Scavenger Alliance – Sample Chapters
Scavenger Alliance is set in the PORTAL FUTURE during Exodus Century, and centres on an ancestor of the main character in the Earth Girl trilogy.
I was the only person who saw the aircraft arrive in New York, and I didn’t realize what it was at first. I’d just stepped out on to the roof of the Americas Parliament House, when I noticed the small speck in the dawn sky.
Logic told me there was no need for me to worry about anything overhead. I was standing on top of the highest building in the area, so should be perfectly safe from the gliding attacks of the local predators. The crisp carpet of snow under my feet was an extra reassurance, since none of those predators would be out hunting while the temperature was below freezing point.
I still stopped to stare upwards and make sure this was only a bird. My years in New York had taught me that letting down your guard, even for a second, could get you injured or killed.
I couldn’t work out what species of bird this was, but it was definitely far too high in the air to be anything dangerous. I forgot about it, fixed my eyes on where the blue, planet Earth flag was proudly silhouetted against the rising sun, and gave the distinctive, right hand on heart salute of the Earth Resistance.
My regular morning ritual completed, I would normally go back inside, but today I lingered with my eyes fixed on the Earth Resistance flag, brooding on the ominous fact that today was my eighteenth birthday. My position in the Resistance had been uncertain ever since my brother left, and turning eighteen would probably make my life even more difficult.
I was reluctant to go back indoors in case I found my worries becoming harsh reality, but the icy January wind was finding its way through my layers of clothing, and triggering an ache in the left arm that I’d broken last summer. I sighed, turned back to the door to the stairs, and then remembered the strange bird and gave a last glance upwards.
I was startled to see the bird was much closer now, vastly bigger than I’d thought, and didn’t look like any kind of living creature I’d ever seen. It took me a moment longer to work out this had to be an aircraft. I’d heard people talk about how such things were commonplace centuries ago, used for long distance travel in the days before the invention of portal technology, but I’d imagined them having wide flapping wings rather than stubby, rigid structures.
The aircraft must have come from behind Fence, flying casually over the vicious wire that protected the respectable citizens from undesirables like me, but why? The last of the citizens had abandoned New York in 2389, withdrawing to their new settlements the summer before I was born, so what had brought them here now?
I stood there for another couple of minutes, watching the aircraft fly straight overhead and across the Hudson River to skyscraper-crammed Manhattan. It stopped there, hung motionless in the sky like a hovering bird of prey for a few seconds, then slowly dropped vertically downwards and vanished behind one of the buildings.
An enemy aircraft had landed in our city! I forced myself out of my stupor, ran back inside, clattered down the narrow flight of stairs, and then came to an abrupt halt as I saw the man walking down the corridor ahead of me. He had his back to me, just an anonymous shape in a thick, hooded coat, but the flickering lights of the gun tendrils on his right hand and wrist showed this had to be Donnell. Now that Kasim was dead, Donnell was the only person here with an Armed Agent weapon.
I hesitated. Given my dubious situation, I normally gave messages to one of Donnell’s officers rather than approaching him directly myself, but he needed to hear this news at once.
“Sir!” I hurried up to him.
Donnell tugged down his hood as he turned to face me, and I saw his eyebrows lift in surprise.
“I just saw an aircraft!” I said. “It landed over the other side of the river in Manhattan.”
Donnell frowned for a moment, and then shrugged. “I can’t believe the citizens have suddenly started flying aircraft after all these years. It must be some off-worlders checking the art galleries and museums for anything worth salvaging. Forget about it, Blaze.”
“Forget about it?” I repeated his words in shocked disbelief. The idea of the citizens trespassing in our territory had been bad enough, but the thought of off-worlders coming here and taking whatever they wanted was even worse. “But we’re the Earth Resistance. It’s our duty to stop the off-world colonies leeching resources from Earth. It says so in our charter!”
Donnell ran his fingers through his thick brown hair, with its scattering of silver strands that added distinction to his legendary good looks. “That’s true, but I wrote that charter over thirty years ago, back when there were still a couple of billion people living on Earth. Everything is totally different now.”
There weren’t billions of people living on Earth now, there were probably less than a hundred million, and only just over seven hundred of us here in New York, but I thought that made it even more important to defend our rights. Angry words burst out of me. “We should still go to Manhattan and …”
Donnell lifted a hand to stop me. “Calm down, Blaze.”
I was horrified to realize I’d been shouting at Donnell. I hastily shut up.
