Authors: Jaye Wells
n hour later
, we entered Matri’s domain. Sneaking off the train was easier than I’d expected, but the human guards who made up the Troika’s day shift were lazy fools. They leaned against the train depot like slugs, smoking cigarettes and gossiping like old ladies. Bravo had led us and the children into the warehouse to deliver the boxes of uniforms before leading us right out the back door.
We’d met Matri on the path to the barracks. She’d given each of us a once-over with her miss-nothing gaze and nodded. “All right,” she said. “All right.”
Then she’d lowered her head to listen to one of the children. She’d listened to the girl as if the young was an oracle delivering our fates when in fact she’d only been asking Matri when they’d have their next meal. “Soon, sugar. Soon.” Then she’d run her hand over the child’s greasy hair and smiled like they were in a park on a picnic instead of walking through a death camp.
Sure, Icarus had told me that Krovgorod was a labor camp. He’d explained how the mining operation worked and how the rest of the prisoners each had shifts in different sections of the camp, but being there put the entire operation in a different light. For one thing, the people were walking corpses. So thin. And their skin was either gray from the constant plume of ashes from the main warehouse’s furnaces or pitch black from the coalmines.
The barracks she led us to wasn’t much larger than the train car we’d so recently abandoned. The wooden structure was filled with rows of rough-hewn bunk beds. The air stank of body odor and urine. There was no light. No hope. It was little better than a tomb. Stepping inside, I looked at Zed, who’d gone pale. He shot a look at Bravo, who tried to smile, but it came out wobbly, as if she was ashamed for us to see how they’d been living.
But instead of pity, I felt anger. Icarus had warned me the conditions would be bad—subhuman. But nothing prepared me to see thirty-odd children living like livestock in a wooden pen. Their dirty faces had long forgotten how to smile and as they watched us enter, their faces were blank, as if they’d also forgotten how to hope.
“I’ve sent a couple of the children to round up the camp leaders.”
I walked to a long wooden table near the front of the room. My fingers itched for a gun. The minute I’d walked into that room I’d lost the illusion of being a tourist in the camp. The instant Zed and I had revealed ourselves, we’d committed to being prisoners too. I just hoped it was a temporary situation rather than a permanent one.
Zed didn’t join me at the table. Instead, he joined Bravo and a small boy. He knelt down so the kid, who couldn’t have been older than ten, could squeeze his arms around Zed’s neck. As the boy reached for him, I spotted wounds on the inside of his elbow. Perfect little puncture marks like a needle—or fangs—would make.
The sight made my stomach cramp with disgust. The guards didn’t waste their time helping themselves to the fresh blood.
Matri saw me staring and sidled closer. “What’s your name?
I glanced at her, surprised she didn’t recognize me, but then I remembered the state of my face. “Carmina.”
Her eyes widened. “Carmina Sargosa?” she whispered, looking around to be sure no one else heard.
I froze. “You’ve heard that name?” Most of the humans I’d run into had heard of Meridian Six because of the Troika’s propaganda campaign. Carmina Sargosa—the name my mother had given me—was a name even the rebels refused to use because they believed it lacked the power of my Troika-given name.
Matri nodded. “I’ve seen your face every day for the last decade.” A rueful look crept over her face. “Although I wouldn’t have recognized you looking like this.”
I touched the bruises on my cheek. “We were afraid the guards would recognize me.”
She nodded. “Smart. You two got a plan?”
Her segue was so abrupt it took me a moment to respond. “Blow shit up and run.”
She laughed out loud. “No, really.”
I stared at her long enough for it to sink in that I wasn’t joking.
“Where are your bombs, then, girl?”
“The mines. Someone has to know where the dynamite is kept.”
Matri snorted. “We all know where they are. You think we don’t? The problem is getting past the bats and the guards.”
“Look, I got a train and a plan to blow up the mines. You got a better plan, I’d like to hear it.”
She crossed her arms. “Thought you’d come with more.”
“Lady, do you have any idea the risk we took just sneaking the two of us inside?”
“I do,” she said. “I just hope it’s enough. Because if we don’t figure out how to get out of here by sundown, you’re going to be joining our little resort permanently.”
I frowned. “Why sundown?”
“When the vampires emerge from their underground bunkers at sundown, the first thing they do is take a roll call of all the prisoners.”
