The train yard for the Twenty-Seventh lies at the heart of the city, less than a mile from the central nexus of tall buildings. Several rail lines converge into a major exchange, with switches directing the traffic onto the various lines that run east, west, and north. Most of the rails have been torn up by scrappers, and along the sides of the yard the crumbling wooden hulks of box cars, long since stripped of their metal, lie maze-like beside the rotting timbers of the rail ties.
The sky above us is just now beginning to brighten as the sun nears the horizon, ready to plunge the world into a new day. Noxious clouds obscure the skyscrapers at the heart of the city. They’ll grow jaundiced as the day dawns, but for now they’re dirt brown, hanging low around the buildings like the crowds of sallow-eyed scrapper teams awaiting the trains that’ll take them to their next assignment. None of those people are within sight, of course, but I can’t help thinking about it. Mother is among them. I wish we could save Becca and run to her right now, but we don’t have the time. I wonder if she knows—perhaps on some intuitive, gut-feeling level—just how close her daughters are.
We run in four separate groups, none of us following exactly the same path into the yard. Like the others, I wear a radio headset tuned to a scrambled frequency. I’ve been given one of the automatic rifles and a pair of clips taken from the dead Wolf tribe—who themselves acquired it from the Sweepers trying to track me down. Many of the weapons were decimated by REGA’s missile attack, but a number still work. The Raptors wasted nothing, collecting every recoverable bullet from the damaged guns and saving even the attached clips. I suspect this was how they developed their armory in the first place.
Matthew leads us through the maze of empty, overturned box cars, keeping us just out of the line of sight of the control tower that broods over the plundered yard. I keep stealing glances at the darkened windows. Are people lurking up there behind the control booth, peering out over the yard as they sip their morning coffee, never suspecting that we’re among them? Or worse, are they watching us with night vision cameras as we steal across the tracks, monitoring our every move and reporting to the Sweeper teams that we’ve nearly fallen into their trap?
Matthew taps my arm, drawing my eyes back to earth. “Pay attention, baby girl.”
“Can they see us from up there?”
He shrugs in reply.
I swallow the lump in my throat and hurry along behind him. At the end of the line of cars we bunch up, staring down the line of track to the north. The Raptors in our team drop their gear, hunkering down in the shelter of one of the cars.
“Looks like rain,” Janus observes. He’s an olive-skinned, wiry man with curly hair streaked by silver, and a jagged scar down his left cheek. I’m told he got it from a Sweeper in the days before REGA quarantined the Lower. Janus tried to stop the agent from raping his sister, and earned a knife-slash across his face for his trouble. His sister later committed suicide.
Beside him stands Fox, who folds her arms across her chest and shakes her head. No one knows her real name—she refuses to talk about it, or much of anything for that matter. I don’t think I’ve heard her speak two words since she gave her nickname when Matthew introduced me to the team. She has flame-red hair swept back from her face in a thick ponytail, the bottom of which she has dyed white to match her moniker. She wears a row of hooks through her lower lip and carries a set of knives placed in convenient access all over her body.
Behind us, Ebony field-strips her weapon and reassembles it. I’ve learned she’ll do this several times—a nervous habit developed over years from defending herself against roving tribes that battled for control of her neighborhood. She has raven-black skin and hair cropped close to her scalp, and uses coal dust to further blacken the sheen of sweat that might otherwise disclose her presence. Except for the whites of her eyes and her teeth, she could disappear into the shadows and no one would ever know she was there.
“Matthew,” Ebony says, “we got no cover.”
Matthew peers out at the billowing clouds. “It’ll hold.”
“Rain’ll foul the equipment, not to mention us.”
“I said it’ll hold.”
“Impressive.” The deep, booming voice belongs to Garth. He’s a massive hulk of a man, standing six foot six, with Asian features and spiky hair. A layer of fat covers his huge muscles, belying his strength. Despite his size, he’s incredibly fast and agile, as I witnessed when he performed a diving corner roll and brought his weapon to bear to provide cover as we prepared to enter the yard.
Matthew turns around, a quizzical expression etched in his eyes.
“Didn’t know your command extended to the weather.” Garth sets his pack down and props his chin on his fists, regarding Matthew coolly.
“If it rains we’ll handle it,” Matthew answers. “Won’t be the first time we’ve been stuck in a downpour.”
“Yeah?” says Janus. “I don’t remember the last time being particularly pleasant. You remember, don’tcha?” He turns and takes a seat next to Ebony. “Eb here spent hours stripping and drying all our guns.”