“You mustn’t tell anyone else about the aircraft,” Donnell continued. “Everyone in the Resistance would react like you, wanting to get their revenge on the off-worlders who bled our home world dry of resources to found their bright new colony worlds, while the members of the other divisions are even more bitter about the way those bright new worlds refused entry to anyone with a criminal record. Whatever I said, the whole of the alliance would go racing off to Manhattan, and that could get us all killed.”
His attitude suddenly made sense to me. “You’re worried the off-worlders could have advanced weapons?”
“That’s one problem. The other is that it’s nearly two months since the winter fever hit us. Only a handful of people recovered in time to go out hunting and fishing before the last blizzard. Now everyone’s finally well again, we have to focus all our efforts on getting more food before the next blizzard arrives, because we’ve nothing left to eat.”
Donnell’s words shocked me. I’d known we were short of food, there had been strict rationing for weeks, but … “The food reserves are gone?”
“We’ll be eating most of the remaining food for breakfast.”
“I didn’t realize that,” I murmured.
“I discussed the situation with the leaders of the other four divisions. We made a joint decision not to frighten people with the truth, because we didn’t want anyone heroically heading out into the blizzard and getting themselves killed in an attempt to get more food. I’m only telling you about this now so you’ll understand why I’m asking you to forget about that aircraft. However wrong it feels to let off-worlders ransack Manhattan, we must hunt food rather than invaders today. We have children to feed.”
I nodded in reluctant acceptance.
“It’s not as if we’ll ever risk going to Manhattan for supplies again after that disastrous trip last summer,” Donnell added. “Anything left there is going to rot away and fall apart, so the off-worlders might as well take whatever they want.”
I winced at the mention of that trip to Manhattan. I considered myself lucky to have escaped with nothing worse than a broken arm, because one of Donnell’s officers had been killed.
“I won’t tell anyone about the aircraft, sir, but if it takes off when everyone is out hunting then they’ll all see it.”
“It doesn’t matter if people see the off-worlders leaving. They won’t be able to fly after them.”
There was a moment of silence after that. I thought our conversation was over, and was about to leave when Donnell spoke again.
“Happy birthday, Blaze.”
He’d remembered my birthday! I gave him a wary look. “Uh, thank you, sir.”
“It’s time that we discussed your future.”
Panic stabbed at me. What did Donnell mean by that? Did he feel that my eighteenth birthday marked the end of his debatable responsibility for me? I waited in tense silence to hear what Donnell would say next, but his attention had shifted to something behind me. I turned and saw Machico, the eldest of Donnell’s officers, was coming down the corridor towards us.
Machico gave me a single inquisitive look before speaking to Donnell. “There’s a problem downstairs, oh beloved leader. Some of the Manhattan division men started jeering at Queens Island division, and Queens Island naturally retaliated. Luther was eager to flaunt his officer powers, and waded into the middle of the argument before the rest of us could stop him.”
He paused. “The good news is that Manhattan and Queens Island instantly stopped throwing insults at each other. The bad news is that they started ridiculing Luther instead.”
I frowned, distracted from my own worries by concern for Luther. All the other divisions hated each other, so an argument between any of them was likely to turn violent, but the feud between Manhattan and Queens Island was particularly bitter. Luther was barely nineteen, and had only been an alliance officer for five months. I could understand him wanting to prove himself, but it would have been wiser for him to let a more senior officer deal with the situation.
Donnell groaned. “I’d better go and remind the troublemakers that my officers have the support of my authority as alliance leader.”
The two of them turned to walk off down the corridor. I stayed where I was, but Donnell glanced back at me and waved his hand in a beckoning gesture. I chased after him and Machico, catching them up when they stopped by the big steel door that led to the main staircase.
“If I can deal with this problem quickly, then we’ll be able to continue our talk,” said Donnell.
I was even more nervous now. If Donnell wasn’t letting trouble between the divisions distract him from discussing my future, then he must have something grimly serious to say to me.
Donnell put his hand on the security plate, and lights flashed as the plate checked his handprint. The door slid aside, and we went down six floors worth of stairs. When we reached ground level, Donnell yanked aside the heavy curtain that blocked the doorway ahead, and we left the Resistance wing of the building for the warm, smoke-scented air of the huge central reception hall.
In theory, this whole area was common ground and safe for everyone. In reality, each of the other four divisions had staked their claim to the corner of Reception by the entrance to their wing of the building, while the Resistance had an area in the centre of the room.
At this time in the morning, the members of each division should either be in the long queue for food, or sitting at the tables in their own areas and eating breakfast. Instead, half of them were on their feet and laughing. The target of that laughter was standing right in front of us, with two Manhattan men on one side of him and two Queens Island men on the other.
