Terrible waves heaved and thrashed against the rocky cliffside, rumbling with the force of an entire ocean behind them. High above their reach, a young woman balanced on a ledge, clinging to handholds in the slate. Her heart thrummed in her chest as she watched a cascade of gravel crumble away and plunge into the sea. Falling against the rocks below would
The young woman shook her head, willing the thought away before continuing to descend the cliffs. Her pace was hurriedshe stumbled often, but she managed to recover her balance each time. It was only when she glanced down to the writhing sea that she noticed how fragile her footholds had become. The ground weakened under her weight. She tensed with fearthrowing out both arms to stop her fallbut she had already fallen. Silence assaulted her as all thoughts ceased in her mind. Fear of the fall and the sudden stop at the end of it were all that remained.
Her hands hit stone and grasped. Her right knee collided with rock, sending serrations of pain through her body. With a final, resounding crack, the young woman's hand caught a ledge and ceased her descent, almost jerking her arm out of its socket in the process. She threw up her other hand and clung to the slate, shuffling her feet onto a ledge below. Her heart pounded in her chest as relief and adrenaline swept through her. For a long while, she leaned her head against the stone and breathed.
The young woman judged the last stretch of cliff; if she had fallen the full length of the cliffs and been thrown against the rocks below, she would have died. The thought scared her to the point that she almost turned back. She paused for half a second, turning to see where the sun lay on the horizon. She didn't have time. She had to go now.
Her legs felt weak and her hands trembled, but the young woman continued towards the ground. When she reached it, her fingertips were bruised and battered, but she breathed in relief, sagging against the stone. She bent to examine her knee, sweeping the stray strands of fox-colored hair out of her eyes as she did so. A jagged cut had dripped blood all down her leg.
Touching the tender area around the wound, the young woman cringed. Then she forced herself to her feet, careful to not further agonize her injury.
Out on the horizon, just visible from where she stood, lay the wreckage of a city. Skyscrapersonce glorious and monumentalslept like half-decayed monsters under water that smelled of dead metal. The young woman didn't know if there had been any survivors when the city had gone under, but the only sign of life now was a solitary sea-hawk circling miles above her.
Her goal was beyond the skyscrapers, but the sun had already begun to shrug against their steel beams. She placed one foot and then another onto the edge of a narrow peninsula that led closer to the drowned city, knowing that she had wasted too much time. Anxiety tied a knot in her stomach. If she had to turn back now
Her eldest brother had punished her before for things less mutinous than this. He would be furious.
The young woman took a deep breath, building up the courage to cross the peninsula. She had just stepped forward when she heard a sound that made her heart jump in her chest.
Someone had called her name.
Stepping back, she glanced around, trying to hear over the churning tides. "May!" called the voice again. Her eyes snapped up, recognizing the voice.
May cursed under her breath. Her eyes swept over the area, looking for somewhere to hide, but everything below the cliffs was too flat and open. If he hadn't seen her already, he would see her before she could hide. Feeling her heart sink, May raised a hand and called, "Jack, I'm over here!"
Jack waved back from the top of the cliffsMay saw him dismounting his motorbike, clutching a bundle of rope under his arm. "Come back to the cliff, May!" he shouted.
May turned toward the sunken city only for a second. If she ran, she could make it to the other side of the peninsula before it got dark. With the sheer drop of the cliff standing between them, Jack wouldn't be able to catch herbut May knew she couldn't leave him like that. She could only imagine how that would feelbeing reminded of
well, he didn't deserve it. May spared the corroded buildings one last anguished glance and then trudged back to the cliff.
Jack unfurled his bundle of rope, which turned out to be a ladder, and allowed the end to drop. The rope ladder stopped short several feet above May's head, not long enough to reach her. "Climb up," Jack called over the waves.
May cursed again. "Jack, I just got down here. Don't make me climb up."
"Please, May," Jack said. "I know why you're out here. You're not thinking clearly. When
" He hesitated, a terrible sadness overcoming his features. "When Ariadne said there was a city beyond the city, she didn't
She didn't know that, May. She was just telling stories. I know Lars has been
difficult, lately, but he's just trying to protect us. He means well. You can't just run away to some place that doesn't exist."
May's fists clenched at her sides. "Means well?" she asked. "You think Lars means well when he
?" She trailed off, shaking her head, not wanting to think about the details. "He's sick, Jack. He's convinced you that what he's doing is good for us all, but it's not. He's using your guilt to manipulate you"
"Just climb the ladder," said Jack.
