Children of Ash: A Meridian Six Novella (9 page)

BOOK: Children of Ash: A Meridian Six Novella
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Eighteen

Z
ed

T
he sun was too low
. After we’d convinced Matri and the others to help, we’d wasted too much time trying to adjust the original plan. It had been a necessary step, but every minute that passed took us closer and closer to the hour of doom, when the monsters crawled out of their bunkers.

After we’d made the plan, Six told me to work with Tuck on getting enough dynamite and slipped out the door. My decision to ignore her order took about two seconds. I chased her outside and stopped her before she could march off.

“I told you to talk to Tuck.” She jerked her arm out of my hand.

“Where are you going?”

“I have my own mission.” Her posture was stiff, as if she was bracing for a physical fight instead of just an argument.

“You’re going after Dr. Death?”

She met my eyes but didn’t speak.

“You can’t go alone.”

“Wrong. I
have
to go alone.”

“No you don’t. You don’t have to kill him at all. Let’s get the train loaded up and get the hell out of here before the vamps wake up.”

She placed a hand on my cheek. Her palm was calloused, but I found myself pressing into her touch because it had been so long since anyone had touched me with any sort of comfort. “You save your kids. Don’t worry about me.”

I jerked my head away from her touch. The patronizing edge to her tone pissed me off. “If you want to commit suicide, it’s your choice, but don’t act like you’re some sort of martyr here.”

She had the nerve to look wounded. “I-I’m not a martyr.”

“Bullshit. You know that’s exactly what Saga and Icarus want, don’t you? A glorious memory they can hold up to all the rebels to inspire them. Poor Meridian Six who died for the cause just like her mother.”

Pain exploded across my cheek before I realized she’d slapped me. The throbbing eased just as she spun and marched off toward the center of camp. “Six!” I repeated her name two more times. On the second try, she threw her middle finger up over her head and picked up speed.

I sighed and rubbed at my hot cheek. What the hell was I supposed to do now? My legs itched like maybe I should chase her, but my pride reminded me that if I chased her it would be like admitting I was wrong. I was not wrong. She knew that, which was why she’d hit me.

Bravo was in charge of rounding up the children, and I needed to go help Tuck with the explosives. Instead, I stood in the dusty air and watched Six’s retreat. Something deep in my center—not my heart, but my gut—told me that if I let her walk away I’d never see her again.

“Damn it.” I hissed the words aloud, almost as if to give myself a chance to change my mind. But I didn’t. I took off in a jog that quickly turned in to a run. Tuck could get the dynamite without my help, but I wasn’t about to let Six murder that vampire alone.

W
hen I caught
up with her, she’d reached a part of the camp I hadn’t yet seen. It was a central square of sorts. If it had been the center of a town back before the war, it would have had a courthouse with a small diner across the street. But this was a prison camp, so the center of the dusty square was dominated by a flagpole bearing the Troika’s black flag and red lightning symbol. On each of the four sides, a different building stood. One was obviously the barracks for the guards, which looked like a luxury condo block compared to the shacks the prisoners were forced to live in. Another building was most likely the mess hall and another was a laundry used specifically for the vampires. I’d seen the meager prisoner washhouse, which was made up of little more than tin wash bins with cakes of lye soap. This place, however, looked like it held a variety of modern industrial washers and dryers, along with pressing machines to ensure the guards had knife-pleats in their pants while they beat the prisoners.

I reached Six when she was almost at the flagpole. Before she saw me, she’d already paused and was staring off in the fourth direction, which I had yet to observe in my rush to reach her. I paused beside her. She didn’t look at me, but I felt sure she knew I was there. I didn’t want to speak first, so I followed her gaze.

The fourth edge of the square held a large cinderblock palace. The Troika’s symbol was on display at the top of the building, like a marquee, but that wasn’t what had captured her attention.

A massive banner hung over the building’s door. On it, Meridian Six looked up toward the sky, as if looking to the future. Her hair was tied back into a bun and she wore the gray uniform of a high-ranking human slave—the kind that was trained in the special “education” centers in Nachtstadt. The slogan underneath the image said,
Freedom through blood. Life through labor.

That’s when the shame hit me. I pulled my gaze from the image to look at her face. The sharp contrast between the clear, unblemished skin of the beauty on the banner versus the swollen and bruised face of the woman next to me was painful. I’d just told her that she was being used, as if it was something that might never have occurred to her. But now I understood that being used was all she’d ever known.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.

“You were right.” She didn’t look at me.

“I know. I’m still sorry.”