Luther usually had an air of calm self-confidence, but now his expression verged on panic. I could understand why. One of the Manhattan men taunting him was Cage, and I knew from personal experience how dangerous Cage could be.
“I’ve told you twice now to go back to your own areas,” said Luther. “I’m an alliance officer, so you have to obey my orders.”
“I’d no idea you were an officer, Luther,” said Cage, in a voice of maliciously exaggerated innocence. “I must have missed hearing that wonderful news.”
“I remember Donnell announcing Luther’s officer appointment months ago,” said the other Manhattan man, Shark, “but I assumed it was a joke. What has Luther ever done to earn an officer position?”
Luther ran his fingers through his black hair, obviously uncertain how to respond. I’d had a crush on Luther’s good looks for a while back when I was fifteen. My feelings had survived a few months of his unrelenting indifference towards me, before being annihilated by a two-second encounter on the stairs. I was walking upwards, when Luther came dashing down past me, pushing me aside with a casual command that the traitor’s sister should get out of his way. I’d heard that sort of remark plenty of times before and since, but it had been especially painful coming from him.
I didn’t have a crush on Luther any longer, but I couldn’t help sympathizing with him at this moment. I knew exactly what was happening here. Luther had become an officer five months ago. The other divisions had given him a relatively easy time back then, because his father, Kasim, had been Donnell’s deputy and the only other person with an Armed Agent weapon. Now that Kasim had died from the winter fever, the worst of the division men had decided his son would be vulnerable prey, so they were circling him like wolves.
Luther finally opened his mouth to speak, but one of the Queens Island men called out from behind him.
“Of course Donnell wasn’t joking. Kasim’s son just has to whine for whatever he wants and he’s handed it on a silver platter. It’s the same thing that happened six years ago with …”
Donnell shouted from where he was standing next to me. “That’s enough!”
The laughter round the room abruptly stopped. Shark and the two Queens Island division men turned and walked rapidly back to their own areas, but Cage lingered to give another mocking laugh at Luther before sauntering off with insolent slowness. As he approached the Manhattan corner, the bulky figure of Wall, leader of Manhattan division, strode forward to meet him. The glower of displeasure on Wall’s dark face would have made any other Manhattan member tremble, but Cage’s smile didn’t falter.
I frowned. Cage had challenged Wall’s leadership of Manhattan years ago. That challenge had failed because Wall was a strong, well-liked leader, but Cage’s self-assured smile made me worry that he was planning a new leadership bid.
Donnell turned to me for a split second. “It seems we’ll need to leave our talk until later, Blaze.”
I didn’t have time to reply before he and Machico hurried off to talk to Luther. I was left worrying about my own situation again, mentally replaying my conversation with Donnell about the aircraft, and cursing my stupidity for arguing with him. Donnell had remembered my birthday and was planning to discuss my future with me. My behaviour could be the last straw that made him discard me from the Resistance.
The cooking smells were tormenting my empty stomach, so I headed for the back of the room, automatically making the necessary detours to avoid trespassing on any other division’s territory. Nobody would consider a girl like me a genuine threat, but going too close to their area would still bring retribution down on my head.
I joined the line of people queuing at the food table, and now I wasn’t just worrying about Donnell’s words, but uncomfortably aware of the leaping flames of the cooking fire as well. As the line slowly moved, I shuffled forward in turn, getting even closer to the makeshift hearth and chimney that had been built against the wall. I felt my hands begin to tremble and clenched them into fists. It was over six years since I’d escaped the London firestorm and come to New York as a refugee, but the sight and sound of flames still triggered bad memories.
The queue moved forward again. There were only three people ahead of me now, then two, then one, and finally I reached the table with its steaming cauldrons. I waited as my ration of soup was carefully ladled into a bowl and handed to me, then turned, eager to escape from the cooking fire, but found someone blocking my path.
“Hello, Blaze,” said Cage.
I froze, my nerves jangling as I remembered the last time Cage had cornered me by this fire. I had only been eleven years old back then, a naive new arrival used to London’s population of only a couple of hundred people, none of them a threat to me. Overwhelmed by the number of strangers in New York, struggling to learn the host of new rules, faces, and divisions, I’d made the foolish mistake of walking into Reception when none of the rest of the Resistance were there.
Cage had noticed me walking past the cooking fire, seen my fear of it, and couldn’t resist the opportunity to entertain himself and his friends with some casual cruelty. He grabbed me from behind, and was dangling me upside down over the flames, making jokes about someone called Blaze being scared of fire, when Donnell arrived and forcefully intervened. Cage had kept a wary distance from me ever since then, so why was he confronting me now?
