Read Guardians Online

Authors: Susan Kim

Guardians

DEDICATION

To Eugene, Dan, and Olivia—partners from an early tribe

—Susan

To my brothers, Ross, Drew, and Scott—then and now

—Laurence

CONTENTS
PART ONE
ONE

I
T WAS NEARLY DAWN
.

Towering structures made of glass and steel stood in silent silhouettes. Beneath them, the rusted bodies of cars lay amid flattened cans, broken bottles, and the drifting tatters of filthy plastic bags. The poisonous sky, still dark yet tipped with the first streaks of yellow, was reflected as glints and flashes in identical windows that seemed to go on forever. Although the sun had not yet risen, the heat of December was already shimmering up from the cracked sidewalks, filling the canyon of buildings and making the air suffocating and lifeless.

Glancing around, the girl called Esther was satisfied that
there were no signs of life. Only then did she dare close her eyes as she savored both her surroundings and her momentary freedom.

She could barely remember the last time she had been outside. Her friend Joseph kept what he called “calendars” in his library, a jumble of numbers that allowed him to keep track of days, weeks, even months. By Esther's laborious reckoning, it had been six months since she or anyone else had been allowed to set foot outside of the District. That was how long the building that was once a mall had been their home.

Venturing outdoors was potentially deadly, and not just because of the possibility of an unexpected rainfall; Esther and her friends, after all, had made it this far without catching the fatal, waterborne disease that killed everyone by their late teens. The real danger lay in the bands of Outsiders who roamed the streets of Mundreel. Like animals, they were rumored to be savage and unpredictable. To guard against them, the revolving glass doors in the lobby were permanently locked in place, with wooden beams holding them shut. In addition, armed Insurgents were posted on the roof throughout the day and night, scanning the surrounding streets with binoculars.

The risk of being shot by one of them by accident, Esther knew, was at least as great as that of being set upon by an Outsider gang. She kept glancing behind her for a telltale glint of metal from the roof until she was certain she was well clear of the District.

Untouched by earthquakes, the building was an oasis of sorts in the devastated city of Mundreel. After the adults who
founded it had fled, the roof garden and storeroom of packaged goods provided them with ample food and clean water to drink. True, the running of the District—tending the plants, the water purifier, and the generator that gave them a meager supply of electricity, as well as keeping up with repairs—took time and effort. Because she knew how everything worked, Esther had been put in charge.

But that was also a problem.

Given Esther's new responsibilities, it was virtually impossible for her to sneak away, even for a few hours. And ever since she had begun to show signs of the baby she was now carrying, her best friend, the variant girl named Skar, started keeping track of her comings and goings with an especially keen eye.

Skar had always prided herself on making sure her friend stayed out of trouble; that was one of the many ways she showed her love. And Esther was also aware that variants, born with male and female parts, had no experience of childbirth and thought of it as a complete mystery. Skar clearly viewed Esther's pregnancy with wonderment, even awe, and now treated her friend like a precious and fragile thing in need of special care.

Her concern made Esther grit her teeth with exasperation. She had grown up in almost total freedom, playing in and exploring the scorched and abandoned streets and buildings of her hometown of Prin. To now live such a restricted life and under constant supervision felt like a prison sentence with no end in sight. The girl felt restless, cooped up, and constantly on edge being indoors day after day with the same people, unable
to hunt, ride a bicycle, or even run.

All she needed
, Esther knew,
was just to be outside, on her own, for a single hour
.

Her partner, Aras, had been sound asleep, as was the child, little Kai. Only Aras's dog, Pilot, awoke as she silently laced up her sneakers in the darkness. He lifted his wolflike head in greeting and thumped his tail once on the carpeted floor before he curled up again and drifted back to sleep. Then Esther had made it down the ten flights to the lobby. She had previously located a side door that was fastened with a heavy chain. Although her belly was huge, she found she could still open it enough to squeeze through and into the early morning air.

With luck, Esther figured she would be back before anyone even realized she had gone.

