Authors: Jaye Wells
ery little light
penetrated the tiny cracks in the railcar’s walls. The rhythmic sound of the train’s wheels bouncing over the tracks would have been soothing had those wheels not been taking us closer to the vampire work camp with each passing second. Zed’s rapid breathing and the echo of my heartbeat pounding in my own ears were the only other sounds.
The car we’d ended up inside held several crates of supplies. As promised, one of them turned up two of the blue uniforms required for all prisoners of the Krovgorod camp. On the right breast of each was embroidered the downward-pointing arrow that the Troika used to identify humans of less desirable blood types.
“How did Saga manage this?” Zed asked.
“Where Saga is concerned, I’ve found it’s best not to ask.”
He accepted this with a nod, and, for a moment, we both stared down at the uniforms that would transform us from rebels into prisoners.
According to Icarus, prisoners were issued uniforms upon their induction into the camps and would have to wear the same one for six weeks before new ones were issued. If a prisoner died from illness or injury, the head prisoner in the deceased’s barracks was allowed to distribute the old uniform to anyone who needed it most. Icarus claimed people died so commonly it was rare for anyone to go the entire six weeks without a new uniform.
Zed and I donned our uniforms in silence. Once we had them on, I threw our clothes out the door of the train to remove any traces of us. The camp uniform was the cleanest and newest clothing I’d worn since I’d escaped the Troika months earlier. I’d been wearing the too-big pants, too-tight shoes, and dirty work shirt for months. I’d stolen them from Saga’s junkyard after the dress the Sisters of Crimson had given me got too dirty to salvage. How long ago had it been since Sister Agrippa helped me escape into the tunnels? I’d lost track of the days and weeks since I’d escaped the Troika and landed in the rebels’ clutches.
“How long until we reach the camp?” Zed whispered.
I moved toward another crate, where I found two pairs of gray canvas sneakers. Mine were too big but they were a blessing after the heavy but tight boots I’d worn before. “When we get there, remember to stay hidden until the first prisoners come in to start unloading. We’ll blend into the group and help unload until we can steal away to the barracks.”
“What if we get split up?”
“Icarus said children under the age of twelve are all kept in a separate barracks, overseen by a few female prisoners. If we get separated, we’ll meet up there.”
He didn’t say anything, but even in the dim light, I noted the sweat beading his brow and the shallow rise and fall of his chest. I put my hand on his shoulder. “This will work. It will. We just can’t lose our nerve. If the vamps smell fear on us, we’re toast.”
“Won’t all the humans be afraid?”
“They’ll be too busy trying to hang on to life to be afraid.”
He thought about this for a moment before nodding. His nostrils flared as he drew in a deep, bracing breath. “Just promise me one thing.”
“If anything happens to me, save Bravo and Mica. Even if you have to leave me behind.”
I’d been expecting him to ask me to promise not to leave him. Instead, he wanted me to sacrifice him to save the people he considered his family. I heard the words clearly but they didn’t quite register as a concrete idea in my head. The thought of martyring myself for anyone was so foreign he might as well have made his request in Russian or Aramaic. Was there anyone alive that I’d sacrifice myself for?
. The name popped into my head so fast I didn’t have time to consciously realize I’d been the one to think it. Icarus and Dare had had my back a few times and I theirs, but if shit went down I’d save myself over them every time. But Rabbit was different. In the months since I’d joined the rebels, I’d grown to care for the scamp as if he was my own younger sibling—or child. Like the child the Troika had ripped from my belly because it had the misfortune to lose the genetic lottery and have a desirable blood type. I’m sure the psychologists who worked back before the Blood Wars would have had a field day analyzing that relationship, but I didn’t give a damn. I would put myself in front of a bullet to make sure that kid had a chance at a future. He was the only one, though.
But Zed? He had protected and worried about Bravo and the children under his care for years, like a father, despite his young age. I couldn’t begin to imagine the protective instincts I had for Rabbit increased by a factor of years and multiplied by seven souls.
“I told you I’d do everything in my power to avoid having to make that kind of choice on this mission.”
His hand touched mine. “Meridia—”
I flinched. Hearing my Troika name—the one the rebels now used to rally humans to their cause—coming from his mouth was like a slap. I didn’t want him to see me like that. Like the pawn everyone else believed me to be.
“What’s wrong?” His voice was low, as if in the dim light everything took on the import of a secret.
“Can you call me Carmina?”
“Is that your real name?” he asked carefully.
I suddenly felt like the awkward one. “Meridian Six is what the vamps called me.”
He paused for a moment. “Carmina it is, then.”
I didn’t trust myself to speak. There was something about this guy—a kindness—that I wasn’t used to and wasn’t sure I wanted to get too comfortable with.
“What I was going to say was whether we want to make tough choices or not, we’ll have to make them. It’s inevitable. I need you to promise me that you will get my family out of the camp.”
“I said I would,” I snapped. Just like that, the fragile bubble that had surrounded us imploded. “But you need to understand that blowing up that mine is my ticket to freedom. It has to be my priority.”
His silence damned me.
