Authors: Angela White
Tags: #futuristic love story, #apocalyptic romance, #angela white, #action romance, #Fantasy Series, #romantic horror, #apocalypse rebellion
As I neared the center of the Block, I stopped, turning to face the cameras. In this version of the game, the contestants were allowed to give a short statement, and I made sure mine would be remembered.
“I'm so happy to be here. I'm sure it'll be a learning experience. Thanks
much to the Network!”
I'd memorized the exact tones of those who'd come before me, so much that it was perfectly eerie.
“I just love the complex and I can't wait to meet all the bachelors!”
My sarcasm was holding them still and silent and I snorted, making those in the front row jump. My hand pointed at the camera, and my gravelly voice dropped low, into dangerous. “I’m a Pruett. Don't bet against me.”
I spun toward the curtains, pulling the string on my cloak as I left the Block, revealing netted cloth that outlined my lean body in thin black strips. It was designed in a spider web, like Candy’s had been for her match, except my covering material was formfitting and the color of skin. In the camera glare, I appeared naked.
Chaos erupted, catcalls and yells exploding from the drugged Bachelors. The stunned announcer tried to recapture the moment, to control the disorder with laughter.
“Well, that is a Pruett butt, for sure!”
Another round of yells came in response and I stepped slowly from The Block to found the waiting area empty.
Candy had been ambushed as she moved off the stage. Why not me?
I sighed in disappointment, taking my starless ID from the console before heading down the hall. Maybe there would be an assassin in my room.
My room was a mirror of Candy’s during her stay - a long green couch, a green kitchenette, and a washroom with a single green towel and bar of soap. The Network didn’t care for comfort or cleanliness, and I brushed the dust from the counter before setting my pack there. It appeared these rooms weren’t cleaned very often, but at least there were no bloodstains on the walls… yet.
The small apartment was far from the digs I was used to. It was partially my family's wealth and skills that had brought me here. The entry fees were exorbitant and my parents hadn’t given their support. I’d had to use my part of the bounties I’d collected over the last two years. If I had been caught on the payroll before I was 18, we would have all been killed, but I hadn’t been. Instead, I’d helped bring in a number of high-profile targets and earned my place, but it hadn’t mattered to my parents. Despite all the successes over the last two years, my parents still worried, doubted I would survive here. Because before the Change, I hadn't been rebellious like Candice or even outspoken like my sister. I'd been
They didn't understand that part of my life was only a vague blur. All I could see, all I could feel now, was
. And there was only one cure.
My dreams the first night were vague, shifting worries that were interrupted by wakeful periods when I sent pink eyes around the darkness, poised to react. I did this for hours, savoring every 30 minutes I was able to steal and when the chime signaled sunrise, I was rested. Being a family tracker had toughened me up
I'd soon see if it was enough.
I woke in time to hear the view-screen in my room click on, signaling the start of the episode. All over this floor, other Changelings were being brought to alertness the same way and their growls pleased me. I didn’t mind rude awakenings. It was all part of the job.
“We will now choose the Luck of the Draw contestant who will have three battles in a row to begin the episode. Viewers will vote on her match-ups as soon as we have a name. As usual, the Network will pick a replacement if our Luck of the Draw winner is defeated. No other official fights are held during this time, but attacks and assassination attempts are, as always, encouraged.”
In the corner of the room, a platform rose from the floor and a thin control device slid out of the grungy, puke-green wall.
“Please step onto the scanner and remain motionless.”
As I did,
rain began to drum against the rubber roof of the complex and I realized the dome must be open. I hadn’t heard it during the night, and that worried me a bit. How much technology did the Network have? With the secrets we’d learned, was it too far of a stretch to think them capable of having some of the very same weapons that had caused the world to end? I refused to shudder, but I felt it just the same.
“The contestants are now being evaluated by the Network computer designed specifically to determine which one of our players has the best chance to win. It’s meant to take away the edge of the fittest, over those who’ve had less training. Their pictures and stats are now showing up as the computer finishes.”