Esther ran the way Skar had taught her years before, lightly and on the balls of her sneakered feet, slipping from one hiding place to the next. True, she was much heavier than she had been before; running felt clumsy and she had trouble seeing the ground, which made her footing precarious. Her jeans, belted low, were too baggy on her bony hips and threatened to trip her with every step. Yet it was a pure pleasure to move fast again, to feel her arms and legs working together in an easy, effortless way as the wind blew against her skin, ruffling through her dark hair.

As she ran, Esther scanned the horizon for any signs of Outsider activity, her eyes attuned to the silence of the city around her. She didn't stop until she reached the outskirts of
town, near one of the long bridges over the broad, dry expanse that had once been a river. By now, the morning sky had grown brighter, and as she pushed back the hood of her sweatshirt to wipe the sweat from her forehead, she realized she was hungry. Down the street was what looked like an abandoned supermarket; with effort, she could sound out its name:
Pathmark
.

“Gleaning” was the way Esther and everyone else had fed themselves until recently. It meant breaking into old stores and homes and searching for packaged foods that were still edible: sugar and salt, dried beans, honey, and coffee as well as plastic bottles of water and soda. Special Gleaning teams continued to go out once a week, accompanied by armed guards, to augment what they were able to grow; still, Esther hoped they had somehow missed this place. She was about to approach when she noticed the shattered front door. The store had most likely been picked clean years ago.

But just as she about to turn away, she heard something else.

A musical cooing in the distance started, then stopped. It was answered by another. Silhouetted against the sky were several small shapes perched on an overhead wire strung between tall metal poles. One of them took off and flittered to the branches of a nearby tree.

Esther watched the birds for a moment. She had been so intent on sneaking out that morning, she hadn't thought to bring a weapon. Now she gazed about on the ground, looking for a rock and wondering if she could launch it with enough force and accuracy to hit one of the creatures. As if they could
read her thoughts, the shapes broke apart and, still calling to one another, took off into the air.

Resigned, Esther watched them disappear. Then something else caught her eye.

The one bird that had settled in the tree hadn't flown off. She could see it, a dark, formless form huddled upon a branch. It was a pigeon in a nest, its eyes bright and unblinking as it stared down at her. On an impulse, Esther stood underneath it and took hold of a low branch. Then she put one foot on the bark and attempted to hoist herself.

Climbing trees was something she had done since she was a small child; she could literally do it with her eyes closed. Yet this was the first time she had attempted it while pregnant. Her swollen midsection got in the way as she tried to hug the trunk, and when she began to bring her other foot up, she could raise it only partway before sliding back to the ground, skinning her hands and landing with a hard jolt. The baby shifted inside Esther, and she winced.

“Ow,” she said.

The pigeon, alarmed, began cooing loudly and fluttering. Gritting her teeth, Esther attacked the tree again, grabbing a lower branch and pulling herself up with her arm strength alone before finding a foothold. By the time she made it even halfway up, she was sweating and the sun was visible over the horizon. As she drew closer to the pigeon, it tried to look bigger, its feathers fluffed out as it flapped its wings.

But she had reached her goal. The pigeon now dived at Esther in an attempt to drive her away; she brushed it aside as
she pulled herself onto the branch and sat there, winded. Then she inched along until she reached the nest. Ignoring the cries of the agitated mother, she stuck her hand in.

There were five eggs, still warm to the touch; they were small, but to Esther, they were a godsend. Taking care not to drop any, she tilted her head back and broke one open into her mouth. It had a strange slimy texture, both thick and ropy, and she had to spit out a piece of shell; still, she was surprised how wonderful it tasted. Months ago, Aras had told her how to do this, and the idea made her want to gag. But now, she could not eat fast enough. The raw eggs satisfied a deep part of her, and even after she finished, she stuck her tongue into each shell fragment, trying to lick out what remained. Then she leaned against the trunk, savoring the feeling of being full if only for a moment, before taking hold of the branch and beginning the arduous descent.