“Don’t you get it?” I carried on. “That’s why I agreed to let you come. You focus on getting your family out and I’ll focus on getting my freedom. We both win.”
He smiled at me, but the expression was patronizing rather than agreeable. I suddenly felt like the worst sort of failure before the damned mission had even begun. Luckily, a hot flare of anger burned that shame off quickly. “Don’t look at me like that,” I said, my voice lowering to a mean register. “You don’t know me or what I’ve been through.”
“I know enough to know that you’re a damned fool if you think Icarus and Saga are going to let you go if you succeed.”
I crossed my arms. “What the hell does that mean?”
“It means that if you manage to blow up that mine, it will only make you a more powerful tool for the rebels. You think they’re using you now? Just wait until they can parade you in front of hungry humans as the woman who took down Krovgorod.”
I turned away from him. A large gap between two boards in the car’s wall gave me something to stare at to avoid my discomfort. The void was filled with a blurry landscape of the Badlands—a desolate landscape of gray dirt and skeletal trees. For an instant I thought it looked a lot like how I felt inside: barren. I wanted to yell at Zed and tell him he didn’t know what he was talking about. Icarus and Saga would keep their word. They had to. The alternative was unthinkable—
Cold air from the opening lashed at my face. The thin material of the prisoner’s uniform did little to protect my skin from the temperature. I looked down at the ground speeding by. At my feet, which were only eighteen inches from freedom.
“Carmina.” Zed’s voice was quiet, as if he worried that a louder tone would startle me into action. “Don’t even think about it.”
It would be so easy. So simple. So final. No more scratching out a pitiful existence, and for what? In the vain hope that one day I’d know the sweet flavor of freedom? I’d been so young when the vampires enslaved us that I couldn’t say I even knew what it tasted like. I imagined it tasted a lot like grapefruits—like sunshine and sweetness. But I was lying to myself, wasn’t I? Because if I were being honest, I’d also admit that there was plenty of sour too.
Freedom meant I couldn’t blame anyone else for how shitty my life was. It meant I had to make my own decisions. God, I was so tired.
“Carmina.” A warm hand touched my arm. A single spot of heat in a world gone totally cold. “Come here.”
I looked away from the blur of gray to the face of this boy I barely knew but was now bound to for survival.
“We can do this,” he said. His hand squeezed my arm. The touch felt real, more real than the nightmare out there—the desolation, the gray, the dead-end world. “We can and we will.”
I turned my head to look out the door again, but his hand grabbed my chin, refusing to let me be wooed by the promise of nothingness. He turned my chin, forcing me to look at him. “You have more power than you know.”
I jerked back out of his grasp. “You don’t know me.”
“I know that you use tough words to hide your fear. I know that you want nothing to do with fighting. I know that you fight anyway because it’s not in your nature to surrender.”
I looked away, my cheeks heating with shame.
“You wouldn’t have done it,” he said.
“How do you know?” I asked, looking at my feet.
“Because you could have killed yourself a thousand times while you were in the hands of the Troika. And since then, you know damned well no one could stop you if it’s what you really wanted.” He let those words sink in for a few moments. “But I also know that even if I’m right about Saga and Icarus, you will still find a way to claim the freedom you want so badly.”
I laughed, but the sound had no humor to it. “Oh yeah? How will I manage that?”
He shrugged. “Only one way to find out—unless you’re too scared to try.”
I’d only known Zed for a couple of days, but already he’d figured out the best way to motivate me. I hated him for that as much as I appreciated the kick in the ass. No matter what happened once we reached the camp, I wouldn’t let anyone tell me how to live anymore. I just had to survive long enough to be able to flip everyone the bird before I walked away.
he train arrived
at sunrise two days later.
I’d just started getting used to the reverse sleeping schedule, so when Matri shook me awake just after dawn, I had trouble reaching full consciousness.
“Rise and shine,” she whispered. “We have to take some of the children and go unload the train.”
The train meant meat, clean uniforms, and other rations. It was daytime, so our work unloading the cars would be overseen by some of the human guards, who I’d discovered were more sadistic than the vampires.
Since my talk with Matri, we’d been busy studying ways that we could make an escape possible. This involved stockpiling some supplies under the floorboards of the barracks and informing the other prisoners that they needed to be on the lookout for signs a breakout was imminent. The only problem was I had no idea what form those signs would come in—or when.
Beyond that, I’d spent most of the previous two days keeping an eye on Mica. Matri had made sure he hadn’t been drained of too much blood for his first bleeding, and also got him extra rations to restore his strength quickly. Granted, those extra rations were just extra potatoes, but it was better than what most of the prisoners had.
The human guard Matri called Judas stood outside the barracks with two other guards to lead us to the warehouse next to the train track. It wasn’t a long walk to the depot, but the guards took us through a part of camp I’d yet to see. The entrance to the mines was located in the northernmost quadrant. We passed nearby, and for the first time I saw the yawning black hole that swallowed most of the camp’s workers every night and day. Even though most of the activity in the camp happened at night, the miners dug and scraped and hauled twenty-four hours a day.
