Authors: Jill Williamson
Levi huffed a laugh. “Can I shoot my own rifle? Yeah.”
“How do I know you’re not lying?” Bender asked.
“Why would I?”
Bender stared at Levi for a moment, then opened a desk drawer and pulled out a pistol with a silencer attached. “Cut the tape, Zane.”
Zane pulled a knife and cut through the tape on Levi’s wrists and ankles.
Bender handed Levi the gun. “Why don’t you tell me if this is loaded?”
Levi gripped the gun in his right hand, which triggered the laser sights on the wood-paneled wall. He popped out the clip, saw that it was empty, shoved it back in, pulled back the action, pretending to chamber a round. “It’s empty.” He flipped the safety on and off, aimed it at the wall to check the sights. “Can I have this?”
Bender looked at Levi, impressed. “No, you can’t have it. But you can help us.”
Levi handed the gun back to Bender. “I’m not killing anyone.”
Bender put the gun back in the drawer. “Not even Otley? We heard he killed your caretaker. People tend to have strong attachments for their caretakers.”
“I miss my caretaker every day,” Zane said.
A chance to take out Otley? “I’ll think about it,” Levi said.
Bender sat back down. “Think fast. We’ve only got a few days to make our move.”
“But you’re going to help me, right?” Levi asked.
“This about a femme?”
Femme meant girl, didn’t it? “What makes you think that?” Levi asked.
Bender grinned, flashing a few rotten teeth. “Lonn is a, uh … What’s the Old word for softies, Zane?”
“Romantic.” Zane fluttered his eyelashes and laughed.
“Right. Lonn had a lifer named Martana Kirst. But he called her Rose.”
Thank you, Lonn.
Maybe these were the friends Levi needed. “Enforcers attacked my village and brought us here. Our women are in the harem. I need to get them out.”
“I could maybe get one or two out,” Bender said. “How many are up there?”
“I’m not sure. Ten, maybe? Twelve? And our village’s children are
somewhere too, but I don’t know where. There’s about a dozen kids.” Levi really needed to make a list. If he did manage to pull off a rescue, he didn’t want to leave anyone behind.
“Hold the flavor. I don’t do kids,” Bender said. “They got high security up in that school—spies too. Listen, this is going to take time.”
Levi wanted to scream. “I don’t know how much time I have.”
“I get that. I’ll be thinking how I can help you out. And you let me know what you decide about being our sniper.” Bender leaned back in his chair and knocked on the wall.
A woman walked in. She had short, spiky red hair that curved around her face instead of sticking up like Zane’s. She was holding a pair of black gloves.
“This one goes by Red.” Bender gestured to the woman. “Come here, femme.”
The woman bounced up to the desk and handed the gloves to Bender. She was pretty, though her skin was ashen, and her body was all sharp angles where it should be soft.
“The right-hand glove has a pocket for your SimTag,” Bender said. “The one we cut out of your hand.”
Levi looked at his hand. A sticky bandage clung to the side. “And the one in my face?”
Bender shook his head. “You can get a hundred SimTags in your body. They all answer to the one in your hand. And once they’re more than twenty feet apart from the host tag, they lose their connection. You see any numbers on my face?”
“But when you saw Zane in the café, you saw his numbers, right? He was wearing his gloves. Be smart about this. Going out in public? You wear your gloves, even to eat. Don’t want enforcers knowing where you are? Leave the gloves someplace you spend a lot of time. Where the gloves are is where the enforcers think you are. Right now your SimTag is having a drink in the Hunter.” He tossed the gloves to Levi. “So when you get back and my guy gives you your tag, put the tag in the pocket. Get me?”
“Yeah. Can you do that for a couple of my people?”
“If I can get to them, I can do that for all your people. Zane, get him a Wyndo.”
“You didn’t say he was such a raven, Zane,” Red said, staring at Levi like he was steak.
“You didn’t ask.” Zane walked to a shelf across the room.
Red touched Levi’s cheek with her index finger. “How can he be so soft?”
“‘Cause he’s not infected,” Bender said. “And don’t you be changing that.”
A slow smile spread across Red’s face as she studied Levi. “I’ve never seen eyelashes like those on a guy. Most
can’t even pull off eyelashes like that without three coats of mascara. That your real hair too?” She combed her hand through his hair.
“Stop touching me.” He didn’t want any woman touching him but Jemma —especially not someone with a plague.