May felt indignation boil in her stomach, but she knew that she had already lost her chance to escape. Already, the sky was darkening.
Hand over hand and foot over foot; May began her ascent. Even with the ladder helping her, the injuries she had obtained from the climb down made it almost as difficult to climb back up. The tips of her fingers began to burn.
Before May even reached the top, Jack grabbed her wrists and pulled her up over the side. As she caught her balance and rose to her feet, Jack wrapped his arms around her tight enough for May to know that she had scared him.
"How could you do that to me?" he asked, his voice rising. "When I saw your footprints leading up to the edge, I thought" He stopped then, because his emotions had hindered his speech.
May looked at the sky behind him, beginning to darken as the sun set under the horizon. "I'm sorry," she said, feeling like her voice was detached from her body. "I didn't mean to remind you of what happened."
They stood like that for a long timeMay thought she heard a pack of coyotes barking and howling away in the distanceand then Jack finally broke away, having finally reassured himself that May was still alive and not lying dead at the bottom of some cliff.
"How'd you get down there?" he asked, wiping his eye with the back of his hand. "Never mind, don't tell me. I don't want to knowDamn it, May, what did you do to your knee?"
"I hurt it in the climb down," May said, "but don't tell Lars that."
Jack frowned. "He isn't stupid. He'll know even if I don't tell him."
"Then what am I supposed to do?" May asked. Her shoulders tensed with anxiety like the hackles of a cat. "I can't go back if he knows I was trying to run away."
"Let me take a look at it," Jack said. "You don't have to deal with Lars just yet."
May hesitated, wracked with nerves, and then nodded; resigning herself to the seat of Jack's motorbike, which was rusty despite Jack's best efforts.
"You'll have to pick the gravel out when you get home," Jack said, as he bent to examine her wound. "And wash it, too."
May ignored him. Her mind was back at the sunken city.
"You were just going to leave forever," said Jack, "and you weren't going to say goodbye."
May looked away from him. "I thought it would be easier that way," she said.
Jack looked at her, but she didn't return the glance. "We should go," he said. "Lars is waiting." He turned back only once to stare over the cliffside, before mounting his bike. The sea churned far below.
Less than a mile away, the hulking figure of a six-wheeled cargo transporter rolled out through the desert with only a canvas cover to protect the freight behind its cab. A jaunty tune spilled out from the windows and fell away to mix with the dust clouds that billowed out in the vehicle's wake. Inside the cabin, the ominous buzzing of an unseen fly could be heard somewhere from the passenger side. The noise had become undesirable distraction for the driver, who was a walrus of a man with a sweaty nest of hair atop his head.
He hummed to himself and watched the road with skittering eyes as perspiration dripped from his brow. With a grumble, he shifted in his seat and reached to take a beat-up radio transceiver from the dashboard. "Everything clear up ahead?" he asked, holding the press-to-talk button as he did.
The transceiver crackled for a moment before a voice came through in reply. "No sign of anything so far, Jameson. We'll hit that mountain range in just a few minutes, and then it's only a couple of hours before we hit Seracruz."
Jameson nodded even though the man he spoke to couldn't see him. He kept one hand clamped tight around the steering wheel and his eyes on the road but continued to speak into the communicator. "How's the area been?" Jameson asked. "Any more attacks?"
"You worry too much," said the voice through static. "If we were going to be ambushed by insurrectionists, it would have been back at the sunken city."
"This route is a disaster waiting to happen," said Jameson. "That sunken city always gets me." A cold chill crept up his spine even as he said it, though the air coming through the windows was hot and dry as the sun-baked road he drove over. Jameson shook the chill off with a grumble. "Couldn't you have spared more than one escort car?"
The man on the other end laughed through the transceiver. "What are you expecting to run into out here, Jameson? Ghosts? We have enough ammo to take out a whole convoy."
"Right. You're right," Jameson said, forcing a laugh. "I'll check back when we're over those mountains, then."
"Over and out."
Jameson tapped his fingers on the steering wheel and looked from the horizon, which had darkened to a deep byzantium, to in front of him, where an armored car slid like a shadow through the desert dusk.
