“Kat’rin? Are we gonna starve?”
“No, Becca,” I quickly answer. “Not today.” I hazard a glance at my sister, but her almond eyes, as always, are expressionless. Her mouth is turned up in a perpetual grin, and if it weren’t for the question, I wouldn’t have known she was sad. I slip my arm around her shoulders and give her a comforting squeeze.
Ducking beneath a tear in the chain link fence, I hold it open for her as I glance around for any sign of Sweepers. Rebecca is about a foot shorter than I am, and she slips through the fence with ease. In her small hands she carries a canvas bag. Together, we hope to procure some canned goods from the abandoned grocery store before sneaking back home.
I have lingering doubts about the store. It’s located on the edge of the Lower and Middle Quarter, only about a block inside our section of town. When the Sweepers began evacuating the Lower they started from the furthest reaches and began pushing in, driving us toward the Middle. It took them six months just to clear half the quarter, though a sizeable number of us have refused to leave. This store was one of the last to close. It’s been vacant for nine months now—more than enough time for scavengers to have picked its carcass clean. Still, if I’ve learned one thing in my seventeen years on the planet, it’s not to take anything for granted. Rebecca herself is proof enough of that.
She’s two years older than I am, but her Down’s Syndrome means that I’m the big sister. It would be easy to assume that she isn’t as smart as she is—something we once made good use of when gambling for food. But that only worked the one time. Most souls left in the Lower Quarter know who she is, so it’s not like we can rely on her mad card-shark skills to survive. Which means raiding abandoned supermarkets like this one.
What we’re doing is, technically, illegal. But that’s only a problem if we get caught. And I have a good feeling about today. There haven’t been any Sweeper raids in the Lower for almost a month now, and none of them this early in the morning. I’m starting to hope that they’ve either grown lazy or have finally given up on finding us.
Hope is a dangerous luxury, one I rarely afford. I have very little of it for this place, but there’s enough to check it out.
We leave the fence behind and trudge across the parking lot, stirring up skittering leaves as we approach the front. Even from here I can see the tattered war posters still plastered across the store front, crowding out space that used to belong to advertisements for food. Slogans like “Total War Means Total Commitment,” and “Together We Will Be Victorious,” are illustrated with happy couples gleefully blowing the hell out of their enemies. Others call for volunteers to join the fight—not that anyone voluntarily joins. Another one shows people tearing apart an abandoned car. It reads, “They have the courage, now give them the metal.” I wonder why they bother to post them here. In the Upper and Middle sections, the same slogans are projected from lit billboards atop the highest buildings, continually calling for unity and sacrifice. At night, it warns against infiltrators and instigators, openly calling for people to inform on their neighbors.
The wind bites across the broken pavement, and I wrap my frail jacket tighter about my frame. Rebecca shivers and gives me a smile, but not from happiness. I think it means she’s worried. Fall has come early, like the year wants to skip over Spring and Summer entirely. It seems to do that more and more with each passing year. Finding enough food to make it through another winter will be difficult at best, and I find myself thinking again that it’s time to leave the city behind. We could slip into the mountains around us where game is plentiful, and learn to hunt and fish and live off the land. But the truth is, I don’t want to. Not really. The first problem would be securing a weapon to hunt with – a nearly impossible task since nobody is allowed to have a gun or even a bow. The Sweepers have a standing ‘Kill on Sight’ order for anyone caught with a gun in any of the quarters, let alone the Lower, which is supposed to be empty because of the plague. Even knives are frowned upon. But the real reason is that, plague or no plague, the Lower Quarter of Incorporated Municipality Number 27 is the only home I’ve ever known. Once upon a time, like a hundred years ago, the city we live in had a proper name. But most people who’d remember it are either dead or too busy trying to forget.
Incorporated Municipality Number 27 is one of fifty such population centers in FEMA Region II, under the thumb of the Regional Authority, or REGA, who is supposedly acting with the authority of something called the Federal government. Of course, nobody has seen nor heard of this Federal government in many years, as Mother tells it, so it’s doubtful there’s anyone left in charge.
REGA is all we know.
Region II had a name once also. New Something or other. But it’s been so long out of use that even if we remembered what to call our land, we’d probably have to rename it Old New Something or other, and that wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense. Most people just call it the Tier.
We arrive at the front of the store, where I’m not surprised to find that the entrance has been forced open. Tribes must’ve done that. There’s easily thirty Tribes wandering the streets of the Lower Quarter like packs of wild dogs or worse. They don’t get along, and territorial disputes are common.
