The clank and rattle of what he thought of as The System had long since faded into mere background noise to Gus. Or maybe he was just going deaf. He was certainly old enough—beyond old enough—for it. In any event, it didn’t matter. He was the only one tending to The System, so he was the only one to talk to. And he’d gotten bored with himself a long, long time ago. Stooped and twisted with age—nearly fifty years, if he remembered correctly, an almost unheard-of longevity—he limped around the chamber with only himself for company.
The System was a series of belts, tubes, pulleys, and wheels arranged in a circuitous route through a large chamber. It began at an inclined chute at one end and wended its clacking, whirring way through the chamber to the opposite end.
The System was all about bodies.
Tall, short, thin, fat, young, old, frail, robust, every color and shade decreed by Nature or by God—take your pick. The bodies wound through The System day and night, hauled along as machines snapped and plucked at them, stripping them of clothing, jewelry, and all the other accoutrements of the living world. They entered The System as they’d died; they left it as they’d been born: naked and alone.
Gus monitored The System. He attended to its needs. Though he had his suspicions, he didn’t know where the bodies came from or where they went. Long ago he’d decided that it was best simply to be grateful he wasn’t one of them.
This day, a sound came to him, pitched high above the muted rumble of the machinery. At first, he thought it had to be his imagination. Then he thought it must be his ears finally giving up the ghost after so many years of abuse. He scrabbled at one ear, then the other, with his little finger, digging around.
The sound persisted. High-pitched and abjectly terrified and definitely alive, not mechanical.
He peered around the chamber, seeking the source of the sound. In the echoing confines of The System, it was difficult to pinpoint a specific noise. Especially with ears fading, as his were. Standing still, he listened intently. Rotated and took a few steps. Paused again to listen, willing the sound to become louder.
Miraculously, it did. It rose to a bloodcurdling howl.
Gus rushed to the tunnel that opened up into The System. The noise had come from there, he knew it.
He gaped at what he saw.
Gus had worked The System as long as he could remember. Most of his life, really. Decades. He’d never tried to count the bodies that came through, and even if he had, he would have given up on tallying them long ago.
But this, he knew, was the first time he’d ever seen a living one.
A tiny, defenseless baby lay on a series of grinding cylinders that bore the bodies into The System. She—for she was naked—squawked and squalled, waving one pudgy fist in terrified indignation, kicking her chubby legs.
She was stuck. As she’d slid down the chute, her left shoulder had been caught in the gears of the machinery. It pinched there, purple-going-black, and she howled.
Sometimes bodies got stuck like this. Gus had tools to break them loose. But such tools were for dead bodies, not living ones, and he froze for an instant, unsure what to do.
She cried out again, her face going purple now.
There was no time to hit the emergency shutdown switch—she would be ripped to shreds before then. And besides, hitting the switch would mean questions, and Gus understood that it was best not to have questions when he had no answers.
Wincing in sympathetic pain, he tugged at her, gently at first and then, finally, with all his strength when gently didn’t suffice. With a yowl of pain, she came free from the machine, leaving behind an inch-wide strip of flesh from high up on her neck to her shoulder. Bright red blood spilled, and Gus nearly lost his grip on her as it flowed down to his hands, making her slippery.
“Shush, shush,” he cooed, almost by instinct. A baby. When was the last time he’d seen a baby?
A living baby, he amended.
“Hush-a, hush-a,” he tried, and still she wailed. He couldn’t blame her.
He knew what he should do. He knew his job. Bodies came into The System, and bodies went through The System, and bodies left The System. His job was to make sure everything ran smoothly. And while he’d always assumed the bodies would be dead and had always seen only dead bodies… no one had ever specified dead.
He should put her on the rolling cylinders and let her leave The System as everyone else did, to go wherever they went.
It had been so long since he’d cried that he didn’t even realize he was doing it until the first fat tears splashed onto her round, little belly.
“Hush-a, hush-a,” he whispered, bouncing her lightly. “Hush-a, hush-a. That ain’t gonna heal on its own. Sorry, no. But I think old Gus can do what he can do.”
He carried her to his workbench and swept his tools aside. The bench was dirty and scarred with age, but better than whatever lay beyond The System. He set her down and began rummaging in his toolbox, muttering to himself.
“Fishing line, fishing line…” He hadn’t fished since he was a boy, and even then the rivers had been dead. But the line came in handy for a number of tasks, so he always kept a supply. He dug it out now and then found a needle from the kit he used to repair his clothes.