“Still lost four of ‘em,” she says.
“Not to mention what happened to Fox.”
Fox turns and glares at Janus. I furrow my brow. “What happened?”
She doesn’t answer, but runs a hand through her hair, turning back to study the clouds.
“Took weeks for her hair to grow back,” Janus says.
“It’s not gonna rain,” Matthew insists. In the distance, thunder rumbles. He grimaces.
“Maybe we should call them back. Regroup.”
I whirl on Janus. “We can’t do that.”
“Why not?” The voice belongs to Fox. She speaks so rarely, I almost don’t realize it’s her. She sounds bored, almost tired.
“Because my sister is on that train.”
Fox turns now, regarding me with her green eyes. “And how is this our problem?”
I press my lips into a thin line and fold my arms. I give each of them a look before saying, “You know, it probably isn’t. I can’t think of a single reason why any of you should put yourselves on the line for me. I mean, what have I done for you, right? You don’t owe me anything. But I’ll say this, too. I’m going after my sister—acid rain or no. You can either help me, or stay behind. I could care less, either way.”
Fox smirks. “Bold words, especially from someone who already ran away once.”
I feel my face grow hot. “I didn’t run away. I escaped.”
“That’s not how I heard it.”
“I don’t care how you heard it. It’s the truth.”
“Stop,” Matthew says.
“I’ve spent every waking minute since then trying to find a way to get her back. And I might have done it by now if you guys hadn’t waylaid us by the gate.”
“You think so?” she says, glancing at Matthew. “Hard to do that with your face plastered across every light board in the city, don’t you think?”
“What are you talking about?”
She jerks her head. “Take a look.”
I come to her elbow, and she points across the rail yard to the high-rise buildings in the heart of the city. There, flickering signs that normally display mind-numbing propaganda are instead showing my face, rotating in a full circle, along with my name and vital stats, and the words “Extremely Dangerous – Do Not Approach” scrolling above me. After a moment, the image switches to Daniel, but the words are the same.
“What is it?” Matthew interrupts. He hurries up beside us, staring at the massive images glowing on the skyline. I turn and catch the expression on his face, and watch it harden before he turns to me. “This isn’t good.”
“You’re telling me.”
Garth speaks up from his perch near the back of the car. “‘Bout frickin’ time.” We turn to see Daniel stepping into the car with Thomas, who walks stiffly with his arm over Daniel’s shoulder.
“This isn’t as easy as it looks,” Daniel protests. He helps Thomas take a seat against the back wall. Thomas looks pale, but he flashes me a weak smile any way.
Daniel comes over. “What are you guys all staring—oh my God.” He stares at the display. After a moment he says, “When did this happen?”
“I don’t know,” I reply.
“An hour ago,” Fox says.
He shakes his head. “I didn’t see it.”
“You weren’t looking either.”
“Was too,” he huffs, “just not at that. Too busy making sure Dad here didn’t take a tumble.”
“Don’t call him that,” Matthew snarls without turning his head.
Daniel gives him a bland look.
“What are we gonna do?” I say.
Matthew shakes his head. “Just keep a low profile. What else? It’s not like there’s a ton of people out here ready to call it in.”
“Or,” Thomas croaks, “you could do the sensible thing.”
Matthew grimaces, but doesn’t look back. “And what would that be?”
“Leave it all behind. The city’s lost, Matthew. You can’t defeat the enemy by becoming the enemy.”
“You’re not thinking clearly.” Thomas’s voice strains with the effort to speak through his burns. “This isn’t about defeating REGA. They’re just people. Not that different from you or me. This is about defeating evil. ‘For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers’—”
“Don’t,” Matthew points his finger, “quote your holy book to me. I’ve got no use for either you or your religion. Just keep it to yourself, and no one will get hurt.” He turns back around, staring out at the glistening city as the sun’s rays finally pierce the horizon and wash across the steel and glass of the skyscrapers in the distance. The clouds flare brightly, and for a moment look as though they’re on fire. Another rumble of thunder rolls across the rail yard, this time sounding further away.
“There, you see?” Matthew says. “It’s going away.”
A burst of static squawks from our radios. Matthew taps his earpiece. “Go,” he says.
“Weatherman’s calling for rain,” Maximus says.
“Will everyone please quit giving me a weather report?” Matthew barks.