The answer had to be that today was my birthday. Cage suspected that turning eighteen would change my situation. He’d come to remind me that he still held a grudge over the incident by this fire, and make it clear that losing the protection of the Resistance would leave him free to take his long awaited revenge.
I tried to reassure myself that Cage could only frighten me with words this time – he surely wouldn’t risk attacking me in full view of the whole alliance – but my panicking mind wasn’t totally convinced. I glanced round, weighing my options if Cage did make a grab for me. Flight or fight? To escape past Cage, I’d have to move perilously close to the flames, and Cage knew exactly how I’d feel about doing that. As for fighting … Cage was twice my size. I wouldn’t stand any better chance against him now than back when I was an eleven-year-old girl.
“Hello, Blaze,” Cage repeated, giving me the smug smile of a man who believed he was handsome. I thought he was fooling himself. Cage’s muscled figure and blond hair might have made him attractive ten years ago, but now he was in his mid-thirties, that blond hair was receding, and he had unflattering lines carved into his face that betrayed his bullying nature.
“Hello.” I muttered the response while studying the size of the gap between him and the fire. Was it possible to squeeze through it without getting burnt? Could I even force myself to try when my head was filled with memories of choking smoke and my mother’s dying screams?
“Now you’re eighteen, I think it’s time for us to come to an agreement,” said Cage.
I stared at him in confusion. “What agreement?”
“The obvious one.” He must have seen the bewilderment in my face, because he shook his head. “I thought you were more intelligent than this. Kasim’s death from the winter fever has left Donnell short of an officer, and I’m willing to marry you on condition I get the vacant position. The arrangement could work extremely well for both of us. You’d get a powerful husband. I’d get increased status. Think about it.”
I said the word instinctively, stupidly, before I could stop myself. The smile vanished from Cage’s face, and he leaned forward. I could feel his angry breath against my cheek as he whispered close to my ear.
“Do you really think you’ll be able to pick and choose between a dozen offers? If you do, then I suggest you go and take a long hard look at yourself in a mirror. Donnell split up from your mother before you were born, and nobody believes you’re his daughter, not even Donnell himself.”
I backed away, but Cage instantly took a step forward to close the gap between us again. His mouth was touching my ear now, so there was no way to avoid hearing his words.
“When you arrived here with your brother and the other refugees from London, everyone could see the boy was the living image of Donnell in his youth, but there was a suspicious resemblance between you and the London division leader.”
“I look like Ice because he’s a distant cousin of my mother.”
“You look like Ice because he’s your real father,” said Cage, “but Donnell is a generous man so he publicly accepted both you and your brother as being his children. Given what happened a couple of weeks later, Donnell must have bitterly regretted that generosity. He’s not the sort of man to go back on his word, so he’s never actually denied you’re his daughter, but he’s shown no more interest in you than in any of the other Resistance children.”
Cage laughed. “Now you’re eighteen, Donnell will be eager to get rid of his embarrassing problem, but even the biggest bribe won’t tempt many men to marry the plain-faced sister of a traitor. You’d better agree to my offer before I change my mind.”
He straightened up, laughed again, then turned his back on me and stalked off. I stood there numbly for a moment, wondering if the people in the food queue had heard his words. No, surely they couldn’t have done. Cage had pitched his voice too low for that.
I forced myself to move, scurrying past the fire to the centre of the room, and the safety of the group of tables belonging to the Earth Resistance. My best friend, Hannah, was sitting at our regular table. I saw her look anxiously at me, and pat the vacant chair next to her, but I wasn’t going to endanger her by dragging her into a conflict between me and Cage.
I went to an empty table instead, put down my bowl, and spread my hands flat on the table top to stop them trembling. I’d made a dreadful mistake by the cooking fire. Agreeing to marry Cage was unthinkable, but I should have at least pretended I’d consider it. Instead, I’d flung a flat refusal in his face. Cage had already had one grudge against me, and now I’d handed him another.
I looked round for Donnell, and saw he was talking to Machico. I faced forward again. Those few moments by the fire must have really shaken me to make me consider asking Donnell for help. For over six years, Donnell and I had had a tacit agreement. I could remain a member of the Resistance, but neither of us would mention certain subjects. How my mother died. What my brother did. What I didn’t do. The issue of whether Donnell was really my father.
I couldn’t break that agreement and start making personal demands on Donnell now, especially after he’d said those ominous words about discussing my future. I’d have to find a way to deal with Cage myself.
There was a sickening moment as I wondered if Donnell’s words were connected with Cage’s offer of marriage. If Donnell knew about that and wanted me to accept Cage, then …
No! I couldn’t believe that. I wouldn’t believe that. Donnell would never push any girl into marrying a man like Cage. These two things had happened at the same time, but only because they’d both been triggered by my eighteenth birthday.
