Authors: Jill Williamson
They started for it, but after a few steps, Shaylinn sagged against him. Mason held her up and dragged her along.
“My legs won’t work,” she said. “I can’t make them move.”
Mason squatted and lifted her the way men did in Old movies. A groan escaped him at how heavy she was. He sucked in a deep breath and staggered to the sick house, certain he’d drop her, but somehow he managed to reach the far side of the structure before collapsing.
“Shaylinn? Talk to me. Where does it hurt?”
Her eyes were glassy, liquid with unshed tears. “My back.”
Mason knelt beside her and rolled her body against his knees. He patted her back to look for a wound and found a small hole in the back of her dress, just to the right of her spine. “There’s no blood.” A sleeper?
“What’s that mean, no blood?” Shaylinn asked, her voice slow.
Best guess? “I assume it means you’re going to go to sleep.”
“What if I don’t wake up?”
“You’ll certainly wake,” Mason said, struggling for something uplifting as he rolled her onto her back. “Whether you wake on earth or in heaven, I can’t say. Either would be good, though, right?”
Her eyes flew wide. “But I don’t want to die! I’ve … never been in love.” Her eyelids fluttered. “Never kissed … a boy. Always dreamed I’d be beautiful when I … grew up. Everyone here thinks I’m … I’m ugly. Omar said …”
But Mason didn’t discover what Omar had said, because Shaylinn’s eyes drifted shut.
Mason sank back against the wall of the sick house, listening to the sounds around him. It was quieter now. He could hear men talking but couldn’t tell what they were saying or whether they were friend or foe.
Mason looked out onto the square just as the front door to his house swung in. Papa Eli stepped onto the porch, clutching his rifle in
one hand. He wore a plain white T-shirt and a pair of black shorts that bared his knobby knees.
Mason scrambled to his feet and sprinted toward his great-grandfather. The old man started to lift his gun in Mason’s direction then seemed to recognize him.
“What’s going on out here?” Papa Eli asked.
“Safe Lands enforcers asked us to move into the compound. Father refused and they shot him and Uncle Colton. The men fought back, but I don’t know who won.” Mason sucked in a quick breath. “Some are dead, but some are only sleeping. The enforcers had two kinds of ammo, and I … I don’t know which kind they used on each person.”
Papa Eli looked over Mason’s shoulder. “Why didn’t someone come get me?”
A sob stole its way out Mason’s throat. “Father said to let you sleep.”
Papa Eli pursed his lips and sighed out his nose. “Get your gun, and let’s go take a look.”
Mason ran back to where he’d left Shaylinn and picked up his rifle. Papa Eli met him there, and they peeked around the edge of the sick house. Enforcers milled around the square. Two lifted Jordan’s body off the ground and carried it toward the back of the second transport.
Did that mean Jordan was alive? “What are we going to do?” Mason asked.
“Where is everyone?”
“Father sent the women into the meeting hall, thinking that was enough to keep them safe. He split up the men and told them to shoot from the forest and the roofs.” Mason took a deep breath, feeling a hint better with Papa Eli by his side.
“So the women are all trapped and no one’s shooting.” Papa Eli stepped out from behind the sick house. “Cover me.”
Mason grappled with his rifle until he was holding it correctly, though the barrel quivered like a branch in the wind. Behind him, footsteps rustled through the ferns. Mason glanced over his shoulder, hoping to see one of the village men or even Grazer. But it was Otley and an enforcer whose name badge read
“Papa Eli!” Mason yelled.
Papa Eli spun around, gun ready, and he and Otley held each other in their sights.
Otley frowned. “You’re an abomination, old man! How long have they let you live?”
“I was there when they built your Safe Lands, boy,” Papa Eli said to Otley. “I didn’t want any part of it then, and I still don’t.”
“Men like you disgust me,” Otley said. “To take resources from the young and refuse liberation …”
Papa Eli chuckled—a gun pointed at his head and he laughed! “You’ll think differently someday.”
“Not likely, you stimming Ancient,” Otley said.
Otley and Papa Eli fired at the same time. The bullet’s impact sent Otley flying, and he landed on his back a few yards away. Papa Eli crashed against the sick house wall and slid down it. Blood swelled red and bright against his white shirt.
Mason pointed his rifle at Lemuel, the barrel a blur from his shaking or from his tears, possibly both.