“This ain’t gonna feel so good right now,” he warned her, threading the needle with the fine, light filament, “but it’ll feel better later, I promise.”
He took a deep breath. He held her down and began to sew.
Deedra wouldn’t have seen the blue rat that morning if not for her best friend, Lissa.
“What are you thinking about?” Lissa asked, and Deedra realized she’d been staring up at the bridge that crossed the river on the edge of the Territory. The bridge that used to cross the river, actually. Halfway, the bridge had crumbled—when the river ran low, you could still see chunks of concrete, sprouted with spider legs of steel, resting in the water where they’d fallen. She and Lissa had hiked out from the center of the Territory toward the border, maneuvering past the Wreck. Now they stood on the shell of what had once been a train car, or a truck or some kind of vehicle, turned on its side and rusting into oblivion. From here, they could see the whole putrid shoreline of the river.
Deedra shrugged. “Nothing,” she lied, and held up a hand to shield her eyes from the nonexistent sun. On a good day there would be maybe a half hour of direct sunlight, usually in the morning. The rest of the time, like now, the sky clouded over, steeping the Territory and the wider City in gray murk.
Along one edge of the bridge, some long-ago vandal had spray-painted WAITING FOR THE RAIN. The words were black, except for the last one, which had been sprayed bloodred.
“You’re thinking of climbing the bridge,” Lissa said knowingly, and Deedra couldn’t help but smirk. Her friend knew her too well. Deedra was the risk-taker, the climber.
One time, years ago, she’d found a bird’s nest out by the bridge. Birds were rare, a nest a rarer wonder still. It was up high, built of bits of wire and cabling and trash, more a web than a nest, caught in the spot where a fallen beam crossed a jutting bit of concrete. She had to figure out how to climb all the way up there, using a bunch of broken packing crates and some discarded lengths of wire to fashion a sort of flexible ladder. It swayed and dipped when she so much as blinked, but she made it, coaching herself along the way under her breath: You can do this, Deedra. You can make it. You can do it.
In the nest were four perfect little eggs. They were delicious.
“You’re thinking of the eggs,” Lissa said even more confidently, and Deedra groaned.
“Okay, yeah, you got me. I was thinking of the eggs.”
“Lucky day,” Lissa said with a shrug. “You’re not going to get that lucky again.”
Probably not. The odds of finding anything alive and edible in the Territory were slim. The rations they earned from working at one of the Territory factories were synthesized in laboratories, using DNA spliced from extinct species like turkeys and asparagus. Such rations kept them alive, but scavenging for something to eat could make the difference between simple survival and quelling the rumble of a never-full belly. Plus, it tasted a whole lot better.
The bridge was Deedra’s personal challenge to herself. She swore to one day climb its supports and reach the top. “Who knows what’s up there?” she asked, focusing on it as if she could zoom in. “I’ve never heard of anyone going up there. There could be all kinds of—”
“No one’s ever gone up there because there’s nothing worth seeing,” Lissa said drily. “If there was anything worthwhile up there, don’t you think the Magistrate would have claimed it already?”
Deedra shrugged. “The Magistrate doesn’t know everything. No one ever even comes out here.”
“Who can blame ’em?” Lissa hooked her thumb over her shoulder at the Wreck: easily a mile—maybe two, who was counting?—of old automobiles and other such vehicles, jammed together at angles, piled atop one another, packing the route back into the heart of the Territory. Picking a path through the Wreck was dangerous—any of the precariously positioned cars could tilt and crash down at any minute. Pieces of them—weakened by rust—had been known to drop off without warning, crushing or slashing the unwary.
“I can’t believe I let you talk me into coming back out here,” Lissa grumbled. “We get one day a week out of L-Twelve, and I’m spending it out here. You’re going to get me killed one of these days.”
“Not going to happen.”
“Give it time. Oh, look!”
Deedra followed Lissa’s pointing finger, then watched as her friend carefully clambered down from their vantage point to the ground.
Lissa was smaller than Deedra, with a mountain of wild jet-black hair that would have added two or three more inches to her height had it not been tied back in a tight, efficient ponytail. Like Deedra, she wore a gray poncho that covered her torso and arms, with black pants and boots underneath. A breathing mask dangled around her neck—the air quality wasn’t too bad today, so they were bare-facing it.
She reached down for something on the ground, cried out triumphantly, and held up her prize.
