Authors: Angela White
Tags: #futuristic love story, #apocalyptic romance, #angela white, #action romance, #Fantasy Series, #romantic horror, #apocalypse rebellion
Rankin’s evil orbs blazed red and she grabbed me by the arm. Her claws dug into my skin, stinging, as she dragged me down the dimly-lit service halls toward her Den.
I’d done the best I could to ensure Angelica’s safety while she recuperated. If she won tomorrow night, she would protect me for a while after that. If she lost… well, tonight would be a small preview of what I would suffer when Rankin bought me next month.
“Are ya ready?” Rankin cackled eagerly as she shoved the door open and marched us inside her foul-scented den. “I know I am!”
“We’re all set for the meeting.”
It was just two of them, the Commander and the XO, enjoying the quiet.
The tower lounge was a large triangle-shaped room with an oddly formed desk in the center, surrounded by even odder chairs. Each armrest held a hand-scanner, a note-writer, and an alarm button. In the center of the desk, suspended with thin, durable chains, was a three-sided monitor showing darkness. Earlier, it had revealed a mob of thousands along the border with Canada.
Along these oddly-shaped walls, we’re doors, private entrances for the members. Each had their own entrance, providing eight total exits to be taken advantage of. Inside those luxury residences existed access to anything they wanted - from hand-served meals of tender veal and sweet fish that could only be had here, to the stacks of intricately starred jewelry that so many of the city residents liked to use for wagering on the Games. It was a lifestyle the Network enjoyed immensely.
“Send word to the Coast. We’re ready for them now.”
“What if they won’t come?”
The leader snorted heavily. “We’re offering a full train of supplies and males. They’ll show.”
The younger voice held doubt. “Sometimes those bought through desperation do not remain loyal. We may see alliances.”
There was a small silence. “That would be bad.”
Glad their leader understood
the second voice spelled it out eagerly. “Yes. If the rebels convince the Coast to join their cause, we could be facing the very weapons we hope to gain control of. The bothersome Pruetts have to be dealt with soon. We can’t keep using them this way.”
“Rankin will handle it.”
“Yes, the new Head Defender - perhaps she has outlived her usefulness?”
The head chair squeaked as it was emptied. There was a gentle swish of tailor-made clothes, the kind their subjects would never be able to afford. Even their boots were made by the sweat of a person, instead of a machine. Animal pelts had never touched their unmarked skin.
“Considering the fuel she added to the media fire by putting a mark on one of them, I’d have to agree.”
“She could be… caught in the crossfire…”
“That sounds exactly like what will happen. Do it as soon as she gives us the location.”
The lower ranking member moved for the door, and then stopped, turned back. “Communication is almost non-existent. What if Rankin can’t get a call through?”
There was a thoughtful pause…
“Activate her locator beacon so we can keep track. As soon as she stops moving hard, send in the plane.”
“You know we only have five warheads?”
“Yes. Two are for the meeting.”
The other member leered eagerly.
“And one for Canada?”
A tolerant chuckle.
“If it comes to that, we’ll use something a bit larger than Breaker bombs. The west is still littered with nuclear warheads. After we take care of those at the meeting, we’ll control them all.”
After 24 hours in the medical bay, healing and listening to my opponent growl in the next room, I was feeling better. Unlike Chelsea, I didn’t mind solitude and I spent it deciding where my true loyalties were. I was a Changeling and this fire was one that might end me in time, but I was also a Pruett and before I went out, I wanted justice.
By all rights, both Chelsea and I should be dead and this episode over - with no winner. To keep that disappointment from ruining their Game, the Network had used technology to heal broken ribs, punctured lungs, and snapped bones. We were both as good as new and I hated them for it. If they’d let me die, I would be free of this
Lying there with the Network’s unknown chemicals restoring even the missing finger that had been severed on a crag as we smacked into the wall on our way down, I’d had time to think. The conclusion I’d come to was staggering, especially to my Pruett mindset. I hadn’t thought to win! That was why I’d been able to snap back from Jason’s betrayal so easily. Remission was a myth, and deep inside, I’d always known that. I came here to die.
It was a truth and a misery I would hold close, but a newer, sharper edge had settled over me as I listened to the nearly incoherent ranting of the celebrity next to me who couldn’t stand the isolation. I loathed Rankin and we would meet outside these walls if I ever had my way, but it was the Network I finally felt real hatred for. By bringing us back to finish the episode, they’d pushed me into the place where my cousin was. I had no choice but to fight back as hard as I could.