As we passed, a train that looked vaguely like a centipede was chugging toward the hole. Workers, their skin perpetually blackened from coal dust, packed the seats and stared grimly into the mine, which gaped like an empty eye socket.
The previous shift emerged from the hole in a single-file line. Their hair, their skin, and their uniforms—all black. Only their eyes, painfully white, gave any relief to the all-black canvas.
My steps faltered as I gawped, but I quickly received the stab of a gun muzzle to my back as a reminder to keep moving. Honestly, I was relieved to leave them behind. Those artificially bright orbs set in pitch-black faces would haunt my dreams. Even if they got free from the camp, there’s no way they’d live long enough to enjoy their freedom. They were the walking dead.
Soon enough, we reached the warehouse that was set on a raised platform next to the train tracks. The last time I’d been there was the day we arrived at the camp in cattle cars. This train wasn’t here to deliver people, but supplies, so they were all solid metal shipping cars.
A handful of humans whose camp jobs fell under more administrative labor were standing on the platform with clipboards bearing shipping manifests. They directed the workflow for us and all the other prisoners who had been recruited to unload the train. Matri took a small group of children toward the livestock car to begin the process of counting heads of pigs and chickens. Meanwhile, I was instructed to take my group of children toward a car filled with uniforms. We were to count the boxes inside and report them to the administrators before delivering the uniforms to the warehouse for storage.
The door to our car was already cracked open. I thought nothing of this as I pushed it open and shooed the children inside, eager to get started. I’d spent the previous day helping the youngs pick potatoes, and the change of pace appealed to me.
I’d taken two steps inside when a high gasp sounded from one of the children. Before I could locate the source of the sound, an arm wrapped around my throat. Then a woman’s voice—low and mean—hissed in my ear. “Do not scream.”
I swallowed against the knot of fear in my throat but managed to nod.
“Good. Now tell the brats to calm the fuck down. We’re not going to hurt you unless the guards come running.”
I looked across the way to where the three children I’d brought into the car huddled together, whimpering. I held a finger to my lips. Meanwhile, my brain was spinning, trying to catch up. If this person was worried about the guards coming then she wasn’t a friend of the Troika’s. But was she an ally?
“I’m Bravo,” I said.
A shadow moved to my right. A male shape emerged from behind two crates. A shaft of light cut through the open doors and caught his face.
I nearly collapsed in relief, but the damned arm against my windpipe tightened. “Not so fast.”
“Six,” Zed hissed. “It’s her—this is Bravo.”
The arm suddenly disappeared and I stumbled. Zed’s arms crushed me to him. I didn’t fall apart. No sobs broke free from my chest. But I grabbed onto him so hard that he finally whispered in an amused tone, “You’re hurting me.”
I pulled back a few inches to see that his eyes were shiny with tears. “Pussy,” I said.
He chuckled and pulled me in for another hug. “I’m so glad you’re alive.” He pushed me back again to look at my face. “Mica?”
I bit my lip. It was too soon to tell him about the bleeding, but technically the young was okay as could be, given the situation. “He’s okay. We’ve been taken in by a woman who oversees the child laborers.” My stomach twisted with excitement and fear. Excitement because I never would have imagined Zed would come so fast, but fear because his arrival meant things had just gotten way more dangerous for everyone. “I told her you’d come.” I grabbed his shoulders and squeezed. “I knew you’d come for us.”
The corner of his mouth lifted in a wobbly sideways grin. “I’m sorry it took so long. I was worried you’d already broken out.”
An annoyed-sounding throat cleared behind us. “If the touching reunion is over, we’ve got work to do.”
I turned to look at the woman who’d had me in a headlock. From the physical assault and the bitchiness, I figured she’d be six feet tall and ugly. Turns out I was half right. She was barely taller than me—probably five-eight, but she looked like someone had beaten her with the ugly stick. Pale scalp peeked out between the dark stubble on her head. Her right eye was swollen almost totally shut. The other one had fared only slightly better, in that it was swollen but a bloodshot pupil was clearly visible. Her lip was split and her jaw was covered in purple bruises. The wounds distorted her face too much to tell what she’d looked like before she lost the fight.
“Who the hell are you?” I asked.
She snorted. “I’m Carmina.”
Zed stiffened next to me, and I looked up at him to see what was wrong. He gave the female a look I couldn’t read. She just cocked her head at him, as if in challenge. Finally, she looked at me. “And you’re Bravo.”
I nodded toward her swollen face. “Who beat your ass?”
“Someone a lot tougher than you, little girl.”
“All right,” Zed said. “I swear, if you both had dicks you’d be measuring them.”
I didn’t like this Carmina. I knew this was not a rational reaction to have about someone who had come to help save my ass, so I decided to push down my hostility. “Sorry, it’s been a shitty week,” I said.
Her lips quirked into a smile, as if I’d surprised her. And just like that, the tension dissipated. “How many guards?” She nodded toward the door.
“Three. Humans. All have rifles.”
She nodded. “We’ll wait until the unloading gets under way and blend into the crowd.”