It still strikes me as strange that people here at home band together to kill each other. I don’t know if that’s why they do it, but it’s the net result. You’d think after fifty years of endless war, we’d have figured out how to live with each other here at home. I asked Mother about it a few years ago, but she didn’t want to answer. When I pressed her on it, all she said was, “War makes people do crazy things sometimes.”
I don’t really think that’s an answer.
Rebecca stands panting clouds of vapor in front of the door, her eyes searching mine. I realize then that she’s waiting for me to go inside first, and make sure everything is okay. The last thing we want to do is run into a stray dog or worse—a stray tribesman. Since neither Becca nor I belong to anyone but ourselves, we’d be a target, and that was something I’d rather avoid today.
Not that I didn’t know how to take care of myself. Mother made sure of that. I pull out my knife and hold it above my navel, the way she trained me. From this position I can use the knife to block an attack from almost any direction. Of course, there’s always a chance that I’ll lose the knife in any ensuing struggle. But Mother prepared me for that as well. The few fights I’ve actually been in I’ve survived, which is the most anyone can really hope for. I don’t like the endless drills in hand-to-hand combat she pushes on me, but sometimes—times like this—I give her begrudging appreciation. With a last glance at the parking lot, I step through the door into the darkness inside.
It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the shadows. My foot scrapes across the tile floor, and the sound echoes through the interior. There’s no imminent threat, so I motion Rebecca inside.
“Wait here.” I move further into the desolate husk of the supermarket. Rows of cash registers lie broken and ravaged beside their counters. A sheen of dust covers them. Above them dangle the entrails of fluorescent lights and electrical conduit. It looks like someone was scavenging the wires for the precious copper. I pass underneath and leave the cash registers unmolested. I don’t have to check to know they’re empty. Not that I’m interested. Currency is practically useless here in the Lower Quarter. Some places in the twenty-seventh will take it. I’ve heard rumors that other Regions still use it as a medium of exchange, but since travel between the Regions or even municipalities is restricted, it wouldn’t do me any good even if it hadn’t been picked over.
On the other side I can see row after row of barren, steel shelving. I stand there and listen for a full minute, but the only sounds are those made by the wind outside and Rebecca shifting her weight. Finally, I turn around and wave her forward.
She shuffles over to me and reaches into her bag, pulling out the flashlight.
“Slim pickings,” I say.
She responds by clicking the beam on and shining it down the rows. One by one we check them out. Rebecca studies the lower shelves, and I the upper. Fifteen fruitless aisles later, we stumble across a forlorn can of beans lying on its side. I hold it up and examine it in the glare from Rebecca’s flashlight. It doesn’t take long to see why this can was passed over. The seams are bulging outward, meaning the contents have spoiled. I set it back on the shelf.
“Let’s check the stock room.”
Together we move to the back of the store. I pan the light through the interior, my knife at the ready.
Rebecca tugs my elbow, pointing. From the corner of my eye, I see them. Twin spots of green light studying us from a lower shelf. I swing the beam around in time to see the creature’s backside as it scurries out of sight.
“Possum,” she says.
It’s a good sign. It means there might be food here after all—something to draw the rodents. If they haven’t chewed through everything already, we might be in luck.
On an upper shelf I find it: a cardboard box with the corners eaten away. We drag it onto the floor and tear through the lid, gasping in pleasure. Ten cans of peas in water. Rebecca opens her bag, and we transfer the cans inside. From the same shelf, we are rewarded with another four cans of tuna.
“It’s like Christmas,” Rebecca says. “Thank you, Santa!”
“Yeah. He must’ve come early this year.” I straighten and survey the rest of the store. I’m gladdened by the food, but something troubles me, tickling the hairs at the nape of my neck and making them stand on end. Behind me, Becca is stacking the cans inside her sack and counting them.
“One, two, three…”
I move away from her, panning the light across the shelves, the trash, and the detritus of the abandoned stockroom. Then I see it. A tiny, pinprick of red glows in the upper corner of the room. Motion detector.
It’s a trap.
I swear and grab the sack of the floor, toppling Becca’s carefully stacked cans, earning a “Hey!” from her lips.
“We gotta go!”
She pushes herself to her feet and toddles after me. She isn’t moving nearly fast enough. I spy a steel exit door in the side of the stockroom. I slam my body against the crash bar, but the door doesn’t budge. It’s been wedged shut from the outside.
“What’s wrong?” she starts to say, but I put my finger to my lips and sidle up to the double doors leading to the main store. I click off the flashlight and hoist the bag over my shoulder.