Cold sweat broke out on my back. Icarus hadn’t mentioned that detail. “Shit.”
“You got that right, girlie.” She started to say something else, but at that moment, three other people walked in the door. A very tall man of Asian origin entered first. The woman was unremarkable except for the bright red skin of her hands. The second man worked in the mines, which I knew instantly from the artificial blackness of his skin.
“Ah, here they are,” Matri said, moving to greet them. “This is Wu.”
The Asian guy came forward. “My name is Alex. Everyone here just calls me Wu because they’re ignorant.”
I ignored the jab at his fellow prisoners. “Nice to meet you, Alex.”
Matri snorted, as if she thought he was joking, but it was clear from his expression he was not. “Anyway, this is Cleo, she runs the wash house, where they clean the guard’s uniforms.” I nodded to the woman with red hands as Matri turned to the final man. “And this is Tuck, he obviously works the mines.”
He tipped down his chin, but made no other move to greet me. It was hard not to stare at his black skin and white eyes, so I forced my gaze to return to Matri.
“This is Carmina Sargosa. You may have heard her called Meridian Six.”
My stomach dipped. I’d hoped to keep my real identity a secret. If any of the guards caught us and found out who I really was, this was going to go from dangerous to downright suicidal. “Actually, it’s probably best if we all avoid mentioning that.”
Before Matri could respond, Alex spoke. “The Troika’s whore? What the hell is she doing here, Matri? She’s a spy.”
“No,” I said, “I’m not. I escaped the Troika months ago and went underground. I’ve been working for the rebels ever since.” There was no point asking if any of them had heard about the attack on the factory. I was pretty sure the Troika would do everything in their power to keep the prisoners from hearing any news from the outside—especially when it involved embarrassment for the vampires.
“She’s telling the truth,” Zed said, coming over to join us. “After Bravo and the youngs were taken by a Troika patrol, I went to Saga.”
Murmurs spread through the room. Clearly the Scribe’s reputation was well known.
“He’s the one who asked Carmina to help me infiltrate the prison.”
Alex looked skeptical. “How many are in your army? Are they outside the walls?”
Zed’s face fell. “You don’t understand. There is no army. It’s just us.”
Silence descended over the barracks. Alex, Cleo, and Tuck all looked to Matri as if wanting her to confirm Zed was joking. She just shrugged.
“Look,” I said, “we may not have an army, but we do have a plan.”
Tuck sighed. “Make it fast. I’m due on shift in half an hour.”
“We need to create a diversion. There’s dynamite in the camp somewhere, right? You have to use it for mining.”
“Don’t be crazy. The vamps would never let any of us near it. They use the human guards to do the blasting if it’s needed during the day.”
“So we’ll just have to convince one of the humans to give us the key.”
He shook his head. “With what weapons, girl? With what strength? We’re all half-starved.”
“We’ll use their weapons.”
Tuck waved a dismissive hand in my direction, but he didn’t speak to me. Instead, he tuned to Matri. “This is a waste of time.”
“We’re the only chance you got,” I said. “You think anyone else is coming for you?”
He stopped and looked at me. “Let’s say you get the dynamite. Then what? The front gates are locked fifteen ways to Sunday. Only open with permission from the camp director.”
“That gate won’t stand up against a train going full speed.”
He didn’t sound as impressed as I’d hoped. Instead he walked toward me. He looked like a living shadow of a man. “Tell me this, smart girl, how you gonna decide who stays and who goes?”
he girl had spunk
. You had to give her that. Unlike Bravo, who worked very hard to appear confident, Six wore her bravery like a comfortable second skin. But brave ain’t the same as smart.
“I said, how are you going to decide who stays or who goes?” Tuck repeated. “That train can only hold a couple hundred people. This camp has thousands of prisoners.”
Carmina remained silent, but her skin paled. Her eyes took on a hunted look, as if she hadn’t considered liberating the entire camp.
Like I said, brave ain’t the same as smart.
“Did you really expect us all to help you save yourselves while the rest of us stay behind?” I snorted. “You put all of us in danger just by being here. If the Troika catch you, we’ll all be punished.”
Behind me, worried chatter and panic rose on the air. I held up a hand. The chatter lessened but the panic was still palpable.