I stood there for a few seconds longer, with the scent of food making my stomach nag at me, then finally sat down at the table and began eating my soup.
When I arrived back at my room, I saw I had less than fifteen minutes before I needed to go back to work. I snatched my phone from where it lay on my bed, set it to play one of the main Game news channels, and listened to a succession of hysterically angry voices while I showered and dressed in clean overalls.
As I scraped the last trace of soup from my bowl, Donnell began calling out the names of those who’d be in his hunting group. I felt a stab of uncertainty as I heard him say Cage’s name, but told myself there was nothing significant about that. It was too dangerous for Donnell to let each division send out its own hunting party – the long-running feuds between them were bound to lead to one division’s group “accidentally” shooting at another – so he split the men from each division between hunting parties led by himself and his officers.
Everyone knew those hunting parties were carefully randomized daily, so each man would get his turn at having the prestige of being in Donnell’s group, but that didn’t stop the chosen ones from giving gloating looks at those less fortunate. Donnell’s officers each shouted out names in turn after that, with the exception of Luther, because he hadn’t started leading hunting groups yet.
There was the traditional mockery of the man who was last to be called, then we all fastened our coats and put on hats and gloves. The men moved towards the glass-walled entrance area at the front of Reception, collected their bows and knife belts from tables, and headed out through the side door we’d been using ever since the main doors jammed shut four years ago. The women trailed after them, collecting their own knives and mesh fish bags. We had no groups to organize, because we all had our regular fishing spots, working in pairs for safety reasons.
Behind us came the children under twelve and the elderly, who’d be scrabbling in the snow for the genetically modified wintereat that was our main vegetable supply. It would be a miserable task in the freezing cold, but they wouldn’t have to go further than the old front lawn that was our vegetable garden, and they’d be taking turns to shelter indoors. The children would have a couple of hours of school lessons, while the adults either taught them or cared for the babies and those too sick to work at all.
I just hoped there was still some wintereat left for them to find. Created a couple of centuries ago from the genes of a dozen parent plants including potatoes and cabbage, wintereat was designed to grow incredibly fast all year round in a huge range of climates, but nothing could make much progress when it was buried under snow.
The second I was outside, the wind chilled me despite my thick coat and boots. Up on the roof, the snow had been less than ankle deep because the wind kept blowing it away. Down here, it came to well above my knees, and was far deeper where it had drifted against walls. A gaggle of jubilant small children, rejoicing at being outdoors again after suffering three long days of extra school lessons during the blizzard, fought their way to the half-smothered row of portals by the front wall of the building. They started weaving their way in and out of the massive, upright rings.
“Dial it! Dial it! Portal, dial it!” they chanted. “We’re ordering you by Newton. We’re commanding you by Einstein. We’re conjuring you by Thaddeus Wallam-Crane!”
I wondered how they’d react if one of those portals flared to life in response to their ritual game. It would never happen though. Two hundred years ago, Thaddeus Wallam-Crane invented portal technology. For the next century, people routinely stepped through portals to travel between neighbourhoods, between cities, even between continents, and then came interstellar portal technology. That gave humanity the stars, and started the great exodus from polluted Earth to new, unspoilt colony worlds scattered across hundreds of distant star systems.
Now Earth was semi-abandoned, and the only people left here were the few who wouldn’t or couldn’t leave. I counted as both. I was a member of the Earth Resistance, so I’d never leave Earth, and none of the new colony worlds would accept me anyway.
My parents had probably travelled by portal a thousand times during their youth. I’d used a portal only once, when fleeing from the London firestorm to the safety of New York. My memories of that were a confused mixture of unconnected fragments. The acrid scent and taste of the choking smoke. The sight of the panicking faces of the other refugees crammed into the room that would be either our escape route or our coffin. The sound of Ice’s voice shouting instructions, and my own frantic sobbing. The feel of my brother’s arms clutching me tightly against his chest as he carried me through the glowing circle.
My brother and I had made it to safety, but we’d lost our mother to the London firestorm. Two weeks after that, my brother left, and the next day the lights on every portal in New York went out. The children playing here would never see a working portal, and I’d never see my brother again.
I forced away the painful memories, turned my back on the dead portals, and watched the leading men start breaking a path through the snow. They used long poles to test the ground ahead of them before stepping on it, and the straggling line of people behind them carefully followed in their footsteps.