When I got my new mate…
I winced. When I got my
to Baker, I would let Candice know I’d made my choice. The Pruetts were for freedom… and until I burnt up or out, so was I.
“Welcome to the final match of this week's episode of the Bachelor Battles! It's certainly been one to remember, folks. Don't forget to order your copy after the main event. Just twenty eight UDs will get you every brutal fight, every bachelor visit, and every interview with all the bloody contestants. Order yours tonight!”
A brief pause.
“…let’s go live to the cage with Dana, the only reporter to successfully interview a Pruett more than once. Tell us, Dana, what did the Changeling have to say?”
I grit my teeth, sharpening the edges of my rage as I listened from a small partitioned area behind the Block. The big cage was only different in size and the lack of a withdraw rope. Located directly below main stage, we were fighting in the center of another floor of those humiliating reporter shanties. Smoke and bitterness coated the air in equal measures as I waited to face my last opponent.
“Good evening, Reggie. Yes, Miss Pruett seems to tolerate me, but let's be clear. She has no weaknesses.”
It sounds like you took the odds and bet on her.”
“I probably shouldn't admit it, but yes, I did. Go Pruett!”
That made me smile, one of the happy stretches of my lips that had no place here, and I wiped it from my lips with the thought of Jason. I hadn’t seen him since his visit, his protection.
How did she feel about the Network sending someone to investigate her claims?”
“Well Reggie, the Bounty Hunter didn't think it would start this uproar, that's for sure, and seems to regret making trouble for the Network. She firmly believes they'll handle any issues they find. She's a Network player.”
That sounded strange to me, like it had a double meaning, but the fury was distracting and I let it build.
“What about this mate she's chosen? Will he get to attend the match?”
There was a soft chuckle. “No. He'll be viewing from a wall screen.”
“Surrounded by all her guards, no doubt.”
More laughter and the rage sharpened. I didn't like being called Angel and I loathed being laughed at.
“Well, it looks like the bell is up. Enjoy that front row seat, Dana.”
“I will, and don't forget folks, get your copy tonight for only twenty eight UDs!”
“Match Three. Winner Takes All!”
We entered The Block from opposite sides and I was careful not to look at her as we moved inside the cage.
With their big hair and their manicured nails, these celebrity females had nothing they’d done on a regular basis, besides making conquests of the other socialites. Their weak, soft bodies proved that. This oldest sister might have the Change on her side, but her nails were jagged, bitten down to the quick and her neck was covered in bruises - I wasn’t the only one who’d had trouble sleeping through the assassins.
If not for Jason’s words to my guards, the latest attacker may have succeeded in poisoning us both. They had shown up in time to plunge the syringe into the older woman’s throat. And the funny part was
neither of us knew her. That was New Network City - deadly.
I still hadn’t seen Rankin directly, but I’d observed her relaxed shadow, how
she seemed after a night with Jason, and my fury grew. She and I had things to settle as soon as I smeared the cage with blood one more time.
I could feel Chelsea’s rage simmering like mine, waiting to boil over, and I did what any Pruett family member would have done - I grinned at her.
The roar from the crowd was immense. They knew what was coming, and they were eager to see if I’d figured it out. If not, my death was close. I briefly wondered how many of them would be very poor women by dawn, because of that bet.
Chelsea turned that powerful gaze of wounded agony on me, and I laughed - openly and loudly. “Pruetts have no sympathy!
Fight or die, pig!”
That did it. I could see her snap coming, and feel my own rising up. She’d deceived me, too! This time, I surrendered my icy control and let it happen - my fury at everything now on display for the world.
Heat ran up my legs, hair shooting from my head as my body swelled, tightened. Pain beat in my temples, rushing in my blood, stinging and gouging its way through. The female across from me was going through the same evolution of flips and our sounds mirrored each other in violent echoes.
The crowd was uncontrollable in their delight of seeing simultaneous snaps. Our screams of agony were nearly drowned out by the mob’s excitement as the bloodlust burst into our eyes, turning them full crimson.
We moved forward at the same time, two lethal females in full season. The crowd held its breath as two fists rose into the air.
Both landed, staggering each of us back.