“Walls, you’re so blessed,” she said. “Mine’s half plugs.”
Levi watched Zane digging for something on a shelf across the room. “I don’t know what that means.”
Red twirled her finger around a lock of Levi’s hair. “It means half my hair fell out, and I got it replaced with fake hair.”
Levi grabbed her wrist and pulled her hand away from his hair. “I have a fiancée.”
She laughed. “Now
don’t know what you mean. What’s a fiancée?”
“A lifer,” Bender said.
“Lifer?” Red pouted. “Walls, raven! She must be some lover.”
“Her name’s Jemma.” Levi tugged the cord with their rings out of his shirt and held it out so they could see. “I scavenged these rings from Denver City. We were supposed to get married last Friday.”
“That’s sugar sweet.” Zane handed Levi what looked like an Old cell phone. The letters
were engraved at the top and designed in a way that created two people’s profiles, talking.
Levi touched the screen, and it lit up. “So it’s a phone?”
“Phones are ancient,” Zane said. “A Wyndo is way better than a
phone. Play with it tonight, and learn how to use it. It’s already got Red’s and my numbers in it. You can use it to talk to us, but if you use it to talk to others, be careful. Don’t tap in your SimTag. The Guild monitors all transmitters, and since ours are off the grid, putting your SimTag in or talking to someone whose transmitter is on grid will only call attention to your big bad illegalness.”
“I got it. What if I need to talk to Bender?”
Bender glanced up. Levi had forgotten his scar and thought he was winking. “You tap Zane or Red, and I’ll tap you. That’s all the time I’ve got for you tonight, shell.”
Zane held up the fabric sack. “Sorry. Gotta put this on again.”
Zane left Levi’s arms and legs free for the drive to the Larkspur but made him lie in the backseat to avoid being seen.
“Be careful with Red,” Zane said.
Levi lay on his back this time, with his knees up. “Careful how?”
“She wants you.”
“Wants me to what? Wait … aren’t you and she … together?”
Zane snorted a laugh. “No way. I mean, we traded paint a few times when I first started working for Bender, but … she’s a lot to maintain.”
Sometimes Levi could barely understand what these people said. “What’s that mean?”
“She gets gummy, you know? Wants you to be with her all the time. It’s weird.”
“Well, I’ll be careful.” The last thing Levi needed was more guilt.
“Good plan. And don’t drink anything she gives you. She stimmed me a few times to get what she wanted. She’s one crazy flame.”
It was almost ten at night by the time Levi got back to his apartment. He got in his truck and drove toward the Highlands, hoping his backpack and rifle were still in the park. But when he got to the gate, they wouldn’t let him through.
“Sorry, Mr. Justin. You have a work ID only. Unless you enter the Highlands with a Highland resident, you’re only permitted to enter between seven a.m. and five p.m.”
This place had more rules that the book of Leviticus. “Fine.”
Levi turned around and drove back to the Larkspur. He’d just have to look for his backpack tomorrow after his shift. Once he got the two-way radios, he’d figure out a way for Mason and Jordan to meet Bender and lose their SimTags. Then he could rescue Jemma.
haylinn was sitting with Jemma, Kendall, Naomi, and Mia in the Blue Diamond living room, watching the Safe Lands ColorCast program
Jemma had barely spoken to her since the night she and Mia had snuck out. Shaylinn kept looking for an opportunity to talk about it, but her sister was always with Naomi, as usual.
Shaylinn was torn. She liked looking pretty. She liked the clothes. But she hadn’t liked Ewan’s behavior at all. Her first kiss. Stolen by a bully.
“Why’s Page kissing Bolton?” Jemma asked. “Doesn’t she love the earring man?”
“That’s Fivel,” Kendall said. “She only paired up with Fivel to make Bolton jealous. But Bolton is using her to get horn implants.”
“What are horn implants?” Shaylinn asked.
“They’re silicone horns that you can get implanted under your skin. They’re scary.”
Shaylinn wrinkled her nose. If the Lord had wanted her to have horns, she’d have been born with them. She frowned. Wasn’t the same true of her body? If the Lord had wanted her to be thin, he’d have made her thin.
On the screen, Bolton pulled Page’s shirt over her head, leaving her in just her bra.
Jemma shrieked and covered her eyes. “Don’t want to see!”
Shaylinn leaned closer to the screen, staring at two lines of gold rings on Page’s back. “What are those things on her back?”