Through the window of the door, I scan the room. At first, I don’t see it. Then a shadow passes across the ceiling, moving left to right. My heart is in my throat. I can feel the sweat on my palms making the knife slick in my grasp.
I bend toward Rebecca’s ear and whisper the one word I know will keep her quiet. “Sweepers!”
She gasps, and her hand flies to her mouth, clamping it shut. From here on out, we rely on hand signals.
After checking the window again, I ease the door open and slip through, holding it as Becca follows. I close it gently behind us. In the aisle, I press my back against the shelves and peer around the corner. I jerk back just as quickly.
One of them is coming our way. I caught a glimpse of two pale, greenish lenses in the dark. He’s wearing night-vision goggles. I don’t hear any quickening of his pace, which means he might not have seen me just yet.
Sweepers rove in bands of six agents, all armed with submachine guns, long knives at their belts, and full body armor. They also carry flash bombs across their chest. I know the weak points in their armor: the neck below their chin strap, the armpits, the crook of each elbow, both wrists, the inside of their thighs and the backs of their knees. The problem is getting close enough to do any damage.
I’ve never had to take on a Sweeper before, let alone six of them. I don’t particularly want to do so now. But it’s not like I’ve got much choice. It’s the only chance at freedom I have. If I surrender, then Becca and I are sure to be arrested, separated, and sent God-knows-where. If I fight and lose, we more or less face the same fate—although it’s possible I’ll be hurt or injured in the process.
He’s almost at the end of the aisle now, and it’s time to make my move. I motion to Becca. Run to the end of the aisle as fast as you can as soon as I make my move. She nods and smiles, but I read fear in her eyes.
I’ve only got two advantages, and I’ll need them both. One is the element of surprise. The other is that I know the weakness of night vision goggles, and my eyes are already adjusted to the darkness.
I draw a can of peas out of the sack before passing it to Becca, then I hold the flashlight at the ready. Abruptly, I roll the can and flick on the light.
Several things happen at once. The first is a gunshot that obliterates the peas, spattering the aisle. A cry of shock and pain escapes the Sweeper’s throat as the flashlight beam blinds him. Then I’m on top of him. The gun fires a second round as I shove it to the side, bringing my shin hard into his crotch. He gasps in pain, and drops to the floor when I hammer the butt end of the flashlight against the back of his skull.
Rebecca flashes past me, hurrying down the aisle as fast as her legs will propel her. I have no time to watch her escape. Instead, I pull the man over and snag one of the flash bombs from his chest. Pull the pin and toss it behind me. And not a moment too soon. Two Sweepers step around the corner, weapons raised, just as the flash bomb explodes from the floor.
The light and sound dazzle me. My ears ring from the pressure, but I can’t give into the pain. I snag two more flash bombs from his vest and run to the front of the store. I pull the pins with my teeth and toss the grenades over the shelves on either side. The explosions and subsequent cries of pain from my left tells me at least one of the bombs found its mark.
Rebecca is waiting for me at the end of the aisle. I’m certain the two remaining Sweepers expect us to bolt for the door, so instead I steer her around the corner to the left, doubling back. I can hear her breath coming in gasps as we run. This isn’t good for her heart—mine either—but I’m hoping she can hold it together long enough for us both to escape. For that matter, I’m hoping I can, too.
On the way, we pass by the Sweeper I’d taken out with the flash bomb. He’s pushing himself to his feet, groaning. I see that he’s swept the night vision goggles off his face, trying to stop the burning afterimage in his eyes. I grab him from behind and spin him around as we run by, slamming his face into the shelving unit. He collapses onto the ground.
We turn at the end of the aisle and bolt for the far side of the store. I mean to make them chase us around to the front, drawing them away from the door long enough for us to make our escape. Our only hope now is in speed.
We almost make it, too. A burst of gunfire lances out from behind us, chipping the tile floor and blowing chunks of plaster from the walls as we round the bend. Becca screams and drops the shopping back. Its contents spill onto the floor. For a moment, I’m afraid she’s been hit.
It takes a bit longer to realize I have been.
A sharp pain shoots up from my right calf. I gasp and hobble forward. Becca turns when she realizes she dropped the bag, but I shove her shoulder around. “No! Leave it!”
Together we round the end of the aisle and make a break around the cash registers. At least one of the agents must’ve figured out what we were doing, because a burst of gunfire hits the cash register beside us, sending fragments of broken plastic and metal flying into the air. More bullets strike the plate glass windows in the front of the store. Spider-webs of cracks dance across its surface. Abruptly, one of them shatters in a shower of tinkling glass.