Squinting, Deedra couldn’t tell what it was, so she joined Lissa on the ground. Lissa held up a small, perfectly round disc. It was just the right size to be held with one hand. It had a similarly perfect hole in its center, and its face was smudged and scratched, but when Lissa flipped it over, the opposite side was clean and shiny.
“What is it?” Deedra asked.
“I thought you might know. You’re the one who scavenges every free minute.”
Deedra examined the disc. On the smudged side, she could barely make out what appeared to be letters: Two Ds, with a V between them.
“I don’t know what it is.”
Lissa suddenly exclaimed with excitement. “Wait! Let me try.…”
She snatched back the disc and poked her finger through the hole in the middle, then held it with the shiny side out. “See? It’s a mirror! You put your finger through to hold it and look at yourself in the shiny side.”
Deedra’s lip curled at the sight of herself. It was something she usually tried to avoid. Her muddy-brown hair was down around her shoulders, even though it was more practical to tie it up while out scavenging. Even around her best friend, though, she couldn’t abide the idea of exposing her scar. It was a knotty, twisted cable of dead-white flesh that wended from under her left earlobe all the way down to her shoulder, standing out a good half inch from her body. She flinched at her reflection and turned away.
“Sorry,” Lissa mumbled. “Sorry, wasn’t thinking—”
Deedra immediately felt terrible. The scar wasn’t Lissa’s fault. “Don’t. It’s okay. And I think you’re right.” She took Lissa’s wrist and turned the disc so that it reflected Lissa instead. “It’s a mirror. Very cool. Check out the pretty girl.”
Lissa chuckled. She tucked the disc into her pack, which she’d slung over one shoulder. Already, it bulged with junk she’d scavenged on their careful slog through the Wreck. Lissa was a good friend but a terrible scavenger. She kept everything. Deedra had tried to tell her: Save your pack for the trip back. It’s less to carry that way, and it means you can save your space for the very best stuff you come across. But Lissa never learned. She wanted it all.
The wind shifted and they caught a whiff of the river, which made them gag. Lissa slipped on her breathing mask. “Disgusting. We’re not getting any closer, are we?”
Deedra shrugged. She’d come out here for one reason. And, yes, getting closer was a part of it. The river formed part of the boundary with Sendar Territory. Deedra and Lissa lived in Ludo Territory, under the auspices of Magistrate Max Ludo. Ludo and Sendar were part of the City, which—as far as anyone knew—didn’t have a name. It didn’t need one. It was the City.
Ludo Territory was under terms of a peace treaty with Sendar… but even long-standing peace treaties had been known to change without warning. So being out by the river was at least a little bit dangerous, and not just for the risk of breathing in the toxic brew.
Still, she wanted to climb the bridge. And today would be the day.
“Check it out!” Lissa cried, pointing.
Deedra turned and saw—right out in the open—an enormous rat. It had to be at least a foot long, standing three or four inches tall, and it had paused to scratch at the loose gravel on the ground.
“I see dinner,” Lissa singsonged, and rummaged for her slingshot.
“Uh-uh.” Deedra held out a hand to stop her. “Not that one. Look closer.”
The rat stood still, shivering. It bore blue tufts of mangy fur.
“Mutant,” she told Lissa. “You eat him, he’ll be your last meal.”
For weeks now, drones had swooped low over the Territory, warning everyone about the danger of the hybrid rats that had begun edging into the Territory. Citizens should not harvest and eat blue rats, they’d boomed. Hybrid rats are a dangerous food source.
“Citizens should not eat anything I don’t give them,” Lissa said, aping the Magistrate’s voice. “Citizens should not blah blah blah.”
“You want to risk it?” Deedra asked.
“Not a chance.”
“Didn’t think so.”
Deedra picked up a nearby rock and tossed it at the rat. It landed in front of the rat and off to one side. The rat stared for a second, totally unafraid, then loped off toward the river.
“I’m going to follow it,” Deedra said casually.
Lissa wrinkled her nose. “Why?”
“Maybe it shares a nest with normal rats.”
“And maybe you just want to get closer to the bridge.”
Deedra shrugged with exaggerated innocence but didn’t deny it.
“I was wrong before,” Lissa said. “You’re not going to get me killed—you’re going to get yourself killed. Go have fun doing it. I’m going to check over there.” She pointed off to an overturned truck in the near distance. “Meet back here in ten?”
“Make it twenty.” She didn’t want to climb the bridge and have to come right back down.