"You've got nothing to worry about," he said, eyeing the car with distaste. "You've got bullet-proof windows and Kevlar. I only have canvas and rusty metal to protect my hide." He snorted. "Ghosts, my ass. It's highwaymen I'm worried about. Damn soldiers never take me seriously."
Jameson grumbled to himself and scratched his side, keeping his eyes on the road. Every shadow in the desert night looked like a hijacker lying in wait. "They could have at least given me two cars for an escort; one to the front and one to the back
blind spots," Jameson grumbled. He shook his head, trying to rid himself of the worrying thoughts. "Friggen gypsies," he said. His truck swerved around a bend, aiming toward the mountains. He sighed. "Maybe I'm worrying over nothing."
There was something, though, that his escort said that made him retain the slightest twinge of anxietysomething that caused the hair on the back of his neck to prickle with fear.
Jameson leaned over to turn his radio off. They had passed the sunken city and he was sure that if they were going to be ambushed, it would have been therethe edge of the city would have been the optimal place for an attackbut with the music off, Jameson heard something he hadn't noticed before. It was the sound of a deep, rattling engineone unlike either of the two in his convoy.
Reddening in the face, Jameson watched with growing frustration as the black escort in front of him veered off to the right. He yelled in protest, smashing his fist against the dash, and drove after it, but he didn't get far before he realized what the armored vehicle was going after: It was a woman on a motorcycle.
Jameson picked up speed, veering back onto his route knowing he would have to use the distraction to his advantage. As his truck swerved around a bend, something moved across his path in the road ahead. Jameson noticed it far too late. The cargo truck's obstacle-sensors picked it up early enough to stop without crashing, but the vehicle came to such a sudden stop that Jameson was thrown into the steering column. Swallowing back nausea, he tried to focus his sight on what lay in front of his vehicle. It was another motorcycleA motorcycle without a rider.
Jameson didn't breathe. He tensed in anticipation.
Suddenly, his engine went silent. Jameson thrashed around in his seat, cursing to himself as he realized his engine had been disabled.
His door flew open, then, revealing the highwayman who had stopped him. "Get out of the car," he said.
Jameson struggled to moveto think. Standing in front of him, pale in the after-sunset darkness, was the ghost he had feared to see. His face was white as sun-bleached bone. Two smears of darkness cut across his eyes, making the whites around his irises stand out like a demon's. He grinned, entertained by Jameson's speechlessness.
Jameson could do nothing but stare and struggle to breathe as fear snapped around his heart like a bear trap.
The highwayman remedied his lack of cooperation by pulling a loaded gun from his coat. He cocked it, almost tenderly, and aimed it at Jameson's head. His mouth set into a grim linethe smile vanished just as quickly as it had comeand he repeated his order one final time:
"Get out of the car."
Battalions of sun-worshipping saguaros lined the edge of the road, looking lonely in the night. Silhouettes of vibrant stone etched their way into the skyline in shades of sienna, shale, and schist.
May clung to Jack's waist as they wound their way through the desert, nearing the final stretch before their destination. The vehicle shot up a ridge and May braced herself in sudden fear, knowing they would come down hard. What she hadn't expected was what would be waiting for them on the other side.
"Jack, look out!"
Another vehicle was coming right at them, giving Jack only a second to maneuver. Rather than slowing down, he drove his foot down hard on the accelerator, swerving off of the road but managing to avoid a collision with the other driver.
May watched as the other vehicle streaked past thema motorbike, too close for comfortthe rider all but a blur. One thing she was able to make out, though: The contrast between his eyes and face was unnatural.
Before May could think on it further, the man had sped off and was gone. She turned her thoughts back to Jack, who was tense and breathing hard. May relaxed her shoulders, relieved that they hadn't crashed. She looked up at Jack, wanting to see his expression, but his eyes didn't leave the road. He said nothing the rest of the way home.
Between rugged mountains to the north and the sunken city to the south, a tiny shack stood at the edge of the desert. The glass in the windows was cracked and tinted yellow with age. The shingles on the roof were tattered and wind-beateneven missing in places. Anyone who passed by would assume from its state that the building was abandoned, but if they looked closer, they would see that footprints covered the dusty ground that led up to the door, gasps of pale smoke crept out from the tiny chimney, and clusters of edible cacti grew around the front.
Nonetheless, why anyone would live so far away from civilization was anybody's guess. The closest town was miles to the north, across the barren Sonoran, and over jagged mountains. People rarely travelled so far into the desert and when they did it was because they were heading somewhere else. This was the kind of place that if one were to lose their way, they would be lost foreveror the kind of place for those who didn't want to be found.