She tipped her chin. I wasn’t sure if she was accepting my apology or simply acknowledging that she’d heard me. Either way, I didn’t feel better.

“I have to kill him.” She said it simply, like stating a fact, such as “I need oxygen to live.”

“Why?”

She turned to look at me then. Her eyes shone like new nickels. “I was…shared with him.”

Suddenly I needed to kill him too.

“Let’s go.” I started to walk toward the building with its banner that displayed Six like some sort of blood trophy.

She grabbed my arm. “Wait. Don’t you have to help Tuck—”

I jerked my hand out of her grasp and stepped toward her, getting close enough to whisper. “We are all getting out of here. All of us. Got it?”

She looked taken aback, as if she hadn’t suspected I was capable of anger. I wished I could tell her exactly how I was feeling. About how the idea of her being passed around by the bloodsuckers made me want to burn the entire world down. About how I wanted to grab her and hold her until she believed that there were people in the world who didn’t see her as a thing to be used. About how I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t just a kid for her to patronize. But I also knew that she’d laugh and reject all of those thoughts. Instead, I’d have to show her what I meant. How I felt.

She watched me with an unreadable expression for a few tense moments. I braced myself for the arguments I knew she was formulating. But she surprised me.

“Suit yourself, but when the time comes, I get the kill on Dr. Death. Understand?”

I didn’t understand why she needed to be the one, but I didn’t argue. “Let’s go.”

Nineteen

M
eridian Six

T
he good thing
about having vampires as an enemy was that they loved tunnels. Whenever the Troika took over a new city or town, the first thing they always did was turn the Earth under that town into an underground maze—like a rabbit warren. In fact, the first time I met Dare and Icarus was in a set of tunnels under the Sisters of Blood convent. The abandoned tunnels had been used during the Blood Wars and after the vamps had taken over New York and turned it into their capital, Nachtstadt, to escape the Troika’s slaughter patrols.

The tunnels under the blood camps were still in use; they were clean and well lit. According to Matri, the vamps use them to transport laundry and food to the main building, where the top officers lived and worked. Special prisoners were given access since they provided the labor for those services. Prisoners who’d earned the honor wore special red uniforms. The vampire in charge of the uniforms was a female guard called Billy. I didn’t know her real name, nor did I care, but Matri told me the nickname referred to the female’s resemblance to a goat. “She’s about as smart as one too,” Matri had added.

The thing I learned about vampires—especially those on power trips, and weren’t they all?—was that they always underestimated humans. If they’d respected us as foes or recognized that our desperation made us determined and resourceful, they would have assigned more guards. But as it happened, Billy was alone.

She rose from her chair—and rose and rose. Matri hadn’t mentioned that Billy was well over six feet tall. Her eyes were wide apart, almost on the sides of her face instead of anywhere near the center. Her pupils weren’t vertical like a goat’s but her irises were pure black and lacking all empathy.

The uniform vault was located inside a caged room. Through the door behind Billy, I could see rows of different-colored uniforms on racks that rose several feet in the air. The plain uniforms we’d brought with us on the train that day filled most of the room, but my eye was drawn to a single row of red uniforms on the top bar. It wouldn’t be easy to reach them, but first we had to get through Billy.

“You’re not allowed in here.” Her voice was scratchy and high, but paired with her imposing size the effect was unsettling. “Who sent you?”

Zed bowed his head and whispered, “Matri sent us.”

Billy frowned. “She has no authority here. Go.” She crossed her arms to punctuate the command.

“She said we were to report here to get uniforms.” He stepped forward to continue speaking, but his hands were behind his back and he waved his fingers to the right.

I glanced that direction. Strapped to the wall was a long pole with a hook on the end. I realized this must be the tool Billy used to reach the uniforms on the upper racks. The hook had a protrusion at the top. It wasn’t sharp enough to cut through flesh on its own, but with enough weight I might be able to break skin.

Billy came around to the front of the metal desk. “Leave or I will have you taken to the Komandant’s office.”

As it happened, that’s exactly where we wanted to be, but not that way. “I’m sure this is just a misunderstanding,” I said. “We’ve only just arrived to the camp and were assigned to the children’s barracks. Matri said she didn’t have enough uni—”

“I do not care. This is not how things are done.” She was already reaching for the phone.

“Wait!” Zed said, leaping forward.

Billy sprung around with a hiss and flashed a large set of fangs. Zed froze, his hands raised to show he meant no harm.

“Do not move.” Her voice was low and mean, filled with deadly promise. She turned back around to grab the phone.