They separated. The smell from the river grew more intense as she got closer, following the blue rat as it scampered away. She slid on her own breathing mask. It got twisted up in her necklace, so she paused for a moment to disentangle the pendant before slipping the mask over her mouth and nose.
The rat stopped and looked back at her. Deedra picked up a crushed tin can and hurled it. The rat ran a little way, then turned around again. Deedra stomped after it, scooped up the can, and threw it again. She chased the rat nearly to the water before it disappeared into a pile of scrap and garbage.
The chase had taken her around to the far side of the abutment. A collapsed chunk of pavement leaned against the column. The pavement was nearly vertical, but she thought she could use the cracks in it as handholds and scale her way up to the bridge itself.
She could hardly believe her good luck. She had thought she would have to climb one of the other abutments, which didn’t have nearly so many handholds.
“You’re my hero, ugly mutant blue rat,” she called. The rat, if it heard her, didn’t bother to answer.
She tied her hair back to keep it out of her eyes as she climbed. “You can do this,” she muttered. “You can do this.…”
It was hard going, but she fell into a rhythm soon enough, using her legs to push herself up rather than pulling with her arms. That was the trick—using the bigger, stronger leg muscles for movement and the smaller arm muscles for balance and direction. She’d gotten about twenty feet up and was pretty pleased with herself. Below and off to her left, the river glimmered, oily and slick. Sometimes, in the rare sunlight, it was almost beautiful. Not today.
She kept a tight grip with her right hand and wiped sweat from her brow.
Stop daydreaming, Deedra. Get moving. Lissa will be waiting.
With a heavy sigh, she reached for the next handhold, flexing her legs for distance.
And the pavement under her right foot crumbled and peeled away.
Deedra gasped as her whole right side listed, suddenly hanging out in open air. Her right hand hadn’t reached the new handhold yet, and her entire left side was already protesting the strain of holding her up. She flailed for a handhold, for a foothold, for anything at all, but her motion made her position only more precarious.
She glanced down. The ground swam at her.
It was only twenty feet, but the ground was studded with chunks of concrete, sharp bits of steel, and heavy rocks. If she dropped, she could easily bash her head open or break her back.
Her right hand slapped against the pavement, seeking purchase. She lifted her head; looking at the ground was stupid when she needed to find a handhold instead.
Across the river, something caught her attention. It was so unexpected that she actually forgot her situation for an instant.
Something—someone—was across the river, in Sendar Territory.
Running toward the river.
It was another girl.
Deedra flattened herself against the pavement and reached straight up with her free hand. She had to twist into a contorted, painful position, but she found a grip. Planting the heel of her loose foot against the wall, she stabilized herself.
Deep breaths. Deep, deep breaths.
When she looked into Sendar again, the other girl had made it to the opposite shore. At that distance, she almost disappeared into the background clutter of crumbled concrete, twisted steel, and broken glass.
If not for the coat she wore. It was long, down to her ankles, and from Deedra’s position, it looked like a very dark green. Deedra had never seen a coat like that.
Maybe you should worry less about the coat and more about not dying.
It was at least an additional forty or fifty feet to the bridge, but she figured she’d risked enough for one day. Time to retreat back to the ground. Live again to climb another day.
And besides… it would be a chance to scope out the stranger.
With some difficulty, she managed to retrace her steps, finding by feel and memory the handholds and footholds that had gotten her this far. She inched down the incline and then dropped the last three feet to the ground.
She came around the bridge abutment for an unobstructed view of the river. The other girl was standing on the shore. Very slim, but tall and broad-shouldered. The weirdest girl she’d ever seen, for sure.
The girl started to undress. Her body, so different from Deedra’s, came into view—those broad shoulders, a surprisingly flat chest, then a concave belly tapering down to slender hips, and…
And this was no girl. Not at all.
It was the prettiest, most exquisite boy Deedra had ever seen.
She shook her head to clear it, blinked her eyes. The pollution had to be affecting her sight. No man could look like that. It had to be a girl.
She looked again.
No. Still a boy.
Like no boy she’d ever seen. He seemed more chiseled into existence than born. His skin was unblemished and smooth; clean, unlike everyone else’s. Even her own. He was slender, but not emaciated like most people. Healthy. Vibrant. He didn’t stoop or slouch—he stood straight and tall after slipping out of his pants.