“That’s a surface corset,” Kendall said. “You should’ve seen her in the gown she wore two weeks ago. It was backless, and her corset looked so glossy with satin laces.”
“She laced up the rings in her back?” Shaylinn asked. “Doesn’t that hurt?”
“Naw. They put a silicone layer under the skin and permanently numb the pierced areas. I saw an edudrama about it called
“Someone should make an edudrama about the Safe Lands called
” Naomi said.
There was a knock at the door. Jemma jumped up. “I’ll get it.”
She opened the door to a young man dressed in green shorts and a white T-shirt with the letters
on the upper right. “Messenger service,” he said.
Kendall shrieked and reached toward him. “Hay-o, Chord!”
Chord jogged around the sofa and leaned down to give Kendall a hug and kiss both cheeks. “How are you, femme? Walls, you’re famous now. Your face is everywhere.”
Kendall groaned and patted her belly. “I know. Almost done, though.”
“You’re huge!” He laughed.
“Thanks,” Kendall said. “Chord, this is Jemma and Naomi and Shaylinn and Mia. Girls, this is Chord. We were messengers together in the Midlands before I came here.”
“Nice to meet you.” He stared at Naomi, his gaze shifting from her face to her belly. “You’re famous too.”
Naomi pursed her lips and looked back to the ColorCast.
“Can’t stay,” Chord said. “Lots of messages to deliver. Oh my
fortune! You guys are watching
I can’t stand that show, Hey, which one of you is Shaylinn Zachary or Jemma Harvey?”
Chord handed Shaylinn a gold envelope, then held out a black touchpad that was attached to his belt. “ID?”
Shaylinn pressed her fist against the pad.
“Got it.” Chord tapped on his Wyndo, then looked up. “And Jemma?”
“Right here!” Jemma stood, waving both hands. “It’s from Levi. I know it is!”
“How?” Naomi asked.
“Because here my last name here is Levi. But Levi wouldn’t know that. He might assume I chose my father’s name instead.”
“So might your mother,” Naomi said.
Jemma’s grin faltered. “True. A letter from my mother would be good too.”
While Jemma gave Chord her ID, Shaylinn opened the gold envelope.
Jemma squealed and grinned and cried all at the same time, waving around a colorful card. Chord and Kendall were talking, but Shaylinn wasn’t listening. Her heart fluttered like a flag in the wind.
The Safe Lands Guild Surrogacy Center
To: Shaylinn Zachary
It is your responsibility to be in the Surrogacy Center on Wednesday, June 23, 2088 at 11:00 a.m. Failure to appear will result in the issuance of a warrant for your arrest.
Being ranked first in line, she’d known it was coming, but she’d shoved aside the reality and indulged in all the fun things this place had to offer. And now, here was the price. They were really going to make her pregnant.
Chord hugged Kendall again and left. Shaylinn tucked her summons between her knees and tried to pay attention to the others.
Naomi slid to the edge of the couch. “Stop screeching, and tell me who it’s from.”
“Levi sent me a card!” Jemma hopped up and down and giggled, but it morphed into a confused cry. “That means he’s okay. Right?”
“I’d say so.” Naomi patted the couch beside her. “Come, sit. I want to hug you, but I’m not getting up.”
“ ‘I wish I had no heart, it aches so …’ “ Jemma sat beside Naomi, who gave her a side hug. “I’m going to write him back.” She read the card again.
“Can I see it?” Shaylinn asked.
“Sure.” Jemma thrust the card to Shaylinn.
The front said
and had two red birds flying toward each other. Inside, the birds were kissing and their touching bodies formed the shape of a heart. The pre-printed words said, “I’m glad we’re in this together,” but underneath, in black pen, “I miss you, Buttercup. Write me back. Your Westley. Larkspur, Room 206, Midlands.”
A tear ran down Shaylinn’s cheek. She gasped and quickly wiped it away. She never cried.
“Shay, what’s the matter?” Jemma asked.
Shaylinn returned the card. “I always wanted to be a mother. Someday though, you know? Not now. I know none of the boys like me. But I don’t want to have a baby like this!” Her bottom lip trembled in a terrible frown, and she turned her head in case her eyes betrayed her and spilled more tears.
Jemma got up and knelt on the floor at Shaylinn’s feet, put her hands on Shaylinn’s knees. “Shay, what’s wrong?”