Authors: Jill Williamson
Ciddah had heard Lawten’s ambition before and never cared for it, but here, now, she found his words terrifying. How could she have trusted such a man? How could anyone?
“There are at least three villages in the surrounding area—Jack’s Peak, Glenrock, and Clean Creek,” an Ancient said. “Maybe more. In the very shadow of our city. That could provide hundreds of surrogates. An entire new generation of uninfected.”
Ciddah’s hopes flared at the very idea. If they could convince the people to come willingly …
“And what’s to ensure they remain uninfected?” an Ancient asked.
“Fortune’s numbers. We add a zero, then create a law that only zero can match with zero.”
“We can’t add a zero, and you know it.”
“Yet we can’t allow the uninfected the freedom to become infected,” another Ancient said. “And we’d still have to number the outsiders to avoid consanguinity.”
This train of dialogue confused Ciddah. Were Fortune’s numbers based on something other than which life a person was currently living? On DNA? She’d have to investigate this possibility.
“If we would simply remove the stimulant from the ACT treatment each person receives, we would go a long way toward managing this virus and living longer lives.”
Another shock. There was stimulant in the treatment? Ciddah’s mind grew dizzy with this new information.
“That is not a real option, and you know it. The virus would still exist. And no one wants to grow old,” a very Ancient voice said. “Our people want youth, to enjoy this life as much as possible before going on to the next.”
No one spoke for a moment. Ciddah was sure they could all hear her heart pounding.
Then the Ancient on Lawten’s left spoke. “We will try it your way, Mr. Task Director. Take your troops to one village.
Present the benefits of relocation. And should these people take arms against us, or simply refuse to come, you are to leave. Arm your enforcers with sleepers only. These people are not Safe Landers and, until they are inside our walls, owe no allegiance to our enforcers. Bring back those willing to consider relocation and no one else. If this mission is a success, then perhaps we can approach the other villages in the area.”
The group seemed to consider the proposal.
“May I speak?” a familiar voice asked.
Ciddah spun to her right. At the very end of the table, sitting in the back corner, was General Otley. Ciddah had forgotten that there were two guild members under age forty who were allowed to show their faces: the task director general and the enforcer general.
Lawten nodded. “Go ahead, General Otley.”
“Outsiders are aggressive,” Otley said. “Permission to take dual-action
pistols as well? I hope to avoid such force and bring the outsiders in quietly, but sleeper downtime can take as long as two and a half minutes between shots. One outsider can take out a lot of enforcers in that time. I need a way to protect my men in case the worst happens.”
Lawten pursed his lips. “Very well. As long as your men understand the goal, General Otley. Uninfected people do us no good if they’re dead.”
“Thank you for your time, Miss Rourke,” Lawten said, looking down on Ciddah. “You are directed to keep this meeting to yourself. If we learn that this discussion has leaked, the consequence will be premature liberation. Is that understood?”
This time the dizziness overwhelmed Ciddah, and she clutched the sides of her chair to keep from falling out. Now Lawten was threatening her? “Yes, Mr. Task Director.”
“We look forward to a time when you bring us good news,” Lawten said.
“As do I.”
“You are dismissed.”
Ciddah left the podium and walked across the auditorium, feeling as though all eighteen Guild members were watching her go. Her legs felt rubbery, and she fought to contain her composure at least until she exited the auditorium.
Once the doors shut behind her, she found the nearby bench and collapsed, puzzling over all she’d heard from the leaders of her nation … and Lawten’s coldness.
Stimulant in the ACT treatments? Fortune’s numbers assigned for genetic purposes? She couldn’t fathom any motivation behind such measures, but she’d look into the matter as soon as she was able. And this new attempt to find uninfected donors … only Fortune knew if the Safe Lands had a future. Ciddah could only hope the people of the outsider village would be open to change.
ather invaded Mason’s bedroom like a hornet. He yanked the psychology textbook from Mason’s hands and tossed it on the floor. “You hear me calling for Omar, boy? Stop wasting time, and go find your brother. And don’t take all day doing it.”
“Yes, sir.” Avoiding eye contact, Mason jumped off his bed and darted into the dark hallway, heading for the front of the house. He had indeed heard his father bellowing Omar’s name. But since it was Omar’s name and not his own, Mason had made the logical assumption that the solicitation was not for him. But such logic had never been Father’s companion.
Father’s footsteps clomped behind him, and Mason walked faster, not wanting to become the focus of Father’s anger. Three more steps to the door …
“Now that Levi’s getting married, it’s your turn.”
That announcement stopped Mason completely. He turned around in the living room, glanced at his mother, who stood at the kitchen table, drying jars for canning, then looked at his father. “Me marry? Now? I’m only seventeen.”
“Because there’s no one I feel particularly drawn to in Glenrock
“No matter,” Father said. “I’ve made arrangements with Mia’s mother.”
Mason felt as if his father had slammed him into a brick wall. He glanced at his mother, but she turned her head back to the jars before he could make eye contact. “Father, there’s no sense in my marrying Mia. I’d be more compatible with any other girl, in fact. We should exhaust all options before making such a rash pairing.”
“Everyone else is too young.”
“I can wait.”
“Mia needs a husband. Her mother needs a son.” Father shrugged. “No reason to wait.”
“But she and I would be terrible together. We’re not even friends.”
“Focus on her pretty face.” Father slapped Mason on the back and stepped toward the front door. “Now stop arguing, and go find your brother. I may have managed to marry him off as well, but it’s no good if I can’t find him. And I don’t want to keep Elsu waiting. Need to leave now if I want to get to Jack’s Peak in time.”