“Thank you. Please step off of the scanner.”
Thunder cracked, sending a line of fuzz through the monitor that gave the contestants an evil-looking glare on the screen. Mine was particularly menacing and I was pleased.
“We’ll have our Luck of the Draw fighter in a moment, but before that, a quick reminder on what our contestants can earn from their matches.
Stars are given for each kill, high popularity, and by Network decision. Each star will gain the contestant a guard while in the halls and their room, along with a fresh stock of weapons and medical credits. Stars cannot be lost, but at the start of Round Two, they can be given away to protect someone else, such as visiting family.”
“Okay… the results are ready. We’ll hit the button here, and… There. Now, we’ll see the name when the timer counts down.”
The crowd on the screen was starting to get unruly again despite the early hour, mirroring my own impatience. More Network guards moved into the mob with clubs and fists.
It was raining harder now and I thought of the trip waiting for me if I won. The dust storms currently raging across the Borderlands would be followed by a month of steady rain that killed more of those trying to survive there than even the pythons did during breeding season.
Not that the huge snakes were absent then. At the height of the rains, the female pythons placed their eggs in the ground, allowing them to populate the southern lands in staggering numbers as the eggs were washed downstream during the floods. It was a hostile land, one that I was set to become very intimate with.
“You have been scheduled for a match in one hour. Please report to the main arena on time.”
“Our Luck of the Draw contestant is Angelica Pruett! How’s that for a coincidence? Will this 18-year-old bounty hunter survive the first three matches? The computer thinks so.
ya say, folks?
place a bet or two?”
“And the first contestant our bounty hunting Changeling will face is…the Diva Brawler!”
I flipped the screen off in shock. There was no way I was the most likely to win. Someone had tampered with the computer for this match…
like Candice had
There was no way it was coincidence. I’d told my family it was just the Network covering both sides, but they did want me dead. There was no way to mistake the feeling. I’d been marked by the Network Council.
Interviews were done two ways.
I much preferred the screen conversations that I could respond to from the privacy of my booger-green room. The other way consisted of showing up in the press room below The Block. It meant strolling through the Network reporter cubicles and enduring their shouted questions as I searched for the one I was supposed to answer.
As I shoved through the door, the long hall of smoky, hutch-like setups fell silent… then their residents swarmed me. Behind them, a single female remained in front of her hooch.
When she held up her mic, I pushed that way. As I went, I wasn’t gentle and the others began to give me space, but still hurled their questions like spittle.
As I reached my reporter, I spun around with pink eyes and was gratified to see them all flinch back. “Go away, now.”
I let red orbs show, marveling at my on-the-edge control, and they went back to their places with fearful steps and twitchy glares. I remembered the way Candice had used them while she was here, intimidated them. Maybe they could be put to use. I would think on it.
I turned back to see my reporter hadn’t moved, but I could feel her hungrily memorizing every move I made. She had a sharp smirk, knowing she and her toga-clad body got me first, exclusively. I disliked her from that instant.
She waved me in and I sank down into her uncomfortable chair, noticing the guards now standing stiffly in the corners. When Candice had been here, the interviews had been done in the glass room directly above The Block. After my cousin’s encounters, the Network had changed it to the prepping area and made a lot of enemies among the Fourth Estate. These TV-minded females needed to be in the spotlight to be satisfied, and I would keep that in mind as I dealt with them.
Despite my reporter’s almost reasonable appearance, I didn’t expect this to be anything like a calm chat and I tried to get ready for her attack.
“You know it.”
It was hard to remember some things, especially when they never meant much to you anyway. The first interview was uncomfortable as I struggled to walk the line between the new and old Angelica - the good and the evil. I was trying hard to give a relatively harmless impression so that when I let it out, when I snatched them by the throat, surprise would give me the win.