I grabbed the pole off the wall and swung it around. Zed ducked just as the hook sliced the air above his head. I ran and pushed all my weight behind the pole and thrust it toward Billy’s back.

Just as the tip made contact, she turned. The point bounced off her shoulder blade and glanced across the broad plane of her back. Because of the length of the pole, I didn’t have the luxury of turning quickly. Spinning back around took forever, and by the time I managed it, Billy was ready for me.

She came at me with a snarl of fangs and fists.

“Carmina!” Zed yelled.

From the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of movement as he moved to help, but I was too preoccupied with the knuckles slamming into my cheekbone to feel relief. The pole fell from my fingers as I stumbled back.

Vampires are stronger and faster than any human. They live incredibly long lives as long as they get enough blood to heal their wounds, but they are not immortal. I had to remain calm enough to wait for my opening and quick enough to stay alive.

Billy swung again, but this time I was ready for her and ducked. Air swished by my face. She grunted as Zed attacked her from behind. His distraction gave me enough time to grab the pole again. The wood cracked over my knee, which made the pole a much more manageable length for close-quarters combat.

By the time I stood upright again, Billy was tossing Zed like a sack of laundry. I swung the pole around my head and cracked it across the side of her face. Her head spun and a fan of blood flew across the desk. She stumbled to the side as her hand went to her broken jaw. I spun around again to increase my momentum and this time, thrust the tip of the hook straight up under her chin. The soft skin gave easily and the pole slid home inside her skull with a sickening crunch.

Her black eyes widened and a wet gurgle came out of her bloody mouth. When gravity took over, it was like watching a tree fall.

My hands were shaking. I told myself it was because I’d been gripping my makeshift weapon so hard, but that didn’t explain the nausea or the creeping sense that things were going to get a whole lot worse before the day was done.

Ignoring the adrenaline hangover, I went to help Zed up. When he rose, he winced and favored his right leg.

“Is it broken?” I asked in a clipped tone. I didn’t have time to play nursemaid. We’d made a lot of racket killing Billy, and if we didn’t get moving we’d lose our window.

“Twisted,” he said. “It’s fine.” But when he took an experimental step, he hissed. “Shit.”

“Hold on.” I ran to Billy’s body and removed the keys that were clipped to her waist. As I opened the cage, my mind was scrambling to form a new plan. There was no way Zed could limp into the main building. Not only was it impractical but it would also destroy our ruse that we were favored workers. Vampires would never allow an injured human to take on such an important responsibility. They would be too disgusted by the display of human frailty to allow it in the main building.

Inside the cage, I realized my other problem. Not only had I broken the pole that had been used to reach the special uniforms, but what was left of it was currently impaled in Billy’s skull.

Looking up, I realized that if I stood on my tiptoes, I could just reach the hem of the closest red uniform. I looked around for something to use. Billy’s chair lay on its side just beyond the door. I ran over and pulled it into the cage. After that, it was a simple matter to get what I needed.

“You only got one,” Zed said. There was accusation in his tone and his eyes were bright, like he was ready to fight. I realized he thought I planned on leaving him there.

I shook my head. “Change of plans.”

“We discussed this—”

“Stop,” I interrupted. I grabbed the laundry cart that sat just inside the cage and pushed it out. “Get in.”

He paused and his eyes went from angry to surprised. “I’ll be damned.”

I smiled. “I’ll cover you with extra uniforms.” I flicked a glanced toward the dead vampire. “But first we need to hide her.”

T
en minutes later
, we locked the cage behind us. Inside, another laundry cart held my old clothes and Billy’s body. If we were lucky, no one would come along looking for her before we were on the train.

The fabric of the red uniforms was finer than the rough, beige material of the old one, but it felt itchy and constricting. “You okay?” I said in an undertone to the cart.

From deep within piles of fabric, a muffled “okay” emerged. Buried with Zed was a gun we’d found in Billy’s desk as well as a knife. I’d have felt a lot better with one of them against my skin, but we couldn’t risk a guard patting me down on my way into the main building. As it was, we were praying none of them thought to search the cart.

I knew from Matri’s instructions that Dr. Death’s lab was located in the fourth subbasement of the main building. His personal apartments were connected to the lab rooms, and could only be accessed through a heavily guarded corridor. Because of his exalted position within the camp and the Troika, no humans were allowed to serve him. He had his own staff of servants that saw to all of his personal needs.

However, humans were allowed to collect his laundry. All of his garments were sent up to the main level via a mechanized chute. The items were collected by prisoners who then transported them to the laundry facilities, where they were washed in separate machines by a squad of vampire workers.