I swung again, faster than Chelsea, and sent blood flying from her mouth.
Her return hit had my own head jerking to the side, blood running down my cheek... then I reacted as the situation deserved.
My brutal swing of both hands together sent her to the mat.
She leapt back to her feet, missing at least one tooth, but I wasn’t done. Blood flew as I slammed my wrist into her jaw again, making her cry out.
She'd had the advantage in every fight until now, but without the sympathy she relied on, Chelsea’s hits came as no surprise and did less damage. My own swings were brutal, and I delivered one after the other without a pause between. My only thought was to build control for the time I would be alone with Jason.
I struck out again, catching Chelsea in the temple. She stumbled and fell, unable to think, to control herself while
Instead of moving in for the kill, my rage slowly began to fade. Didn't they train before coming here?
I hit her again instinctively as she struggled to get back up, landing a harsh blow to the back of her head. Chelsea stayed down, bleeding, waiting for me to finish her off. And I hesitated…
Chelsea’s words quivered with fear and hatred as the Change faded from her, too.
I stepped back, unable to take my relief this way after all the conclusions I’d come to. It was wrong.
“What are you doing?”
There was plenty of fight left in her, I could hear it. I wanted to stop the battle, to demand answers from her about the Network, but she deceived me again by saying the one thing she knew would snap me back into the killer that always lurked inside now.
“Rankin had him last night. I heard them.” Chelsea taunted, bloody face furiously determined. “I’ll bet he tasted
White heat flooded me, rage instantly flaming back to life in an inferno of bloodlust.
Her lids closed over teary black eyes as my boot lifted, her mouth opening… “I miss you, Momma. Good luck.”
My boot came down hard, snapping her neck with my perfectly delivered heel-hit.
“Match to Pruett!”
It was over.
I won. And yet I felt so empty, so lost. She'd wanted me to kill her and I hadn't been able to stop myself. I played in several games here and emerged with the prizes, but I’d won nothing.
Ignoring the crowd around the cage that was trying to shove through the rows of guards, I moved down to the fenced area without waiting for the announcer. I had to see Jason.
There were small islands of people behind the curtains, most of them staff, and I headed for the doorway without responding to any of the reporters, including Dana. They followed determinedly, calling sharp questions.
“What did she say?”
“Were you about to offer mercy?”
I heard another voice nearby, echoing over all the others.
“That’s our little Angel, folks!”
And you’re out of passes
, I thought, moving that way.
so the littlest Pruett upholds that questionable family name, brutally executing more than... Hey! What are you doing? Give me…”
Reggie hit the floor.
“Don't ever. Do that.
She peered up at me in hurt surprise. “Do what?”
I spun from the room then, before the rage could slip out of the tight hold I had on it. I had to see him; I had to know he wasn’t hurt.
And if he had been?
My feet moved me faster through the corridors where they
shrank back from me now. That, I had no answer for, but I kept the Change close in case I needed it to kill a Head Defender while the Network and the world watched.
The episode champion spent two days locked-up with her prize while the Network verified the win and I went there now. I wasn’t very caring about the lack of luxury on these higher floors as I stalked toward Jason. So what if my steps echoed on the carpetless floors, and drew the attention of the big guards at each end of the hall? I’d already proven I would kill for him.
My harsh profile would now grace a wall somewhere in the complex, along with Candice, and her mother, Mary. We had become legends in the Bachelor Battles, but it wouldn’t send fans toward us like with some of the Games champions, and I was glad. Groupies were the last thing I needed. Even a stalker would be more useful.
The blue-haired Den Mother stood outside the winner’s apartment, wary, but determined. I didn't plan on talking to her, but her words blasted through my heat.
“It’s not true and you’re smart enough to know it.”
I turned to pin her with a harsh glare that she didn't flinch from.
“Only a lie meant to make you finish.”
I knew it was the truth as soon as she said it, but my rage didn’t fade.
“The Network seeks to control the over-population of females, but also the power of some.”
Stunned, I listened with growing revulsion.
“They go to the celebrities who are popular and offer them high credits to enter the games… or blackmail them into it. The Network pays double for each contestant they kill. Triple to their families… if they die. She freed her mother and gave her a fresh start with a large amount of credits and no Network disgrace, but she also weakened the Bush family. They’ll be consumed by the Network now.”