This whole area had been redeveloped when the Americas Parliament complex was built here, so its buildings and paths were some of the newest in New York, but they’d had no maintenance for at least five decades. Every year the paths grew worse as cracks widened and ruts deepened, but the real danger was from broken or missing maintenance covers over old drains and tunnels. We’d marked the worst of the hazards with red flags, but new ones appeared all the time.
The women were following the men now. I joined the line myself and started plodding slowly towards the river. Hannah was my fishing partner. I couldn’t see her ahead of me, so I turned to look behind, and spotted her distinctive blue hat. I edged cautiously to one side to let people walk past me, and stood waiting for her.
Hannah spoke the second she reached me. “Blaze, why didn’t you come and sit with me at breakfast?”
I pulled a face. “Because Cage cornered me by the cooking fire, and I said something that made him very angry. I couldn’t come and sit with you straight after that. If Cage is planning to take revenge on me, and I remind him you’re my friend, then he could come after you too.”
Hannah seemed more worried about me than scared for herself. “Why did he corner you, and what did you say to him?”
I was aware of the other women giving us curious looks as they went by. “I’ll tell you all about it when we’re alone.”
Hannah frowned. “I suppose that’s best, but … Are you all right?”
“I’m perfectly fine.”
“No, you aren’t. I can hear your voice shaking.”
I stepped back onto the path, and we started moving again, with Hannah behind me. “That’s just from the cold,” I called over my shoulder.
She gave a single explosive sound of disbelief. “Hah!”
We trudged on through the snow. Once we reached the river, the two women directly in front of me moved out of line. The path turned to follow the riverbank now, and more women left the line as we passed one fishing spot after another.
There were only the men, Hannah, and me left when we reached the featureless back wall of a squat, single-storey, grey building, wedged into the small gap between what had once been two matching apartment blocks. A fire last summer had reduced one of those apartment blocks to a burned out shell, and a heap of its fallen, blackened rubble had blocked access to the fishing spot I shared with Hannah. The only way to reach it now was to use a ladder to climb over the flat roof of the grey building.
The men split up into several groups, each of which headed off in a slightly different direction. Donnell was leading the first group. I thought I saw him glance back at me, but it could have been just my imagination.
I turned back to the building and found the ladder was missing. Hannah and I had left it leaning against the wall after our last fishing trip, but it must have blown over in the blizzard. We had to grope in the snowdrifts to find it and lift it back into place.
Hannah climbed the ladder first, and I tossed our bags up to her before climbing up myself. There was an awkward moment when I pulled myself up on to the snow-covered roof – I was still nervous of trusting my left arm to take my weight – but Hannah was standing ready to make sure I didn’t fall. After that, we just had to walk across the roof, step down onto first a high wall and then a rather lower concrete block, to reach a long, narrow pier jutting out into the river.
The grey building had one tiny window facing the river, and a door that sagged on its hinges but still grudgingly opened and shut. Hannah and I fetched the equipment we kept stored inside the building, baited hooks and set out our fishing lines at the end of the pier, and then put up a small tent. The moment we were sitting inside it, Hannah started questioning me.
“So what happened between you and Cage at the cooking fire?”
Hannah and I had been born within a few months of each other, and been best friends growing up in London. After we came to New York, and I’d lost both my mother and my brother, we’d become even closer than before, and I shared all my worries with her.
“Cage suggested marrying me,” I said.
Hannah gave me a wide-eyed look. “Seriously?”
“I can hardly believe it either. Donnell has an officer vacancy now that Kasim is dead, and Cage seems to think marrying me will get him the position.” I wrinkled my nose. “Chaos knows why he’d think that. Donnell’s not taken any interest in me for six years, so there’s no reason for him to hand out rewards to my husband, and he couldn’t make Cage an officer anyway. The alliance rules specifically state that Donnell can only choose his officers from among the Resistance members, because none of the other four divisions trust their rivals to help run things.”
“Cage must be planning to leave Manhattan division and join the Resistance when he marries you,” said Hannah.
I shook my head. “You know Cage can’t leave Manhattan. At least, he can’t leave Manhattan and expect to keep breathing. Donnell would never force anyone to stay in the Resistance against their will, but the other divisions demand absolute loyalty for life, and kill anyone who breaks their allegiance.”
“The division leaders give permission for a woman to move if she marries someone in a different division. Wall might extend the same permission to Cage if he thought Cage would stay secretly loyal to them.” Hannah’s voice had a cynical note. “Manhattan would love the idea of one of Donnell’s officers favouring them.”
I thought that over. “That’s true, but Donnell’s officer appointments have to be confirmed by two of the other division leaders. Even if Wall voted in his favour, Cage would still need to get another division leader to support him, and how could he manage that?”