She couldn’t help herself—she stared at him as, naked, he carefully folded his clothes, wrapping them in the coat. Then he stepped into the water.
The river was only a couple of feet deep at this spot. He waded in up to his knees, then his waist. Fording the river with his clothes held well above the water, he began to struggle as the current grew stronger toward the center. He’d started out with a good, strong stride but was growing weaker as he waded farther and farther in.
Deedra started fidgeting with her necklace, running the pendant—a circle with a Greek cross jutting out from it—back and forth along the chain. Stupid kid. If he would just ditch his clothes, he could swim across easily.
But he wasn’t going to do that. And with each step, it was clear that he was getting more and more exhausted.
He wasn’t going to make it. He would be swept downriver. And if he managed not to drown, he would wash up on one of the piers down by the Territory of Grevan Dalcord.
The Mad Magistrate, they called him. Max Ludo could be unfair, corrupt, and pigheaded, but at least he didn’t execute criminals by sewing rats to their faces and letting the rodent gnaw its way free. That was the sort of thing Dalcord was known to do. Ludo Territory was technically at peace with Dalcord, too, but everyone knew it was only a matter of time before the Mad Magistrate launched an attack. It was inevitable.
The boy in the river was about halfway across, but making no further progress. The current was too strong.
She found herself running to the water’s edge. There was something in her hand, and she realized as she ran that she was dragging a long, old piece of rebar, still straight except for a little crook at the end.
The boy was looking around, not panicked, but concerned, as the water began relentlessly shoving him downriver. She shouted, “Hey!”—it was all she could get out as she ran—and waved her free arm to get his attention.
He noticed her just as she got to the water. She heaved the heavy rebar with all her strength. It flopped—splash!—into the river, throwing up a sheet of filthy, grimy water. For a moment colors sparkled and hung in the air, distracting her with unexpected beauty.
Him, too. He stared at the kaleidoscope as the water tugged him farther away.
“Stop staring and grab this!” she yelled.
That snapped him out of it. He tucked his clothes under an arm and reached out for the rebar, but he couldn’t find the end of it no matter how much he flailed.
She took a deep breath and planted her feet and groaned, levering the far end of the rebar out of the water. She couldn’t hold it very high—just right at the level of the water. Just close enough?
Yes! He managed to grab hold of it. She braced herself, expecting his weight to overcome her muscles and drag her in. But he didn’t. He must have weighed next to nothing.
“Don’t let go!” she shouted. She took a precious second to reposition and replant her feet. The shore was mostly wet gravel and trash. She gouged at it with her heel until she’d dug a little ramp to brace herself against.
“Hold on!” she called to him, and when she looked up, he’d begun pulling himself along the rebar. He still had his clothes tucked under one arm, so it was awkward going, but he was making progress.
She heaved, pulling the rebar hand over hand.
They were close enough now that she could make out his expression. He didn’t look terrified. Just… uneasy. The strain of keeping his grip seemed to bother him more than the idea of what would happen if he let go.
It felt like hours to haul him in—her groaning, fiery shoulders would swear it was hours—but it had to have been only a few minutes. Just as she thought her muscles would give out, his body emerged from the water down to his knees. She tried not to stare anywhere in particular as she found a final burst of power that allowed her to pull him even closer.
Once his knees cleared the water, he let go of the rebar without warning, and she stumbled backward down a slight grade. She yelped in surprise, then swore loudly, collapsing on her back. The mask slipped away from her face, and the reek of the river stabbed at her nostrils. Stones bit into her; she lost her breath.
When she managed to struggle up to a sitting position, she saw him there, on his back on the rocky ground, gazing straight up. He wasn’t even breathing hard.
He stared at the sky, and she stared at him. Even up close, he was still perfect. She’d thought that maybe he only seemed so flawless at a distance, but here he was in front of her, and his pale skin was just as unmarked. Which was unusual because everyone had brands identifying their Territory. They were usually burned in along the left shoulder/neck area, but since Deedra’s scar made that impossible, her own brand—in the shape of some kind of water creature that was the symbol of Ludo Territory—was on her right shoulder.
The boy had no brand. Not on either shoulder. Still naked and utterly self-possessed, he simply sat up and stared at her, studying her.
She couldn’t imagine why he would want to. Why anyone would. Only once, long ago, as a child, had anyone told her she was beautiful. One of the caretakers at the orphanage where she’d grown up. But that had been a cruel joke. The truth was as obvious as her own skin: The hideous, mottled scar commandeering the left side of her neck, trailing down to her collarbone, made her nothing more and nothing less than ugly.