Lemuel raised his pistol to Mason’s head. He too had a number tattooed to his cheek. A number three. “I don’t think you’ve got the juice to pull the trigger, shell.”
“Don’t kill him!” Otley whispered. “We need the young ones alive.” He was still lying on the ground, and though his hand clutched his stomach, he seemed relatively fine.
How could the man still be alive?
“Don’t worry, general. My gun’s on sleep,” Lemuel said, squinting one eye.
Mason pulled his trigger, but it didn’t budge.
He fumbled with the switch, certain he was about to feel a bullet enter his skull; instead, a gun went off, the report cracking through the air. Mason cowered, and his ears rang. The enforcer Lemuel fell, a hole between his eyes.
Mason whipped around. Papa Eli’s arm fell, his pistol clutched in his hand. Mason lunged to his great-grandfather’s side and helped him
lie down. The bullet had entered just below Papa Eli’s right shoulder and looked to have pierced his pectoral muscle and possibly his right lung. He lifted Papa Eli until he spotted the exit wound in his center back.
Control the bleeding, staunch if possible. It didn’t matter if his hands were dirty. An infection could be treated later. There was no pressure point for the shoulders, so all he could do was apply direct compression and pray God sent a miracle. He tried to pull Papa Eli’s shirt up. No good. He shrugged off his own cattail vest, folded it up, and pressed it over the entrance wound.
Papa Eli gasped. “Careful, boy!”
Good. He was talking, which meant his airway was clear. But that didn’t mean Papa would survive. There could still be issues with his lungs and his breathing, and the exit wound was extremely close to the spine. “Turn your head to the side, Papa, so you can breathe better.”
“I can breathe fine.”
The blood quickly soaked through Mason’s vest and coated his hands in a glossy sheen of red. He needed something else for the exit wound, and fast. All the blood was likely draining out the back. He tucked his vest under the exit wound on Papa Eli’s back and pressed his hands over the shoulder wound. “Can you move your hands and feet?”
“You’re worse than my Hannah.” A dreamy smile claimed Papa Eli’s face. “You would have liked your great-grandmother, Mason—tenacious in her ministrations, she was. And I’ll tell you the same thing I’d tell her; if it’s my time to go, your efforts won’t matter.”
Tears flooded Mason’s eyes. He didn’t want anyone else to die.
Get it together, Mason —focus!
What else could he do? His body suddenly felt heavy with the realization that until the bleeding stopped or until another pair of hands came along, there wasn’t anything else he could do.
His great-grandfather shivered and sucked in a series of weak breaths—he was going into shock. Mason needed to get a blanket, something, but he didn’t dare leave Papa’s side.
A sting between his shoulder blades knocked him forward, and he barely kept himself from collapsing on Papa Eli. A burning tingle throbbed out from his center back. He looked over his shoulder and felt his head swim.
Otley was watching him. Smiling. Pistol in hand. “Nightie-night, shell.”
Mason turned back to Papa Eli, bloody, blurry … two Papas, three.
The sky was bright blue above him. Fat white clouds. How had he gotten on his back? He needed to help Papa Eli. Stop the bleeding.
But Papa Eli’s face appeared above him, dark, backlit by the light of day. He grabbed Mason’s hand and squeezed. “Don’t let them change you, boy. No matter what. Stay true to …”
Mason’s eyelids slid closed.
he motorcycle jerked over the ruts of the mountain trail. Omar tried to steer carefully, but his efforts only seemed to make the ride bumpier. He liked the feel of Jemma’s arms around his waist though, and how they tightened whenever he hit a bump. He hoped it wouldn’t be long until he found a fiancée of his own.
Omar slowed to turn onto the valley road, and the ride became much smoother. He sped over the thick treads the Safe Lands vehicles had dug into the dirt and wondered if the tracks were one-way or two. Were the enforcers still in the village? He hoped so.
He also hoped Jemma hadn’t noticed the treads as they passed.
Once they entered the forest, the shade cooled him, which made him shiver despite the heat from the muffler warming his leg. The question of what was happening in Glenrock overwhelmed his mind. What would the people say when the enforcers made their offer?
It was a mad good idea, relocating. He’d been inside the Safe Lands only at night, but that had been enough to see that the city was amazing. So modern. To have to work only a few hours each day? To not have to hunt or grow your own food? The ability to do whatever you wanted? And the conveniences! Surely the people of Glenrock would
at least want to go inside to see for themselves. Omar couldn’t be the only one who’d wondered about the place.