I didn’t wait for Hannah to answer, just shrugged and kept talking. “Not that it matters. I’ve already told Cage I’m not marrying him.”
“You turned him down right away?” Hannah frowned. “That was a bad idea. Cage won’t react well to an instant rejection.”
I groaned. “I know it was a mistake. I should have been tactful about it, pretended to consider Cage’s offer for a while before saying no, but I instinctively blurted out a refusal. Cage was furious about it. He said …”
I hesitated, reluctant to repeat Cage’s angry words. I didn’t care about his reference to my brother and calling me plain – I knew I wasn’t one of the prettiest girls in the alliance – but I’d hated him saying that Donnell wasn’t my father.
“He said some very unpleasant things.” I skipped over the details.
Hannah lifted a hand to her mouth, and chewed nervously on her gloved forefinger. “You made Cage angry. He can be very dangerous when he’s angry. Remember the story about how he got his nickname.”
I winced. That story dated from before the last of the citizens had left New York. Cage had only been sixteen back then, but he’d trapped one of the citizens and put the man in a cage. The tales of what happened after that had given me nightmares when I was younger.
“I saw you arrive in Reception with Donnell this morning,” said Hannah. “Had you been talking to him?”
“We had a short conversation.”
Donnell had ordered me to keep the aircraft’s arrival secret, so I dodged the question. “I’d been on the roof with a good view of the weather.”
“If you told Donnell about you offending Cage, do you think he’d step in to protect you?”
I didn’t want to frighten Hannah, but it would be cruel to let her build up false hopes. “I don’t think I can count on that. Donnell mentioned my birthday, and said he was going to talk to me about my future.”
Hannah made a sick, gagging noise. “That sounds like a warning. Is Donnell going to discard you from the Resistance?”
I tried to keep my voice calm and confident. “He just said that he’d talk to me. It needn’t mean anything bad.”
“It’s not likely to mean anything good though, is it?” Hannah chewed on her gloved finger again. “If Donnell does discard you from the Resistance, none of the other divisions will be eager to accept a girl with a broken arm.”
“My broken arm has healed perfectly,” I said.
“No, it hasn’t.” Hannah made an exasperated clicking sound with her tongue. “It’s still hurting you.”
“My arm sometimes aches a little,” I admitted, “but that’s just a temporary problem because of the cold winter weather.”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s temporary or not,” said Hannah. “If Donnell discards you from the Resistance, you’ll have to beg for membership of one of the other divisions. Their leaders will hold your brother’s actions against you, and a badly healed arm will be an extra reason for them to decide against taking you in.”
She paused. “You could be left fighting for survival on the fringes of the alliance, Blaze. You don’t understand how hard that would be. I do. I lived that life for two years in London.”
I was tempted to say that I did understand. Eleven years ago, Hannah’s father fought Ice for the London division leadership, lost, and died of his injuries. The next day, Hannah and her mother were formally expelled by Ice. I’d watched every struggle they went through in the next two years, because I sneaked off each day to visit Hannah, taking her scraps of food and other oddments.
Watching someone else going through something wasn’t the same as experiencing it yourself though, so Hannah was probably right that I didn’t understand.
Hannah pulled a pained face. “After my mother was killed in that stupid accident, I would have starved to death, but you talked your mother into pleading my case with Ice. He let me rejoin London division, but took every opportunity to make it clear I was its most unwelcome member. When we arrived in New York, and Donnell wanted you and your brother to join the Resistance, I was terrified. I knew Ice wouldn’t let me stay in London division without you.”
My mind conjured up the memory of Ice’s unreadable face, the emotionless tone of his voice, and the exact words he’d used as he spoke to Seamus and me that day. “Your father has invited you both to join the Resistance, and the three New York divisions have said that you must accept that invitation. They’ve grudgingly agreed to give house room to us homeless beggars, because they know having more people will give everyone a better life, but they won’t tolerate Donnell’s children staying with us in case it makes him favour London division over them.”
Whenever I remembered that day, I always got caught up in the pointless loop of thinking through what happened next, and wondering if there was anything I could have done to make things end differently. I should have realized there was something terribly wrong about Seamus’s behaviour. I’d known that he hated our father for abandoning him as a child. I’d expected Seamus to resent being forced to move to the Resistance, but we were welcomed with open arms as Donnell’s adored children, and Seamus seemed to revel in being the centre of attention.
I hadn’t thought that was strange at the time. I’d been awed to meet my legendary father at last. I’d believed Seamus felt the same way, but he hadn’t forgotten his old anger. In fact, he had a new and even more bitter grievance against Donnell, thinking our mother would still be alive if Donnell had taken his family with him to New York years ago.