It was time to go. She had helped him. Fine. But for all she knew, he could be crazy. Or even—and it just occurred to her, in a rush of terror—a spy, sent to infiltrate Max Ludo’s territory. Magistrates were supposed to keep out of one another’s Territories, but that rule only applied to what could be proved in a Citywide Magistrates Council. If the Mad Magistrate thought he could steal some of Ludo’s rations or encroach on the area to alleviate his own overcrowding, well, why not do it?
Wary of the incline, she took a careful step back and would have turned to run, but at that moment—as if he knew she was leaving—the boy twisted on the ground, rising with a smooth, easy motion into a crouch. His eyes—a deep and almost succulent green—met hers and locked; she couldn’t have moved if the entire river had suddenly risen up behind him and threatened to devour them both.
He froze her.
Not with fear or worry. No. It took a moment, but she soon recognized the kindness and curiosity in his eyes. No sudden flinch of realization, no moment of recoil and disgust.
Her hair. It was still in a ponytail and he could see. Could see the scar.
Even though there was nothing but gentleness in his eyes, she still found herself reaching back and fumbling to let loose her hair and drag it around her left side.
And still he said nothing. Just watched.
“Thank you,” he said, “for helping me.”
His voice… it was somehow deep and light all at once, pleasant and alive in a way she didn’t know voices could be. It was like a piece of him, set loose to drift in the air. Without even realizing it, she took a step toward him.
“You’re welcome.” Her own voice was clumsy and raspy, a stupid, harsh thing, not effortless like his. “Are you all right?”
He nodded, still completely unself-conscious about his nudity. Her neck and cheeks warmed again as she forced herself not to stare. With no particular urgency, he began to pull on his clothes, finishing with that peculiar dark green coat.
“I’ve never seen someone cross the river,” she said, lamely. “Why would you leave Sendar Territory?” Glorio Sendar wasn’t a great Magistrate, but she wasn’t bad, either. Journeying from Sendar’s territory to Ludo’s was like trading a weekday ration for half a weekend ration. Same difference.
“I’m not really from there,” he said. “I’ve been traveling. For a long time.”
“What about your family?”
He simply shrugged. His expression didn’t change at all.
“I’m an orphan, too,” she whispered. For no reason, her eyes began to water, and she wiped at them angrily. She’d been alone her entire life. Being parentless, familyless, was nothing new. Why did it suddenly feel so powerfully wrong and painful?
Deedra flushed and turned partly away.
“I’m sorry,” he said immediately. “I didn’t mean to… I wasn’t…” He groaned, clearly upset with himself. “Look, it just might be safer if you keep a little ways back.”
He took another step back, as if to prove his point.
She had no idea what he meant. Was he worried about something from the river infecting her?
“I’m not afraid,” she told him. “As long as you don’t drink it or soak in it for too long, the water won’t make you sick.”
He frowned as though he didn’t quite believe her. They gazed at each other for a few moments. She sucked in a deep breath and risked it: She held out her hand.
“My name is Deedra.”
With a reluctant little nod, he shook her hand, then immediately pulled back, as though he’d pushed luck as far as he was willing. “I’m Rose.”
Deedra blinked. “Wait, isn’t Rose a girl’s name?”
Rose shrugged. “It’s mine.”
She smiled and had no idea what to say next, and then the world took the necessity of speech away from her.
A drone buzzed overhead, its speakers blaring, “Citizen Alert! Citizen Alert! Seek shelter! Seek shelter!”
The drone had come from nowhere, sweeping in, its blast of sound doubled in volume as it echoed off the surrounding sheets of steel and glass from the nearby Wreck. Deedra hissed in a breath and clapped her hands to her ears, shutting her eyes reflexively against the assault of sound. The drone whizzed closer by, blasting out its warning again, nearly driving her to her knees.
Shelter. She had to find shelter.
She opened her eyes and looked up just in time to see the drone banking by the nearest abutment, cutting a sharp left to avoid crossing the Territorial boundary. Bleating out its warning again, it zoomed north.
Deedra looked around for shelter and realized in the same instant that the boy—Rose—was gone.
His sudden disappearance stunned her into paralysis. She forgot about shelter and stood rooted to her spot. How in the world had he disappeared so quickly? Where had he gone? She spun around, thinking maybe he’d ducked behind her or run off in that direction, but no. Nothing.
