Authors: Angela White
Tags: #futuristic love story, #apocalyptic romance, #angela white, #action romance, #Fantasy Series, #romantic horror, #apocalypse rebellion
The breath flew out of me as she let go. I slammed back to the ground, head smacking the dirt and I immediately started to cry. It hurt!
A second later, there was blinding pain in my head and I shuddered, eyes rolling back…
Hard fingers grabbed me, held me close as I shook.
The pain slowly receded, but flared again as Rankin stood up with me in her arms. I cried out as she bounced me roughly onto the horse and swung up in time to keep me from going off the other side.
She jerked me back against her and kneed the horse as a dark field rose in front of my eyes.
“You’ll be okay. The Network will see to you or I’ll give up their dirty secrets!”
I felt pressure on my head and the motion of the horse under us, but little else. As I surrendered to sleep, her words went with me.
“In time, I’ll have my William back - through you.”
For the 15 years since then, the complex and Rankin had been my home, my family.
I’d gone through the normal bachelor training under Rankin’s supervision, her conditions. I knew how to please a Changeling, but I’d never been fully taken by one. I was listed as pure, something the other males disliked me for. I was spared their required time in the renter’s cells, I was fed better, given more medical care… and I was defenseless against Rankin whenever she wanted me to practice my newly-learned skills while she wore the cuffs.
She was so cruel!
I often suspected she had more than one whore-in-training and I pitied those other males on the nights she and her bloody claws left my cell unsatisfied. Rankin had only recently gotten the promotion to the top of the guard food-chain. She had no intentions of breaking the rules by taking me fully, but if I wasn’t picked in the next 4 episodes, they would list my number and Rankin would buy me. I looked a lot like my father now… and she’d waited a long time to have him.
The other bachelors in this lot assumed one of them would be chosen. Their pretty faces and submissive demeanors were obvious, but in my heart, I hoped Angelica Pruett would be different than the rest of the women who blew through here with their bloody fists. I was hoping she was like her cousin.
I was terrified of the duty waiting for me if I was picked, but I was desperate. Enough to lie to my new owner or service her needs for as long as it took me to escape. I had secrets the rebels might need to know, and in exchange, I hoped they would let me stay with them until I was stronger. I hated the Network and the thought of gaining my life back was one that would give me the courage to follow through with my plans.
From the small door-hole, I watched Angelica run a blood-crusted hand through those short black spikes and wondered what her thoughts were right then. Was she wishing she could come back in and snap? Did it matter to her if the bachelors were abused slaves? Would she kill me when she found out what I was doing?
It would make things easier if the Pruetts lived up to the rumors I was about to trust my life to - that they were honorable and hated male slavery as much as we did. The odds on something that wonderful were slim-to-none in this New Network world, but the restless fire in my heart had made the choice.
I’d lived another life once, a
one, and I still missed it with all that I was. All I had now were the memories of my mother’s warm hand on my brow, the vague, haunting notes of my sisters giggling in the bed next to me. The fierce determination I’d nourished through all the years of Rankin’s cruel abuse would see me through. I would take my chances with the Pruett.
As I moved to my next scheduled place, two things happened to change the way I viewed the other contestants and the Game itself.
The first was an assassination at the match I had just entered. The second was realizing it was Chelsea Bush standing over her remaining sibling, face tortured, wild in grief. With a dawning horror, I wondered if I could still battle her without showing mercy. I was forced to admit it might be a problem. I would have to hope someone else took care of the sisters, I decided, settling in for my one required viewing.
But now that I'd seen it, I couldn't un-see it. Sisters killing each other for a chance at public redemption - b
. And then there were the ones who were like me - Network logo and My-eyes girl. We had our own drive, an endless hunger to sate. The rest were weaklings compared to us. Why would the Network make such unbalanced matches? And why hadn’t these weaker women tried to prepare?
Candice and I worked out daily to keep in shape for runs, but we’d been doing it weekly for the ten years before that. I’d been barely out of rubbers when she’d dragged me to the barn and started showing me how to help her control the fire. Now, it was her patience that aided my rages, taught me to be careful with those I loved, not to make her mistake.