“We’ll take as many as we can,” Zed said.
The girl didn’t look in his direction. She was watching me, trying to decide if she could win me to her cause or if I was just another obstacle in her way.
“It does no one any good to take risks that doom all of us,” she said finally. “Trying to free everyone will be impossible. When we fail, the Troika will kill all of us.”
I crossed my arms. “Why shouldn’t we just kill you right now?”
Zed stepped forward, his shoulders back and his hands curled into fists. That one was a fighter. Too bad he wouldn’t live long enough to prove it.
“Killing us only guarantees you’ll all die in this camp.”
“I already made peace with that, girl.”
“If we can get out of here alive, we’ll be able to make a plan for a more focused attack. Raise enough of an army to make a real liberation attempt.”
“An army?” I laughed. “Sweetheart, the workers in this camp outnumber the vampires fifty to one. We have superior numbers, but they have the weapons, the power, and every other advantage over us. It’s not an army we need. It’s a miracle.”
Six threw up her hands. “So you’re going to lie down and die? You’ve given up? Fine. That’s your choice. I’m leaving with those children tonight. If you want to help, fine. We’ll take everyone out of here that we can. But you’re never going to convince me that it’s better to surrender than to try, damn it.”
The room fell silent. The pressure of dozens of expectant stares weighed against my skin.
“There might be a way to save the rest of the prisoners,” Tuck said.
I glanced at him in surprise.
He smiled. “The minute y’all take that train, the guards are gonna swarm you like angry wasps.”
“Yeah, so?” I said.
“So the distraction might give the rest of us time to hide in the mines. There’s water and air shafts down there. Could probably survive a couple of days if y’all come back to help us.”
The room fell silent as this sunk in.
Finally, Zed said, “That might work. You’ll be protected from the explosions and we can come back to dig you out once the vamps are cooked.”
“This is a pipe dream,” I said. “You’ll die in those mines and the rest of you will die trying to make a break for it.” I shook my head. “I used to have hope too.” I sighed to release the pressure of disappointment in my chest. “I had it back when I was young and thought that life would work out for me if I only wanted it badly enough. But then I grew up and realized that those stories of heroism we were raised on were just fictions created to fool us into believing life is worth the trouble.”
“If you really think that, why are you still here?”
“You mean, why haven’t I killed myself?”
“Because I’m too stubborn to prove them right.”
I nodded toward the door. “The vampires. They want us to believe that we don’t matter. If I give up the only things I have left—the air in my lungs, the blood in my veins—then I’m only proving them right.”
Zed stepped into the conversation, forming the third point of a triangle. “Then help us.”
“What’s in it for me?”
Six raised her chin. “They crave our surrender. They want us to give up our blood, our lives, our hope. I say we show them that humanity still has some fight left in it. If we’re going to die anyway, let it happen with our feet on the ground and our fists flying.”
Behind Six, Cleo was rubbing her red hands together. Tuck’s white teeth flashed as he chewed contemplatively on his lower lip. Only Wu looked unmoved by the girl’s passionate speech. His expression was as skeptical as it had been from the minute the conversation started.
I raised an eyebrow and watched Cleo for a reaction. When it came, the nod was almost too subtle to see, but then she glanced at Tuck, whose lips spread to reveal aggressively bright teeth, gleaming like stars against a night sky.
Something tugged at the hem of my tunic. Little Finn looked up at me. He was only as tall as my waist and barely wider than one of the floor planks. “Matri,” he said, “are we really going to leave?”
The backs of my eyeballs stung and my chest tightened painfully. This was crazy. I wasn’t ready for this. I’d spent the last several years in survival mode. Trying to do whatever it took to keep the children alive and curry favor with the vampires and the traitors to buy us some time. But now I realized I’d been buying time for this. Buying time for something—or someone—to come along and give us a reason to hope again.
I placed a hand on little Finn’s head and smiled at him even though emotion was making my lips tremble. “We’re done here.”
Whether we were leaving the camp for the outside world or leaving our mortal bodies, I didn’t know. I just finally understood that taking this risk was better than extending the dead-end lives we’d all been living.
I looked at Meridian Six, whose own eyes were red, as if she’d been dealing with a sting of her own. “All right,” I said. “What’s the plan?”