The sun was still up, but not for long. If we could kill Dr. Death and get out of the building before the sun was down we’d stand a better chance of making it to the station. The sun wouldn’t kill them, but ultra-violet light wreaked havoc on their immune systems and weakened them substantially. That’s why they relied on human guards to patrol during the day. If the human prisoners rose up together against sun-weakened vampire guards they’d stand a much better chance of winning than they would have at night.

I made it through the tunnel and pushed the cart into the first basement level of the main building. A vampire guard stood just inside, but waved us through without a word. I’d worried a guard might think it was odd for us to bring dirty clothes into the building, but clearly this one was too bored to care about anything.

A freight elevator stood about twenty feet beyond where I entered. I walked slowly so as not to attract too much attention, but not slow enough to earn me a reprimand for being lazy. As I walked, I spotted other workers bustling around to prepare for the evening meal and the night’s activities. A couple cast looks in my direction that made me wonder if they were in on what was about to happen.

The elevator opened and I pushed the cart inside. As the doors closed, a starburst of fear popped in my stomach. If one of the prisoners decided to try to curry favor with the vamps, they could easily blow the whistle on our plan. Images of Dr. Death lying in wait several floors below my feet paraded through my mind’s eye.

The rub was there would be no way of knowing if there would be an ambush until it was too late. At that point, I had no choice but to move forward and deliver myself into fate’s hands. I just hoped Zed had that gun ready to go when we got off the elevator. I didn’t dare speak to him to confirm that, though, because I knew I was being watched by some faceless vampire in a control room somewhere in the building. That was also why I needed to act fast once we got into Dr. Death’s lab. The minute shit started going down, there’d be a phalanx of guards deployed to take us out.

The elevator stopped on the right floor. I sucked in a deep breath. The floor indicator dinged. I exhaled and white-knuckled the cart as the doors opened.

But instead of seeing a squad of death dealers on the other side, an empty hallway greeted us. My heart didn’t stop galloping until I pushed the cart into the hallway and realized we really were alone. By the looks of it, this level was filled with storerooms. No living quarters or offices in sight.

Under my breath, I whispered, “We’re alone, but be ready.”

A whisper of sound emerged from the pile of uniforms.

I moved down the hall as quickly as I could without calling too much attention to myself if anyone was watching. At the end of that hall, there was a turn, and halfway down the next hall a metal door was cut into the wall. Each floor had a door to the dumbwaiter, so clothing, food, or supplies could easily be delivered directly to Dr. Death from almost any floor in the building without him needing to leave his rooms.

I looked around for any telltale red lights that might indicate a camera hidden in any of the vents or nooks in the hallway but didn’t see any. I knew better than to trust that thought so I took a moment to collect myself before I got started.

I opened the door and cursed. Inside, the space was barely large enough for a child. Even Rabbit would have had a hard time squeezing into the cube. “Shit,” I whispered.

The uniforms moved until there was a hole just large enough for Zed to speak through. “What’s wrong?”

“Change of plans.” While he lifted his head just enough to see the problem, I got busy pushing buttons to send the dumbwaiter up a floor. “We’re going to have to climb down the chute.”

By that point, anyone watching would have already deployed guards, but there were no sirens or alarms echoing through the building. It was possible they wouldn’t raise a general alarm, but just send guards to dispose of us quietly and quickly. Either way, we needed to get moving.

“You go first,” I said. “Take the gun but give me the knife.”

He climbed out of the cart and glanced down into the chute. “Six, it’s a sheer drop to the next floor. I’ll break a leg.”

We didn’t have time to argue, so I just started grabbing uniforms and tying the legs together to create a makeshift rope. He instantly caught on and pitched in without arguing. I had to admit working with Zed was a pleasant change from being with Icarus and Dare, who questioned everything I did—loudly. With both of us working, it only took a couple of minutes to create a long enough rope to lower Zed down.

“What are you going to do once I’m down?” he asked.

“I’ll tie it to the handle. Even if it breaks as I go down, it’ll reduce the length of my fall.”

He didn’t look happy about my solution, but he was smart enough to know there was no other choice. “Let’s go.”

He grabbed one end of the rope and waited until I’d put the other end around my waist as a counterweight. Without another word, he began rappelling down the long, metal throat. I braced one leg against the wall and leaned back against the pull of the rough fabric loop around my waist. Once he was down, I needed to be ready to move quickly or he’d be trapped down there alone with Dr. Death. There wasn’t a place to land and wait for me, so he’d basically have to climb out the door and into the rooms below before I could begin my descent.

BOOK: Children of Ash: A Meridian Six Novella
13.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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