Candy had scarred her mother’s face during a run. She’d been fighting with a convict and snapped into the Change. When her mother had tried to get her to come away from the trap, Candy had swung out with her Changeling claws. It was a guilt my cousin lived with daily, and to see the effects of it, was to be ever-so-careful that it never happened with me.
These thoughts and more ran through my mind without pause, but I never let my guard down. When My-eyes snapped the neck of her opponent, I only felt sick enough to glare in her direction. The Network liked control. Whatever the final answer to these oddities, that would be the bulk of it, I was sure.
“So how does it feel to know that you’re now considered the most blood-thirsty of your family?”
It was one of the reporters who had rushed me the last time I was here and hunger was thick in the smoky cubicle.
“Nice. It’s usually my big sister who gets that title.”
After my cousin’s week of intimidating reporters, all of my interviewers so far had been stocky, pink-eyed, and heavily armed. This one was no different, and the thought that I was a threat to the Network was a heady feeling.
“I sense some sibling rivalry there.”
“Yeah, she doesn’t know I’m here. When she finds out, she might sign up next!”
The reporter was relaxing as I continued to be reasonable, to lie, but I was watching for an opening. The other reporters were lingering nearby, listening to the live broadcast, too, and I hoped to be able to give them (and everyone listening) something to talk about.
“Do you think your cousin Candice is aiding the rebels?”
That was a blunt question, and I forced myself to sound unsure. “I don’t want to…”
“It would be hard not to, considering her absence. You were here for her Games challenge. Funny that she isn’t for yours...”
I had the reporter pegged then, and I chose quickly. The rules said I had to give one interview. They didn’t say how long it had to be, and I ended it in true Pruett style.
“Maybe she didn’t think she could stand the smell of your perfume. It’s o’ de rat, right? You work for the Network, ferreting out little secrets like a good rodent.”
Now exposed to the world, her value dropped to zero, and the woman’s doomed expression said she knew it.
I smirked as I left. “Next?”
“Cage Match Three!”
The cut withdraw rope still hung in place, only reachable by a high lunge. My opponent, the third of the huddlers, stood directly under it, trembling. Over half the females in this episode were not going through the Change. They could pull back, withdraw, because they had no overwhelming desire to see their opponent’s blood, smell it, and
it. They weren't lethal. I smirked, triggering a fresh round of screams from the crowd. The same could not be said of me.
This Frogtown girl had a rounded face set with lines of panic and a large, heaving chest that was perfect for feeding babies. It was a pass she wouldn’t ever get.
She saw my eagerness and lunged high for the remaining piece of rope.
“A contestant has withdrawn.”
I was supposed to leave, let her go by and wait to be rescheduled…
But I couldn't
. The scent of her fear and the last match's blood hung heavily in the air, reaching out to twist my fury.
When the little rabbit tried to dart pass, I spun and slammed my fists into the back of her neck - with both wrist blades out.
Big-chested huddler hit the mat with a damp gasp, sending the audience into fits of snarling delight. When I began to stomp, no one stopped me.
Expecting to be arrested, I quickly went back to my room for my gear, not sure if I would go quietly.
Damn this fire!
I closed the door, bolting it… Pain shot into my stomach. It ripped upward, incredible heat flooding…
I slammed myself to the left, stumbling in the darkness. Blood hit the floor and more heat exploded, this time in my hip. I stumbled back again, ducking instinctively, and felt the slice of a blade go over my head.
Bleeding, I Changed in the pitch black room, my sounds
and got set as if I were on a bounty run. I'd give the trio what they came for!
The feel of the razors from my
a comfort in my hand, and I threw them with the speed born of practice. The sharp metal objects whizzed through the room as I spun around, returning pings as they sank into walls and soft, wet thuds as they tore into flesh.
Refilling my hands, I aimed lower this time and heard two fleshier splatters as my weapons found marks.
I waited, crouched in the dark.
The door to my room caved under the guard's insistence.
When the lights flooded in, I saw there were three less contestants. One of them was Emily Bush.
As soon as the guards identified me, I retrieved my weapons, jerking each razor thin, 6 inch spike free with a satisfying grunt. “Send it all to my Parents.”
Realizing I was leaving a bloody trail, one of the guards shouted for assistance over the muttering people in the hallway.
The Network doctor had no trouble with the shallow wound on my hip, but the gash in my gut was harder to repair. I held myself frozen, listening to the guards outside the door as the medic tended me.
