about, but it sure had been lonely. Taking care of the youngs wasn’t easy, but on quiet nights when one of them would look up at me with a trusting smile or curl their little warm body up to mine, I felt like I had a real purpose beyond just surviving. Knowing it was up to me to protect all those young lives gave me hope because it gave me a purpose.

So how in the hell could I lie there thinking I should give up on them when they needed me most? The idea of Mica at the mercy of those monsters, or Bravo facing down a group of guards to protect the youngs, was unbearable. My stomach burned hot with shame.

I rose from the floor, careful not to wake the children. I needed to move if I was going to puzzle through this. The corridor was dark and cold as I made my way to the book room. Maybe some part of me was hoping that being around all those written ideas and facts might inspire me. The war had wiped out most of the books before I could develop a love of reading, but my father had always had one in hand. Maybe I’d convince Saga to let me borrow one or two when all of this was done—if I survived.

A dim glow came from inside the book silo. I paused at the threshold and looked inside. At the large table in the center of the room, Meridian Six leaned over a large book and read by the light of a single candle.

She looked up just as I was making the decision to back out quietly. I froze, unsure whether she’d be angry or ambivalent about my presence.

“Couldn’t sleep?” she said, her voice scratchy with exhaustion.

I shook my head and took a tentative step inside the room. When she didn’t tell me to get out or shoot me a disgusted look, I walked the rest of the way to the table. “What are you reading?”

She sighed and tipped back in the chair with her arms behind her head. The movement made the fabric of her shirt tighten across her breasts and a sharp spear of lust stabbed my groin. I cleared my throat and moved behind a stack of books, pretending to read the title of the topmost cover.

“It’s a book of poetry.”

I looked up quickly. Her expression was too blank to not be a disguise for deeper emotion. “Anything good?”

The corner of her mouth turned up. “Don’t understand most of it. But there’s this one—” She cut herself off, as if she suddenly realized she’d been about to reveal something she’d rather keep hidden.

“Can I read it?”

She shrugged. “Knock yourself out.”

I pulled the book toward me, putting a finger between the pages so I could close the cover and read it. “
The Chicago Poems
by Carl Sandberg,” I read aloud. “Never heard of him. Was he famous?”

She shook her head. “Does it matter?” A catch in her voice made me look up. My vision had adjusted to the dark, and now I could finally see an unusual brightness in her eyes—the sheen of tears.

“I guess not,” I said. Our eyes locked and held for a few moments, and it felt like something passed between us, but I was too confused and tired and nervous to understand it.

The poem gave me the excuse I needed to back out of that look. I read the poem out loud, haltingly, because it had been too long since I’d read anything out loud to anyone.

T
hey Will Say

Of my city the worst that men will ever say

is this:

You took little children away from the sun

and the dew,

And the glimmers that played in the grass

under the great sky,

And the reckless rain; you put them between walls

To work, broken and smothered, for bread and wages

To eat dust in their throats and die empty-

hearted

For a little handful of pay on a few Saturday

nights.

B
y the time
I made it to the end, my voice burned against my throat and my eyes stung. I kept my head down, looking at the words that had unraveled the fragile grip I’d had on my emotions, on my fear. I bit my lip because I was ashamed for her to see me cry.

“Zed,” she said softly.

I swallowed hard and nodded, but did not look up.

“I will help you get them back.”

The words were said quietly, like a prayer. I didn’t dare look up because I knew if I did I would cry like a baby, and I would never be able to look her in the eye again. So I just nodded, closed the book softly, briefly placed a hand on the cover, and walked out of the room.

Ten

B
ravo

M
atri woke
me just after dusk. Her face leaned close to mine and her foul breath invaded my nostrils. I tried to shy away, but in the small bunk there was nowhere to hide from the stench of unwashed body and rotten teeth.

“Wake the children,” she said. “It’s time to work.”

I nodded, as much to end the conversation as to comply. Rising as quickly as I could in the cold, I went from bunk to bunk, waking the children. Mica gave me the most problem, but he wasn’t yet used to the reverse schedule kept in the camp. In the Badlands, we kept to a typical human schedule—rising early and sleeping not long after dark. But here, we existed at the whims of the vampires, which meant we’d be up all night and expected to grab as much sleep as we could during the day.

Once the youngs were lined up, Matri took over. She paced in front of them like a general inspecting his troops. “Mica will be with me today. The rest of you will be on garden and KP duty.”

I raised a hand to ask where she was taking Mica, but she shot me a warning look.

“Stick to your assigned areas. Do not leave unless Bravo, a guard, or I give you permission. You will be given scheduled bathroom breaks. Do not ask to go at any other time. What’s the final rule, children?”

All the children, except Mica, who was too new, spoke in unison: “Never let the guards see your fear.”

My stomach dropped. Mica’s eyes widened. I shook my head, hoping to reassure him.

Matri held up a hand. “Mica, do you understand the rules?” She cocked a brow and held a finger to her ear. Something about her tone and mannerisms made me wonder if she’d been a teacher before the war.

“Yes, Matri,” Mica whispered.