"May," Jack cautioned as they approached the tiny building. "Don't mention the motorcyclist we almost ran into to Lars."
May raised her eyebrows. "Why not?"
"Just don't," said Jack. "I have a bad feeling about it
Just worry about yourself. Don't mention the motorcyclist."
May nodded. "Alright," she said, "but why do you have a bad feeling about it?" She lowered her voice. "Do you think he was an AK soldier?"
Jack shook his head. "No, he couldn't have been. I don't think they ever travel alone."
"Then what?" May asked.
Jack looked toward the horizon, which had begun to sew itself into a quilt of stars. "Who knows?" he said. "Strange people live out here in the desert."
An engine cut, silencing the only trail left by a black and silver motorbike: The white-faced highwayman had arrived at his destination. He dragged his bike through the sand, pausing at the spot in the desert he knew most well. Rusted with age and unremarkable, a pipe stuck out of the dehydrated earth.
The man pulled it and stepped back, a square of darkness opening up in the ground where he had stood before. Grains of sand slid down into shadow as the hatch opened.
Shadow hid everything except the topmost edge of a ramp, but the man didn't hesitate as he led his bike down into the underground shelter. When he had disappeared from view, the hatch closed behind him, leaving the desert undisturbed.
The room underneath was cooler than the desert outside and smelled of rust and rainwater. Resting his bike against a wall, the man reached for a lantern and illuminated the room to reveal a trove of supplies. There were crates of all sizes and everything ranging from canned food to weapons laid out upon them. Guns, knives, and maybe even a stray grenade hid themselves among the stockpile.
The dark-haired man paced along the edge of the boxes. His bike was in need of fuel and he could have sworn that he'd left a can of gasoline around somewhere, but
The door to the shelter grated open. The white-faced man dodged into the shadows of the boxes and waited there, barely breathing. His heart thudded in his chest as he reached for his gun. Footsteps came scraping down the ramp.
"Nathan?" the intruder called. "Are you down here?"
Breathing a sigh of relief, Nathan stepped out from his hiding place. "You scared me, Amalie," he said. "I thought the AK might have" He stopped, startled by the young woman's appearance. Blood was smeared across her brow and a livid bruise had begun to form on her jaw line. Her autumn eyes were filled with genuine fear.
"Amalie, what happened?" Nathan asked.
The woman didn't answer. She put a hand to her forehead andfeeling the blood therewiped it away.
Nathan approached her, cautiously placing a hand on her shoulder. It looked as though Amalie had been in a fight, but Nathan knew she was too tough to let a couple of bruises bother her. Something else had happened. Something worse. "What is it, Amalie?" he asked.
"I tried to lose the AK soldiers in the old quarry, but they caught up to me."
"And?" Nathan asked.
"They fired at me. I had to fire back."
Nathan's eyes widened as he finally came to understanding. "You killed
You killed an AK soldier?"
Amalie looked toward the ground and said, "Two, actually. Two soldiers."
Nathan took a sharp breath through his teeth. "They will murder us, Amalie. They're probably tracking us right now."
Amalie ruffled with irritation. "Well, what was I supposed to do, let them shoot me?"
Nathan cursed. "I'm sorry, Amalie. There was nothing you could do. But excuses won't stop the AK. They'll come for us."
Amalie's mouth set into a thin line. "We should leave," she said, "before they get here."
"Right. How much gasoline does your bike have?"
"Probably not enough to get to Seracruz," Amalie said. "But we have some around here somewhere, don't we?"
Nathan shook his head. "I already looked."
Amalie went pale. "What? No, we must have some
around here somewhere
" Her voice trailed off as Nathan shook his head again. "What are we going to do?" she asked.
"Is there anyone we could call for help?" Nathan asked.
Nathan shook his head. "No, he'd never get here fast enough," he said with a frown. "Katarine can't help us, either. She's all the way in Seracruz. The AK would beat her here."
"So what can we do?" Amalie asked.
Silence set in as Nathan tried to think of a way that they could get to Seracruz without proper fuel. Then it dawned on him that maybe they didn't need to go all the way to Seracruz at all.
Nathan turned and grabbed his bike. "I've got an idea," he said. "Come on, get your bike. I'll explain to you on the way."