“Why the hell was Emily here? She wasn’t even a Changeling!”
Their father was captured with a group of rebels from that train heist and executed. They’ll win their mother’s freedom if none of them survive.”
“I keep forgetting you’re new. The Network has a three-for-one rule. If three family members will die for the one accused, that person gets to go free.”
There was a brief pause where I hoped to hear an answer to what I was suddenly wondering between waves of revulsion.
“What if one of them wins?”
“A lot of them do. Many of the three-for-ones are trying to eliminate competition. They get the usual prize and glory, plus they gain control of their family.”
“I’d never heard that - sounds like it makes it more fun!”
“Yeah, the audience loves it. Last year, we had an episode with a whole family of rebel sympathizers on here. It was a hell of a rush, seeing them turn on each other. I won two hundred UDs!”
Inside, another part of my soul began crying on behalf of people I didn’t know. What kind of enlightened world let this happen?
I grimaced, making the white-coated healer flinch back. It didn’t. Our world wasn’t better than the one that destroyed it all. We hadn’t learned anything from the War, except to be more brutal, more self-serving.
Pain, as the needle sank into muscle, and I concentrated on the silent images of the wall screen over the medic’s shoulder, breathing slowly in and out. The neutered males were harmless. I didn't want to hurt him.
The reporters arrived in a group, staying beyond the open door and out of reach in case I wasn’t in the mood to talk to them.
“Will you withdraw now?”
“How serious are her injuries?”
If I didn’t fight, I'd miss my visit and it was unnecessary anyway. I healed fast, and thanks to the Change, pain was with me all the time. I wasn't totally immune to it. I just didn't care enough to react.
I smirked harshly into the cameras. “Keep me in.”
Silence… and then the mob outside cheered.
More than just the Pruetts and the Network had begun to observe this episode intently. The crowds now surrounding the dome had grown to near a thousand instead of hundreds. The brutal matches were growing in popularity, something the Council had counted on, but this…
Together for the excitement of a thrilling Pruett challenges, the Network observed the growing mob on their monitors and worried. If that many Changelings attacked the complex at once, there could be a breach. They didn’t have enough guards to protect every entrance. Half of their troops were currently escorting former heads of power to the meeting place, so that they could present their newest successor and vote. Some of those trips took weeks, and the Network was very aware of how vulnerable they were becoming.
Outside the dome, the crowd continued to cheer… and to grow.
After the reporters and medics left, I waited in my room for the guards to arrive, to tell me I was disbarred and under arrest for attacking after a withdraw notice. I waited only a short time for an answer, but it wasn’t one I could make sense of.
Apparently it wasn't against the new rules because the notice I got through the wall screen was one to confirm my rankings were high enough to restock my food and the medical credits I’d used.
My mind went to the doors closing, to being locked inside these walls until all of the others were dead, and I picked up one of those inside details we Pruetts were known for spotting.
Usually, no less than two full squads stood tensely along this entrance, and it was the same around the complex. Contestants were constantly reminded that it was to keep the dangerous rebels from getting in… except I no longer believed that lie. It was to keep the Network safe from those they ruled so ruthlessly… from the mob poised on their doorstep.
The Network was light on guards at the complex, and there was already an army here, waiting to be led.
Because I'd survived Luck of the Draw, a braver reporter found her way to my door shortly after the ambush. This kind didn’t need a pack, only a hard face and a two-person camera crew who didn’t speak to me.
“Miss Pruett, can you tell us what it was like to kill a celebrity?”
I shrugged. “Blood’s the same.”
A long pause, a choice to push on.
“Did you honestly only come for the fights? Don't you even want a bachelor?”
My eyes flickered pink at her tone.
So much it hurts.
“They're cute, who wouldn't want one? Wish they all weren't so thin, though. I worry I might break one.”
I threw in a chuckle, and felt the interest pick up instantly. In one answer, I'd declared a problem with the protected males. Would there be a response from the public or the Network? It was the mob outside that I was hoping for.
“So you assume you'll win?”
The reporter knew better than to follow the tip live and un-researched, but she wanted to. I could see it in her tense grip on the microphone, and I finished the rest of her questions as politely as I could force myself to, hoping she would come back for more. I’d figured out how to use that angry Fourth Estate.