“Just saying it ain’t too late to pull out. But as you’re wanting to go ahead, you might wanna know that the package has arrived and is heading your way.”
“Thirty miles an hour, at least. Probably faster time they reach you.”
Matthew grimaces. “Angelica, you copy that?”
A second burst of static is followed by two clicks, indicating an affirmative.
Matthew’s voice crackles in our headsets. “Move out.”
“Matthew,” Thomas begins, but Matthew whips out his sidearm, aiming it at his father’s head. My heart lurches. Matthew presses his index finger to his lips.
Thomas shakes his head and sits back down. Matthew holsters his gun and gives me a sidelong glance. “Let’s get your sister.”
We move swiftly up the rail line, running in a low crouch beside the stony ballast of the rail bed. Our speed precludes stealth, and I’m grateful now for the occasional rumble of thunder that masks the noise we make. After twenty minutes, Matthew consults his comlink. I glance around, but I can’t discern any sign of the other teams.
“Shouldn’t we be able to see them by now?” My words are nearly drowned out by another grumble of thunder. Matthew holds up a stern finger even as Fox drops into a crouch beside the track, placing her palm on one of the rails. She gives him a quick nod.
“Everybody down!” Matthew shouts. It dawns on me then. It isn’t thunder I’ve heard.
We scramble into the bushes just before the engine rounds the bend in the track. I duck behind a mass of leaves and stare wide-eyed as the train roars toward us. A piercing, single gleam dazzles from the headlamp, making the rails before it glisten like twin lines of molten steel. The ground beneath us shakes, and I can feel the rush of the engine growling in my chest.
And then the train is hurtling past us, buffeting us with hot wind and kicking dust into our faces. I shield my eyes with my hand, staring at the line of boxcars that rumble by. The cars aren’t the passenger coaches I’d imagined, like the ones that carried the HUT’s prisoner teams away to the scrap yards for their bi-weekly work detail. Instead, these are nothing more than freight cars, transporting who-knows-what to God-knows-where. A surge of frustrated disappointment washes over me. We’ve done all this for nothing.
Then I see it: A pair of cars near the end, long slats running along their sides with eight-inch gaps between them—the kind of car that might be used to transport cows or pigs. Except that there are hundreds of faces and hands pressed plaintively to the gaps. At the ends of the cars, men with guns stand at attention.
“Becca?” I push up from my cover, hoping to spy her face in the myriad of blank, angry, and frightened expressions that blitz past. A hand clamps down on my shoulder and pulls me back. I know it’s Matthew without looking, but I glance back anyway.
And in that moment, the train is gone.
Matthew holds us in position until the train is several car lengths away and the thunder of its passing has dissipated.
“That’s not thirty,” Janus observes.
Garth grimaces “More like sixty.”
“Angelica,” Matthew speaks into the radio.
The radio crackles static. “Within sight,” is all I can make out.
“She’s picked up speed,” Matthew says.
Crackle. “—coming in too fast.”
“Abort! I say again, abort!”
A deafening crash rolls across the tree tops with the sound of squealing brakes, wrenching metal and splintered trees.
I burst from the rough, hurtling onto the tracks.
“No Katherine!” Matthew shouts, but I’m not listening. I couldn’t obey that order if I’d wanted to. My legs feel like lead. My blood pounds in my ears. Only one thought screams in my head.
A massive fireball erupts from the tree line like some vengeful demon bursting from the heart of the abyss. A hellish wave of heated air blasts over me, imbruing my clothes and hair with acrid fumes.
My legs falter, and I stumble, but a strong hand loops beneath my shoulder and hauls me to my feet. I catch a glance of flame red hair, and then Fox is shoving me forward.
Tears stream down my face, blurring my vision. In my headset, I can hear Matthew issuing commands, demanding updates. And then I hear it. Angelica’s voice, words cutting through the static.
“Matthew, it’s bad.”
I find fresh reserves of speed and swiftly overtake Fox and the others. Rounding the bend, my blood turns to ice.
The entire train has derailed. The engine lies in a smoldering ruin of twisted metal and plowed earth. A massive tree has gouged the windshield of the cab and punctured the metal roof like a spike. Freight cars lie jack-knifed and shoved into each other. Two of them balance precariously in an upside down ‘V’.
But the worst are the cattle cars. When the train derailed, they fell onto their sides, which collapsed under the weight. The rest of the carriage was dragged over the top of the people inside.
All I see is blood and bodies.
Her name rips from my throat. “Becca!!”