She smiled. “Very good, my dear. Listen to me and you will adjust to life here. Ignore me and you will find this place very inhospitable, indeed.” She looked at me, as if to let me know that applied to me, as well.

I wasn’t sure how anyone could ever adjust to being imprisoned. I already felt like a caged animal, ready to claw my skin off.

Matri left the children and pulled me aside. “There is a small plot of land behind the intake building. Put half of them to work harvesting potatoes. The other half will be in the kitchens, scrubbing and cooking. There’s a vampire there named Magda who will oversee them. Do whatever she says.”

M
agda turned
out to be about as charming as one would expect. She wore the trademark black and red uniform of a Troika guard and ran the kitchen like a colonel. Huge pots of potatoes boiled over large fires. Some of the children were in charge of stirring the cauldrons using huge paddles. The rest were stationed at massive sinks, where they scrubbed potatoes nonstop.

“It’s potato day, huh?” I said, trying to make conversation.

Her eyes narrowed, as if she suspected I was making fun of her. “Every day is potato day.” The words were delivered in a clipped Slavic accent.

“How do the workers stay strong if they only eat potatoes?”

Magda’s right eyelid twitched. I took a step back. “I’ll just go see how the gardeners are doing.”

As I walked away, she called out, “Train delivers monthly delivery of swine. Miners get meat rations once a week, everyone else eats protein every two weeks. Next train is expected in two days. Until then, potatoes.”

I looked over my shoulder. “If you need me I’ll be in the garden.”

The air was cold outside—a relief after the kitchen’s sweltering heat. But my relief was short-lived because the air was thick with ash, and the garden looked more like a graveyard than the source of nourishment.

Ten children spread out over the rows of low plants. Any green in the plants’ leaves was obscured by a generous coating of gray. Each child carried a burlap sack across their thin shoulders. As they moved down the rows, they filled the sacks with potatoes that were barely larger than pebbles. Once their bags were full, runners would take the sacks back to the kitchen, and new sacks were brought to the gatherers.

One of the runners was a boy named Ezekiel. From what I’d seen of his interactions with Matri, he was something of a leader among the children. I put his age around ten, which meant he was only a couple of years from being transferred to the mines. His shoulders still had the narrowness of boyhood and his eyes, impossibly large in his skeletal face, were shadowed with a knowledge too old and dark for his young body.

“Everything okay?” I asked, approaching him.

His eyes were on the children farther down the rows. “Yes, ma’am.”

“You can call me Bravo.” I bent down to try to catch his eyes, but he stared fixedly down the rows. “Ezekiel?”

“Yes, ma’—Bravo,” he said, correcting himself quickly.

“Where did Matri take Mica?”

His eyes skittered toward me but quickly moved back to their original position. “The barn.”

“Magda said there isn’t a shipment of pigs for a couple of days yet. Are there other animals to tend to?”

“You could say that.”

Something in his tone made my spine feel like it was crawling with fire ants. “Tell me.”

He angled his face to look up at me, as if trying to figure out if I could handle whatever he was going to say. I shook his shoulder to urge him on. Finally, he sighed. “They ain’t tending to any animals. They
is
the animals.”

I took off running before I made a conscious decision to do so. On some level, I was vaguely aware of Ezekiel’s voice shouting after me, telling me to come back. Then, louder voices, more commanding.
Halt! Halt
! I spurred my legs faster, pushing with everything I had toward the gray metal building on the opposite side of the field.

Halfway across, black figures swooped toward me from both sides like crows. Adrenaline spiked, giving me an added burst of speed. I broke out of the rows and across a flat section of dirt. Ahead, two guards were at attention on either side of a wide-open barn door. Along one of the gray corrugated walls, a line of guards stood, obviously waiting to go inside.

Pain exploded in my back. I flew forward and gravel scraped my exposed skin. A heavy weight landed on my back, forcing my face and stomach into the ground. The crows swarmed me. Rough hands were all over me, ripping me off the ground, pulling my limbs and scratching my skin.

I kicked and clawed as much as I was able, but the effort was futile. I couldn’t overcome a group of vampires. Especially when the scent of my blood heightened their excitement and their desire to inflict pain. The tide carried me toward the open doors, but before entering, they veered off to the left.

I craned my neck to see inside. Part of my brain tried to fight the urge, afraid of what I might see. But I had to know. Through the open doors, I saw large lights hanging in a room the size of an airplane hangar. A flash of a small white arm lashed to a table. A tube snaking from the vein in the crook of the elbow, sucking blood like a parasite. A tiny face, white and pinched in fear.

A tall male in black hospital scrubs bent over Mica. At the sound of commotion, he looked up from the arm he’d been inspecting. He wore a surgical mask and two black-marble eyes flashed dangerously when he saw me. It was like staring at Death himself.

“Bravo!” Mica screamed.

I fought. I fought with every ounce of strength in my being. But the hands restraining me were too strong. I turned my face up to the dark, ashen sky, and screamed my rage.

BOOK: Children of Ash: A Meridian Six Novella
7.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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