Seamus was just hiding his feelings while he gathered the knowledge he needed to take his revenge for our mother’s death. Two weeks after our arrival in New York, Seamus left, and the next day every portal in New York died. Three hours after that, Donnell and I had a blazing argument where we both said impossibly destructive things to each other, and we’d never risked talking about anything personal ever again.
Hannah’s voice dragged me out of the painful past. “It was a huge relief when you persuaded Donnell to make me a trial member of the Resistance, but then there was that trouble with your brother and …”
She shook her head, and her voice changed from anxious to despairing. “I tried so hard to please Donnell and the rest of the Resistance after that, but they were suspicious of both of us, treating the slightest mistake like a crime. If Donnell discards you from the Resistance, then I won’t be in any position to help you, Blaze, because he’ll discard me as well.”
I opened my mouth to say something reassuring, but closed it again. Hannah was right. Her position in the Resistance was even more precarious than my own. There was a grim silence before Hannah spoke again.
“Do you think you could persuade Ice to take us back into London division?”
“I doubt it. Manhattan, Queens Island, and Brooklyn were furious about Seamus sabotaging the New York portal network. They put part of the blame on Donnell for being gullible enough to trust him, but most of their anger was targeted at London division for bringing a traitor to New York. Ice had to grovel for months to stop the whole of London from being expelled from the alliance with nothing but the clothes on their backs.”
“But your mother was Ice’s cousin,” said Hannah. “You’re the only relative he has left now. Surely that must mean something to him.”
“Ice doesn’t seem to have ordinary feelings.”
There was a long silence before Hannah spoke again in a mournful voice. “Everything would be so different if you only looked more like Donnell.”
Her words echoed what Cage had said at the cooking fire, hitting me hard in my most vulnerable spot. I hadn’t met my father at all until I was eleven years old, and we’d hardly spoken since then, but my life had still been built on the fact I was the daughter of the legendary Sean Donnelly, founder of the Earth Resistance. If that wasn’t true, if I wasn’t the girl I’d always believed I was, then who was I?
One of the fishing lines gave a sudden jerk. “Fish!” I shouted, eager for an excuse to escape this conversation.
A shoal of fish must have arrived, because a flurry of activity on the fishing lines kept us busy for a while. When things calmed down again, I kept the discussion to neutral topics. By the afternoon, we were both feeling so dreadfully hungry, that we talked about nothing but food, debating our chances of getting a decent meal to eat tonight. We were catching some fish, so the other women should be successful as well. It was less easy to predict the men’s hunting luck, which could vary wildly from one day to the next. There was only a faint chance of them bringing home one of the deer that sometimes strayed into New York, but they should get some geese. Hopefully there’d be wintereat leaves, and perhaps even baked roots as well.
Finally, we heard a piercing whistle blowing one short note, then a longer one, and another short. That was Natsumi at the next fishing spot, signalling that it was time to pack away the fishing gear and head back.
By the time we’d got everything into the building, and carried the net bags of fish over the roof, my left arm was aching badly from the combination of hard work and cold. I tried to hide the problem, but Hannah must have seen some betraying sign, because she insisted on carrying more than her share of the bags as we followed the path to where Natsumi was waiting with her sister, Himeko.
“Blaze.” Natsumi greeted me with her usual brief nod, and ignored Hannah entirely.
The four of us continued along the path in total silence. Natsumi and Himeko had been members of the Earth Resistance since the day it was formed, and were unrelentingly hostile to me for being the traitor’s sister, and to Hannah for being my friend. I sometimes made an effort to make polite conversation with them, forcing a few grudging sentences out of them in return, but I was too tired to try it today.
The wind had eased now, but as the other fishing pairs joined us in turn, it started snowing, large wet flakes that hovered on the edge of turning to rain. By the time we’d reached the Parliament House, my coat was dripping wet, and there was a chill, damp feeling across my shoulder blades.
As we went in through the door, Hannah and I shook the water from our coats, then unbuckled our knife belts with hands that were stiff and clumsy from the cold, and carefully placed them on the table reserved for the Resistance knife belts.
Two women came bustling over to collect our fish bags. I’d just handed them mine, when I saw their faces suddenly change. They seemed to be staring past me at something.
Confused, I turned to look behind me, and saw the door was opening again. Three figures came through it, strangers dressed in matching, hoodless, blue and black outfits. For a second, I was too stunned to think, but then I realized these people had to be from the aircraft I’d seen that morning.
I was face to face with the off-worlders, the enemy!
© 2017 Janet Edwards. All rights reserved.