Before the Change, snarky comments and snide remarks were ignored, shrugged off. Now, they were a direct challenge and if not for the steady blink of the camera light to concentrate on, I may have exploded before the first match.
“So, we have Angel Pruett here with us…”
I recognized that voice now (
) and made another mental note to handle it.
“As I’m sure you all know
Angelica’s cousin Candice is wanted by the Network for questioning. They are suspected of being rebel sympathizers, but I think Angelica wants the world to know she doesn’t share their views. What better way to uphold the family honor than to come here, right folks? Let’s give her a big welcome.”
After the applause and shouts, the smirking reporter quickly went through questions about my family and then the competition. I assumed I answered much like the others.
“How does it feel to be related to such brutal women?”
“Are you trying to prove you belong in the family?”
“I'm trying to get laid.”
A pause and a frown.
“You're only ranked 9th to start the first day. Does that worry you?”
“It's what keeps me up at night.”
A longer pause to my scorn, my mocking, and a deeper scowl that I was betting could get bigger. The reporter wore fine, caressing fibers with stunning style and no wind resistance, and I snorted mentally at the thought of her in my world. Without the Dome, these soft Network people would freeze in their elegant attire and indifferent social mindsets.
“Why did you enter the games?”
“Sex and blood.”
I'd been right. The scowl nearly encompassed her face now.
Does the anger make it hard to focus?”
“Only when I'm forced to answer stupid questions.”
Then again, maybe my tones weren't so similar. Maybe I was a bit faster, a bit sharper than the others. I'd know when the rankings came out this evening. I needed to jump a level every day to keep a full stock of food and medical credits.
“What do you think your chances are of getting a mate here?”
I couldn't help myself. I was going to like continuing Candy's traditions. “Better than yours, I'd guess.”
The reporter flushed. Not a gentle rise of color, but a bloom of red fury… and again, I couldn't stop it. I grinned.
“Welcome to the first match of this week’s episode!”
Blue lights flashed over the arena as the crowd roared. The fighting cage was a 12’ x 12’ dome with a fencing frame and dozens of small, sturdy cameras. To get to it, I had to walk down the same fenced-in area Candice had strolled and I tried hard to emulate her untouchable façade.
Candice had reminded me of two things before we split up. The first was to react to each situation exactly as it deserved, which had always been necessary when training with her, but it was the second advice that would serve me the best.
“Use the interviews. Spend the time blending the old and the new into something on the edge. Then set it loose in the cage.”
And she'd been right. As I stepped into the arena, I could feel my deadly edges gleaming hungrily at the first contestant I'd noticed in the reception hall.
I moved toward the crooked-nosed huddler eagerly. She had one minute to bow out, sixty seconds to choose life or death. I wasn't surprised when she remained. She wouldn't be here if she didn't have her own drives too.
I slid my cloak to the floor as I entered the ring. Still wearing the netted outfit from the introduction, it made even my opponent gape and gave me the instant advantage. I was the unknown, the high-odd’s wild card, and I met her in the center with fury burning in my gut.
The Brawler came at me like a boxer from the ring of the bell. I was tempted to duke it out with her (I excelled at hand to hand combat) but I couldn't wait. I needed her blood -
I let her fist get in the air before I ducked, leaned forward, and sank my blade deep into her unprotected belly.
I ripped upward as I spun, my wrist-blade slashing at her again, and the huddler’s hands came up as if to stop the gaping flood of crimson now streaming from her neck.
“Match to Pruett!”
some screaming my name and I inhaled deeply, struggling not to slice her again. I already loved it here, in this small ring of death. Unlike my cousin, I felt no guilt. During the worst moments of the Change, spilling blood seemed like what I was put on the earth to do, and I did it well.
I stepped back as her body hit the mat, letting the fury thicken before giving the audience what they wanted.
The grin was ugly.