Mason stared at the open door, listening to Father’s footsteps pound across the porch, down the steps, and crunch across the rocky path that led to the village square. His cheeks burned with fury over the nonsense of Mia becoming his wife. “I don’t want to marry Mia. I won’t.”
“Mason,” his mother said, “you’re smart enough to find a way to make this work.”
“But she despises me. And from what I gather from the books Levi brought me, and from my observations here in Glenrock, marriage is difficult enough when the pair have strong affections for one another. I don’t want a future of misery for myself or for Mia.”
“It’s been two years since Mia’s mother lost her husband. This marriage will mend the hole in their family. They’ll have a man in their home again.”
He stared at her. “But Mother, I will never love Mia.” He couldn’t even force himself to like her.
“Since when has love ever been important to your father? He values strength. Show your strength by making this work.” Mother went back to drying the jars. “You’d best go find your brother before your father catches you dawdling.”
Mason pushed out the front door into the afternoon heat and crossed the porch in three steps. He jumped off the side and kept moving, the wild grass and flowers tickling his bare feet. Grazer’s claws scraped over the plank porch as the dog chased after him and was soon bounding alongside.
Mason leaned over to scratch behind Grazer’s ears. “Where’s Omar, huh, boy? Go fetch Omar.”
The dog panted and squinted his eyes, in no apparent hurry to lend assistance. Mason swallowed the tightness in his throat.
Glenrock consisted of a dozen log homes scattered in a forest of pine around the village square’s clearing. Their house faced the entrance road that ended at a roundabout in front of the square and meeting hall. On the distant road, Father was a mere puff of dust as he headed up the mountain trail to meet Elsu.
Mason strode toward the hall, his gaze sweeping over the village, searching for the Old Colorado State Patrol hat his little brother, Omar, always wore. The sun lit the square and illuminated billions of dust motes. This was the time of day when everyone tried to remain indoors to keep cool, and Mason saw no one else besides his older brother Levi and Levi’s friend Jordan.
Both were sitting on their ATVs, which were parked in front of an
elevated plank stage. Levi and Jemma’s engagement celebration would happen tonight on this stage, and members of the village would sit on the long, split log benches that surrounded the area and cheer the future union. All hail perfect Levi and his perfect fiancée, the future elders of Glenrock.
Mason had no desire for perfection.
But … Mia?
He walked toward the stone fire pit at the center of the square and soon was close enough that he could hear Levi and Jordan mumbling. Mason wasn’t surprised they didn’t acknowledge him. Typical behavior for the heir to the patriarchy of Glenrock and his loyal adherent.
With a long breath, Mason entered the meeting hall, which was easily ten degrees cooler than outside. Jemma, Jordan’s sister and Levi’s intended, was decorating tables with wildflowers. Some of the younger boys were playing a scavenged Old video game on the television in the far corner. No sign of Omar.
“Hi, Mason.” Jemma looked up from the flowers and smiled. “How are you today?”
“Fine. Looking for Omar.” Unlike most people, when Jemma asked, “How are you?” she truly wanted to know. But if Mason had answered truthfully, Jemma would insist on more information. And Mason had no time for Jemma’s compassion today. “Have you seen him?”
“Not since the harvest field this morning,” she said. “I hope you find him. Levi says your father might have made him a match.”
“Yes, well, my father and Levi’s enthusiasm in this matter only enforces my skepticism.”
.” After staring at the centerpiece for a moment, Jemma pulled a mule’s ear from her hand and threaded the flower into the arrangement. “You should be happy for Omar. Getting married would be wonderful for him.”
“I’m not unhappy. I simply see no point in celebrating that which has not yet taken place.”
Jemma practically sang her reply. “ ‘You can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will.’ ”
Mason frowned, pondering her words. “That’s not yours, is it?”
Anne of Green Gables
, one of my favorite Old books. And Anne is right. So go find Omar so you can celebrate.”
Mason left without offering a reply and made his way back across the square to the stage. He suspected his brother would have many baffling encounters with his new bride. How women could find joy in the marriage of complete strangers, Mason would never understand.
The ATVs now sat empty. Levi and Jordan stood on opposite sides of the stage, throwing a little ball to one another so fast it passed through the air as a blur of red.
“Find Omar yet?” Levi asked, walking toward Mason and pitching the ball at Jordan.
Mason stopped in front of Levi. “I thought I’d check the square again, but the only ones out here are you two not helping me.”
Jordan flung the ball, and it bounced off the side of Levi’s head.
“Ow, you maggot!” Levi chased after the ball and tossed it back at Jordan, who was laughing so hard he barely managed to catch it before it hit the ground.
“Forget Omar. Let’s take Mason instead.” Jordan threw the ball over the stage.
Levi ducked, letting it fly past the side of the meeting hall. He slouched and sighed, hands on his hips the way Father did when he was disappointed. “Mason’s not a good trade.”
“I’m standing right here,” Mason said.
Jordan ran around the stage. “No, listen. They’re all about nature and healing up in Jack’s Peak. They’d love Mason. Then I wouldn’t have to worry about him messing with my wife.”
“Jordan,” Levi said. “I meant that Mason is too valuable to trade.”
“I never imposed upon anyone’s wife,” Mason said. “And what happened last week had nothing to do with yours. Cody gave Mother,
, permission to allow me,
, to observe his wife’s labor process for educational purposes.”
“For edu — Well, you’re never going to educate
wife, let alone observe her.”
“Your comment is backward,” Mason said. “And it was for
education, not —”
“I won’t belabor my point.” Mason started to walk away. He might have to take his Father’s abuse, but he didn’t have to take it from Jordan.