We drop beneath the ends of the registers and hug the floor, scant yards away from the front. I stare at the opened window. The sill is only two feet off the ground. I could easily launch myself over it into a roll on the other side and make a dash toward freedom, but there’s no way Becca can do the same. I spy the blood soaking through my clothes on my right leg and realize then which of us has the best chance of escape. I drag my left foot beneath me and prepare to spring.
“Stay low,” I whisper harshly. “Get over that window as quickly as you can, and then hurry home to Mother. Don’t stop, no matter what. Can you do that.”
She smiles. I see tears in her eyes. “I’m scared!”
“Me too. You ready?”
As soon as she nods, I push her forward and then stand straight up, spinning around, my arms over my head. “I surrender!” The pain in my leg throbs and I stagger sideways.
Behind me, Becca scampers toward the window.
I see the Sweepers moving toward me, weapons trained on my chest. “Freezing!” I say.
“On your knees! Hands behind your head!”
I hear Becca crawl over the window and drop onto the pavement outside.
“I just wanted some food!”
“Get down! Now!”
Getting back down is harder than it looks. My leg doesn’t want to cooperate. I start to lower my hands, but a warning bark from one of the Sweepers makes me raise them again. Awkwardly, I sink to my knees and lace my fingers behind my head.
The Sweeper I racked in the groin hobbles forward, snarling at me. “I just wanted some food,” I repeat.
He purses his lips, and for a moment, I begin to think he’s going to squeeze the trigger. Then he blows a long breath through his nose and pulls a pair of handcuffs from his belt.
Groin-Guy shoves me to the floor and puts his knee in my back. I feel the cold metal of the cuffs snap across my wrist. He pins my right arm behind my back so forcefully I fear he’ll dislocate my shoulder. Then he does the same with my left.
Once I’m securely cuffed, he hauls me to my feet. I gasp when I stagger backward and my weight comes down on my wounded leg.
“I’ve been shot.”
He glances disdainfully at my leg and sniffs, “You’ll live.”
The others gather around me. I see the one I took out in the aisle. His eyes are already turning black and blue, and his nose is a bloody, broken mess. He swears when he sees me. “She’s just a kid!”
Groin-Guy says, “This kid took you out.” He jerks me around. “Hey. Where’s the other one? That dopey-faced kid?”
I feel my face flush, my eyes narrow. I’m suddenly glad I racked him so hard that he limps. I shake my head. “I dunno what you’re talking about.”
He back-hands me across the mouth, and I see stars.
“Hey, easy!” This from the guy whose nose I bloodied. He grabs my shoulder.
“That’s for lying,” the guy says, sticking his finger in my face. “And for kicking me in the nuts.”
Broken-Nose turns me about and frog-marches me from the store. The others fan out and move down the street.
Once in the parking lot, my wounded leg is quickly wrapped, and the bloody bandages are stowed away in a plastic evidence bag. I don’t have time to wonder what they intend to do with it. Instead, they toss me into the back of a black van. Broken-Nose climbs in after me and takes a picture of me with his comlink. He taps the screen, looks up at me and frowns. “Katherine Holt?”
“This here says you’re dead.” He shows me the photo. I can see the word ‘Deceased’ written on the bottom, but I’m drawn to the picture. Is that really what I look like? We don’t have anything resembling mirrors where we hide out, and cameras are a luxury we could never afford. Besides, Mother has a thing about having her picture taken. She thinks it should bother us as well. I have blond hair like Rebecca, but it’s long and wavy, instead of short and curly, like hers. My eyes are blue, and I’m wearing an expression that looks either angry or frightened. Or maybe both. Regardless, I hate it.
My tattoo, of a falcon in flight, is still hidden on my left shoulder. My mother has one just like it. She told me never to show it to anyone. I have no idea why.
I look up at him and force a smile. “Well, maybe you should just let me go then, and save yourself the paperwork. Can’t arrest a dead person now, can you?”
“Maybe we should just dig a hole and bury you in it,” says Groin-Guy. “We do that to dead people.”
I raise an eyebrow at him. “Has your voice changed? Seems higher.”
He raises his hand and I’m ashamed to admit I flinch. “You’ve got a smart mouth, kid.”
“And you got beat up by a girl,” I retort.
“You want some advice?”
“Shut up!” He takes the comlink from Broken-Nose and studies it. “This isn’t right.”
“File must be corrupted,” says Broken-Nose.
Groin-Guy snorts. “No matter. We’ll straighten it out.” He starts the van and tears out of the parking lot. After half a block he stops, and the side door slides open. My heart sinks. On the street outside, in handcuffs and tears, stands Rebecca.