My first two battles had been scheduled back-to-back and I followed Candy's lead, leaving the bloody clothes on as I traveled the mostly empty, photo-lined halls. In the images, were centuries of females who’d suffered these Games, shown at their most violent moment. The Network made sure we were constantly surrounded by blood, distracted by the crimson…what were they hiding that we didn’t know about yet?
The Network had an arena-like cage set-up for each of their violent Games. The episodes that had multiple matches alternated between the unused cages - to allow for cleanup, I assumed. I found it all very orderly and awful. They’d made sure the death kept flowing, with no pause for the removal of bodies to be caught on camera and frowned over.
No one shrank from me yet as I sauntered along. I only had one star, one menacing guard, but the frowns of those I passed said they'd soon be researching my details from the safety of their wall-screens. It was something I'd already done for each of them.
I pushed the door open and moved down the walkway, stepping into the identical cage without sympathy for the bone-thin female. It was another of the four huddlers. Her panicked brown eyes, and those shaking, un-clawed hands told me she wasn’t a Changeling, but I only tightened my control. I would not allow compassion to ghost me. I was a Pruett. We weren’t that weak.
“Cage Match Two!”
The dividing bar went down, and I moved forward as the blue lights glinted blindingly. The huddler sensed my lack of compassion the instant we locked gazes. She flinched toward the withdraw rope…
I lunged for her…
My claws held her wrists back so that I could dip my head and slam her against the cage wall. Bloodlust in control, I sank my teeth deep into her neck with a growl of delight that was overpowered by the loud speaker and the screams from the live audience.
“Match to Pruett!”
Blood squirted, spraying crimson to compliment my eyes.
I let the warm body fall as I pulled my teeth back in, a hideous mess. I waited for the crowd to quiet, knowing this image would grace the front of every daily edition across our nuclear-torn world. The thought drew my harsh smirk, and the crowd thundered its approval.
On my way out of the cage, I slid a fast knife into the air and cut the withdraw rope. I wanted it clear that I would give no quarter.
The screams grew louder, hungrier at my action. Laying low had been the plan, but it wasn’t possible. I already lusted for the legal violence of the next match too much to pretend anything else.
For some reason, I had three guards when I entered the halls and three flickering, golden stars on my ID. I stored it with all the other oddities I was noticing.
I headed to the bachelor cells next, with only a fast wipe on my sleeve. It was better that the males saw the new me, the Angelica who basked in the blood of her opponent. The male I chose would have to be able to accept it. Once
, there was no going back.
My trio of guards waited outside the cells and I didn't miss them. The bachelor dorm was only open to one contestant at a time to prevent injury to the valuable prizes and so far as I knew, that rule hadn't been broken in the history of the Games.
I studied the blue-haired female with the clipboard as I moved inside. I took her for the head Den Mother and knew I was right when she stayed in the doorway. That wide face, with those bushy brows and pox-marked skin, was hard to read, but her hovering said she was protective of the males hidden here.
“You have one hour.”
I wondered how deep the bond was between these big guards and the bachelors. Did they depend on these women for everything? I thought the answer was yes and that meant the one I chose would need the same support from me. The Network trained them to obey and to please, not to think for themselves.
There were three more enormous guards lurking in the large flat and each of them viewed me like the threat I was. They wore the Network uniform, silver on black, but each hair-do was a different, vivid color that might have had me shaking my head if not for knowing it was how the males told them apart. Names were not a big thing here, where the faces changed weekly.
As I swept cuddle chairs and candlelight, I identified the smell littering the air -
. I grimaced, thinking of the blood drying on my hands, but made no move to wash. To do so now would be taken as a sign of weakness to those viewing us live, but without sound.
Unlike my room, the bachelor cells were neat and clean. Half the reception area was taken up by a long table with no less than fifteen place settings. On this wide table were tall, white candles and red cloth napkins in front of high-backed chairs that looked softer than anything my ass had ever been against.