But the effort cost her. She was halfway down when she felt another twinge, deep in her gut, and she hesitated.

It wasn't time
. According to the primitive calculations she had worked out with the help of Joseph's calendar, she still had a long way to go. Yet even so, once she dropped to the ground, Esther decided it would be wise to hurry back to the mall.

By now, it was much later than the girl had anticipated; the sun was well into the morning sky and climbing higher, making her feel exposed and increasingly vulnerable. She had taken a winding route, which she now regretted; it wasn't clear which was the shortest way. She decided to stay on the river's edge, which would at least bring her back to the center of town.
From there, she would be able to spot the roof garden and find her way home.

But haste was making Esther careless. In order to avoid the main road, she began taking shortcuts down unfamiliar side streets. She saw a building that looked vaguely familiar, and on an impulse, she cut around it, assuming she could follow the small road that lay beyond it and through to the other side. But several steps in, she realized that the path was in fact an alleyway, dark and narrow. It was cluttered with looming mountains of trash: an abandoned car, a stripped sofa, and heaps of plastic bags and bottles. And only when she made it to the end did she realize there was no way out.

Esther stopped dead in her tracks. She was about to turn around and head back to the street, but she hesitated.

Someone else was in the alley with her.

The hair on the back of Esther's neck was rising before she even saw what it was. In the dim light, a dark shape scuttled from one pile of garbage to another as if hiding. As she picked up a low vibration that she realized was the sound of growling, Esther could see a pair of eyes glittering out at her.

It was a wild dog.

Esther exhaled with relief. Wild dogs were dangerous only in packs. Alone, they were cringing, pathetic creatures that roamed the street at night, hunting rodents and scavenging any food they could find. But why was this one out at dawn?

She took a bold step forward. Normally, such a minor act of aggression would be enough to send the animal fleeing.
Inexplicably, this one staggered forward, seemingly pulled by an invisible force.

“Go on!” Esther shouted, clapping her hands. “Get out of here!”

But the dog continued to advance. It was filthy, and its bony sides twitched and jerked as if covered with fleas. Confused, the girl took a step back and then another. Again, she felt a deep twinge and she winced. Then the dog stopped and seemed to sink to the ground. To her disbelief, Esther realized the creature was crouching low on shaky haunches not out of fear but for another reason.

It was preparing to attack.

Esther's eyes flickered around in search of a stick or piece of metal with which to defend herself. Unexpectedly, she was hit by a powerful contraction that she couldn't control, one that forced a cry from her lips and brought her to her knees. This apparently signaled weakness to the dog and gave it the opening it was waiting for. Esther threw her arms in front of her in a vain attempt to shield herself as the animal launched itself across the dark alley. In that split second, she could see its jaws open and yellowed fangs bared.

A sharp twanging sound rang out behind her. At the same moment, the dog froze in midair and, with a single yelp, dropped to the ground. In the silence that followed, it lay shuddering on its side, its legs kicking. Only then did Esther notice the arrow shaft buried deep in its chest, and the black blood pumping around it through the matted fur.

Esther whirled around. Standing at the mouth of the alley
was a small figure in a drab tunic; its weapon was still lifted as the air vibrated with the echo of its firing. The creature was androgynous and bald, with strange lavender eyes, and covered from head to foot with elaborate scars and tattoos.

“Skar!”

Her friend put down her bow and came forward. As Skar helped her up and the two hugged, Esther only just realized how close she had come to serious harm. She felt a wave of shaky relief.
She had been stupid
, she realized with fresh remorse,
to go out by herself
, and now she waited for Skar to rebuke her. But as was her way, the variant girl said nothing that would make Esther feel bad.

“That one,” was all Skar said, gesturing at the dead animal with her bow. “If you ever see a wild dog out during the daytime, especially by itself, stay away. It has the sickness that animals get.” She shuddered. “You are lucky it didn't bite you. That is a terrible death.”

Esther felt guilty: She had exposed not only herself and her unborn child but her best friend to this danger. And all because of her impulsiveness, which she could never control.

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