The task director had said the enforcers would come right away. But then three weeks had passed, and Omar had begun to think they weren’t coming at all. He’d spent every moment he could watching from the perch, even volunteering for more shifts. He’d almost thought he’d been imagining those trucks when he saw them coming.
Thankfully Penelope, Shay, and Nell had followed him today, begging him to draw their portraits. He’d tricked Penelope into watching the perch, promising her an extra drawing for her trouble, then had gone to fetch Jemma and send Levi away. Something told him Levi wouldn’t like the Safe Lands, but if Jemma visited first … well, she could talk Levi into anything.
Plus, she was worth a million credits to Omar. The task director had promised him a referral fee for every new citizen he brought into the compound. Men were worth only ten thousand credits, so if Levi never came, Omar wasn’t out much. Things would move smoother without his interference anyway.
Omar downshifted as he steered the motorcycle into the village square. The three Safe Lands trucks he’d seen from the perch were parked in the roundabout. Pairs of enforcers were carrying bodies to the trucks.
Omar’s stomach seemed to turn inside out. No one was supposed to get hurt! The task director had promised a peaceful offer and negotiation. He’d promised.
Several enforcers aimed guns at Omar as he approached. He let the motorcycle coast to a stop. He lifted his hands above his head, but his gaze fell on two motionless bodies on the ground in front of the stage.
With a sick cry, Jemma climbed off and sprinted to the stage. The enforcers tracked her with their guns but didn’t fire. She knelt beside the bodies. “Oh! Omar, come quick!”
Omar must have followed, because he suddenly found himself at her side, looking down on the face of his own father.
His skin prickled, and he felt lightheaded. He shuffled back a few steps. Father couldn’t be dead. He couldn’t be. Father was supposed to move into the Safe Lands and be proud of Omar for coming up with the brilliant idea of relocating the people of Glenrock. How could Father be proud if he were dead? And Uncle Colton too? Why?
This couldn’t be real. Yes, that was it. He must have fallen asleep in the perch. Once he woke, Penelope would be begging him to draw her, and he’d laugh about all of this. Voices muttered nearby. That had to be Penelope and Shay and Nell. He rubbed his forefinger along the scar on the bridge of his nose until it was sore.
His head snapped back. Jemma was shaking him by his shoulders.
“They want us to go into the hall.” Her voice was weepy.
Why was she crying? He ran the back of his hand under his nose. His gaze again fell to the bodies. “Is that … my father?” His voice came out in a hoarse whisper.
“Omar, I’m so sorry.” Jemma sniffed in a deep breath and hugged him. The warmth of her body confused him. Felt real.
Suddenly she was gone. “No! Let go,” Jemma yelled. “Omar, please … Stay with me!”
With her? Stay?
He shook his head. “What?” He looked up in time to see an enforcer drag Jemma into the meeting hall.
“Okay, shell, let’s go inside.” Another enforcer took Omar’s arm and led him away from his father. Omar glanced back to make sure his father was … Yes. There he was. On the ground with Uncle Colton. This was the worst nightmare he’d ever had.
Inside, the air felt cool. The lull of men’s voices and the high-pitched wail of a girl crying met his ears.
When his eyes adjusted to the darkness, Omar saw at least three dozen people occupied the meeting hall. The banquet tables had been taken down, leaving the floor bare. His female friends, neighbors, and their children sat along the wall, wrists bound in their laps, half of them weeping, half of them asleep or dead. A sea of navy blue uniforms stood before them: Safe Lands enforcers, armed
with black pistols. The enforcer holding Jemma pushed her toward the women.
“No!” Mother yelled. “Omar, get Jemma out of here!”
“Jemma! Run!” Naomi screamed from her place along the wall.
Jemma wheeled around and ran back to the doors, where Omar was standing. “Back outside, Omar. Hurry!”
Then came a pop, followed by a metallic ping on the floor. Jemma gasped and stumbled. Someone screamed. Omar lunged forward and caught her under her arms. Behind her, an enforcer stood, his gun pointed at her back.
“Why’d you shoot her?” Omar yelled, fire searing his chest.
Jemma’s eyes filled with liquid. “Getting shot doesn’t hurt as much as I thought it would.”