The other side of the room was a compliment to the dining area. There were long, silver and black curtains, and small pillows to match the elegant red and black sofas. A number of floor-bound reading lamps threw a gentle glow over the room, and as a finishing touch, there was an enormous stone fireplace in the far corner, keeping the chill from the valuable males. It was very cozy. I assumed the Network liked the idea of the world thinking these men were pampered, but I’d been at Stone Mountain. I’d spent time with Baker’s escaped, terrified males, and I knew better.
“Evan, Christen, Alec,
I didn't bother to learn their names, instead judging their reaction to my appearance as they came out.
Nearly all of them stared, some freezing in their practiced entry. I searched them for a sign...
I narrowed in on one behind the others, drawn by shiny black hair draped over thick shoulders, and felt the heat rise. This one wasn’t wearing a complete cloak of fear, though he was shaking lightly.
He met my searching study with a slight lift of his chin that immediately drew my attention harder. Wide chest, thick arms, big hands resting against lean hips… The thought of being touched with those big fingers lit my insides up like a torch.
He dropped his head and I felt the spell break, my heat receding.
Would the rest of them make me feel that with just a look?
The males were pretty. With pleasing faces, and dressed in flowing, black Network cloaks, they reminded me of the sexless dolls I'd played with as a child. If not for their stiff stances and terrified expressions, they might well have been. They in no way resembled the lusty men from last night. Was there no real spark in these men? No hidden desires to be freed?
“May they sit?”
“Have them remove their clothes.” I observed reactions closely.
More fear, touches of panic, and then finally, a bit of reluctance, the mother of rebellion. It came from the one I’d already noticed.
The males complied without argument, revealing shirts with ties tucked neatly inside soft trousers that I judged to be new by the way the men fidgeted as they undressed for me.
Lightning struck outside the covered windows and most of the males flinched. Candy had told me about her mate’s fear of the weather - it came from not wanting to burn to death like other bachelors here had - and I was glad of a Den Mother’s low words from the dark doorway nearby.
just a storm.
Her words had an instant, calming effect and I vowed to remember to do it for my male when the weather was bad. I didn’t have many fears, but for those that existed, I wanted comfort while dealing with them. I planned to extend the same help to my prize.
Not a request, all but the blue-haired Den Mother disappeared. When I glanced at her, I could see she thought she wanted to take a stand on it and I sighed. I hadn't planned on the third match today, but I would be alone with these men or thrown out - one of the two.
I padded her way and was satisfied to see her take an immediate, startled step back.
I jerked a hand. “Go.
While you can.”
She fled and I concentrated, trying to reign in my rage. I didn't want the bachelors to be terrified of me and I couldn't be barred from them. I needed to be welcome.
I turned to see all of the men as far from me as they could get, their faces lined up in panicked rows. I locked down on my disappointment and gestured toward the long table. “Let’s eat.”
The last one to sit, I lingered, letting my hunting instincts send me in the right direction. It was the same killer line I used to judge runs and I employed it now to single out a few of the more promising from the herd. With all the tension, my need was rising at a fast pace. What would it be like to touch one of them?
To hold them during the cold, painful nights?
I concentrated, letting the Pruett come forward and I sniffed the air like an animal, tasting them…Sweet flowers…heavy cologne…
… One of them had a thick, coppery scent that pulled me like blood. Another was throwing off odors of sugar and sulfur. Both of those last two would please my senses. What about attitude?
Most of them were slouched, clothes mussed slightly, but two had unfastened the top buttons of their shirts, leaving crooked ties and a slightly off-center impression. I liked that, too. Heads were
eyes submissive… except a few of them were stealing subtle glances of confused fear and hope.
All those ways to relieve this fire, now sitting docilely at my fingertips.
If only one of them would show a spark!
The males only seemed to relax slightly when the Den Mothers came back out, carrying heavily-laden trays. The heaping bowls of pasta and meat filled the air with hunger, but they waited to be given permission. Slaves…