Not even a path of disturbed gravel where he would have run.
It was Lissa, screaming to her from near the Wreck. Deedra was shocked to see how tiny Lissa looked—in the mad rush to pull Rose from the river, she’d run farther from the Wreck than ever before, closer to the river than she’d ever dared.
“Come on!” Lissa shouted, gesturing wildly. Overhead, the drone cried out its warning again, this time farther distant and not so painfully. Deedra unfroze her legs and ran at top speed toward Lissa, who kept motioning for her to hurry. As she got closer, she saw that Lissa was propping up an old sheet of corrugated metal against a block of concrete. A decent enough shelter, in a pinch.
Lissa crawled in as Deedra neared her, throwing herself under the metal sheet as the drone’s alarm faded into the distance.
Under the impromptu shelter, it was dark and the air—even filtered through her mask—tasted of rust. Deedra panted, catching her breath, as she curled into the tight, unyielding space with Lissa.
“I would laugh, but I don’t have enough room.”
They giggled, then suddenly stopped at a sound in the distance.
“Was that an explosion?”
“Could have been a…” Deedra broke off. She didn’t know what it could have been. She just didn’t want to think it was an explosion. Especially not when she was stuck out here at the edge of nowhere with only a sheet of metal between her and who-knew-what.
They held their breath together. Deedra counted to thirty in her head, straining to hear.
Finally, she blew out her breath, an instant after Lissa did.
“I don’t think it was a bomb. There would have been another one, right? It could have been something falling over. Back in the Wreck.”
Lissa shrugged. Given their close quarters, Deedra felt it more than saw it.
They waited. It was impossible to tell for how long. Eventually a drone buzzed by calling out the all-clear. They struggled out from under the makeshift shelter, untangling themselves from each other.
“That was fun,” Lissa said, pulling down her mask. She inhaled deeply, coughed, and grimaced. “Not worth it.”
Deedra pulled down her mask, too. The air smelled and tasted awful, but it was—for the moment—better than the hot, humid air in her mask. She turned away from Lissa, looking back down toward the river. From this vantage point, she could see a whole stretch of the riverbank and the bridge abutments. Rose was nowhere to be seen. She couldn’t even see a place where he might have sheltered.
“What are you looking for?”
Lissa snorted. “That’s pretty ambitious scavenge, Dee.”
“No, seriously. There was a boy. Down there, by the river. A boy named Rose.”
The flower… Oh, right, Deedra remembered now. Flowers. They grew out of the ground, like weeds. She’d seen images of them, but never one in person. No one had, as best she knew. At least since the Red Rain. In fact, some people weren’t even sure they existed at all. They were just mutant weeds, really. Weird flukes of nature, like the blue rat.
Or like me, she thought, and stroked one finger along her scar without intending to, only half-realizing it.
Lissa slapped her hand away from the scar. “Cut that out. It’s not like you can make it go away.”
Easy for Lissa to say; she didn’t have to live with it. Deedra shook her hair into place over the scar with a long-practiced jerk of her head. “He was down there. He…” She sighed. “Never mind. He’s gone.”
“We should be gone, too. Just in case they alert again.”
She was right, and Deedra knew it, even though it rankled her. She’d really wanted to climb the bridge today. And now she also wanted to know what had happened to Rose. Where had he gone? And just as important: Where had he come from before Sendar Territory? Why cross the river?
Lissa tugged at her poncho. “Let’s go. It’ll take a while to get through the Wreck.”
They began to make their way deeper into the Territory, carefully retracing the path they’d taken through the Wreck.
“What do you think it was this time?” Deedra asked, trying to take her mind off Rose. For some reason, she had difficulty not thinking about him, in a way she’d never experienced before. “Another gridhack?”
“Nah. Another false alarm, I bet.”
Deedra shrugged. The wikinets—the Territory-wide public-information system—would report later on the cause of the alarm. Maybe. Sometimes a Citizen Alert would be sounded, then canceled, with no reason offered, leaving everyone to wonder if it was just a glitch, a test, or something classified.
In the end, it didn’t matter, she realized. One way or the other, when the drones said shelter, you had to shelter. There was no other option.
Danger meant shelter. Somewhere out there, she knew, Rose had run. She hoped he’d found shelter. She hoped he would continue to.
She didn’t know why she hoped these things. But as she picked her way through the Wreck with Lissa, she realized when she thought of Rose, she was smiling.