Razor City, sometime in the near future….
A powerful dance beat pounded through the club. In the center of the floor, dancers spun and twisted and thrashed together to the music. They all wore dark clothes. Some wore masks to hides their faces. Others wore bright, colorful paint. They looked like horrible, insane clowns, beautiful monsters, dangerous animals poised to strike. Their arms and legs struck out and twined together in an eerily rhythmic pulse. They might have been many parts of a single terrible, confusing creature.
A scream ripped out across the floor. It was lost in the earsplitting melody. It became part of the music. The dancers broke apart as three men tumbled into the crowd, throwing kicks and punches in a vicious, intense brawl. No one stopped them. A shower of blood flashed for the briefest moment in the strobe light. One of the men fell, clutching at a knife in his belly.
The light flashed again. His face twisted in a horrible grimace. It went dark. He lay upon the floor in a pool of dark liquid. No one rushed forward to help him, but the small table of bounty hunters on the edge of the floor lifted their heads. They eyed each other cagily, but they didn’t rise to scoop him up. He was no one. Even King Scarlet didn’t want him. Petra doubted anyone would miss him. She wondered if anyone knew his name.
It didn’t matter. If they had, he was probably lucky to have died on the floor in a pool of his own blood, in the middle of the swarm of dark, twisted dancers. A burly bouncer in grey coveralls materialized out of the fog and flashing light. He gripped the dead man by the arms and dragged him off to the edge of the floor. The bouncer propped him against the wall. The dead man’s eyes were open. They were as black as a bottomless pit. He stared blankly out at the crowd.
Petra swiveled away from him to face the bar. Her stomach roiled, but she lifted her chin. She’d seen much, much worse since Scarlet and his men had taken control of Razor City. She didn’t speak up. No one ever spoke up. When they did, they went the same way. She was better off minding her own business.
In a place like this, you got good at minding your own business. The Uprising’s rebel propaganda littered the floor and tables. Outlaws lurked in the corners, avoiding the sharp eyes of the bounty hunters scanning the crowd for faces they recognized. Men exchanged thick envelopes for locked briefcases. Women lounged around the room, exchanging themselves for money, drugs or other favors. Others covered their faces and danced to the endless, pulsating beats until they forgot the war and Scarlet and the crushing oppression all around them. They might have been rebels, hunters, outlaws or the King’s Nobles. No one asked your name in a place like this.
It was the sort of place you went to when you had scores to settle and people to meet. It was the only place inside Razor City’s limits that King Scarlet’s Marshals didn’t dare enter. When they did, they were never seen again. And no one came looking for them.
Petra was there to work. She motioned the publican for another drink. He hesitated a moment, but Scarlet had bigger problems than underage drinking. She slapped a bill on the tarnished brass bar and stared up at the television monitors above the publican’s head. There were dozens of screens and dozens of images: cartoon characters chasing each other around a barren landscape; a couple twined together in a heated embrace; a masked man slashing through a high school; detectives leaning over a dead body; King Scarlet, standing before a large, shining steel building, smiling out at her and speaking animatedly to the crowd gathered around him.
His propaganda machine was well-oiled and finely-tuned. King Scarlet was an impressive man in his early forties. His charcoal suit was perfectly tailored to his tall, lean figure. He wore his dark hair combed back from his handsome, sculpted features. It barely moved in the slight breeze that rustled the trees over his head. He looked beautiful and untouchable.
And there was nothing but cold cruelty in his dark, almond shaped eyes.
Petra frowned at the screen. A headline scrolled across the bottom of the screen in cheerful yellow letters: Razor City patriarch Ezra Scarlet attends the opening of the Razor City Home for Lost Children. Lost children? Razor City’s children weren’t lost. Or at least, they hadn’t been. Not until Scarlet and his Nobles had taken their parents and families from them, accused them of treason and imprisoned them or worse.
Behind the king, a young man stood motionless. He was as tall as Scarlet and resembled him so closely, Petra knew he could be only Prince Dante, the King’s infamously cruel and haughty son. He looked so cold and still, he might have been only a statue of a young man. His dark, stormy grey eyes peered around at the reporters, onlookers and lost children as though they meant as much to him as a bug he might squash beneath his perfectly polished black boot. His dark, shoulder-length hair blew around his beautiful face, making him look eerily vulnerable and sinister at the same time. He didn’t bother to brush it back.
He was notoriously camera shy. She’d never seen him before, but she knew all about him. Everyone in Razor City knew about Prince Dante. He had a reputation for spreading terror and destruction wherever he went. With an army of bodyguards and the King’s might behind him, no one dared stand up to Dante. They just got out of his way and let him smash up whatever club, hotel room or innocent bystander had attracted his ire.
Petra hated him. She turned away from the screen. She didn’t want to watch the King and his son dedicate a home to the children of the families they’d torn apart. She didn’t want to see their supercilious smiles or hear their empty words. It was all lies. Razor City was a city of lies.
A fist flew at her face. She reared back, but it didn’t strike her. She relaxed and took the drink in her employer’s outstretched hand. “That’s real cute, Max.”
Max smiled. “Good evening, Petra.” He was a tall man in his mid-twenties. He wasn’t handsome, but his face was smooth and even-featured. There was an odd sort of appeal to him. It might have been the slight air of danger about him.
Petra didn’t trust him.
He lifted a thick, pale eyebrow. “So, you have it?”
She tasted the drink carefully. It smelled like battery acid. She didn’t swallow it. She placed the glass gently down on the bar in front of her and glanced at Max. “You have the money?”
It was the sort of place where no one noticed an exchange of illicit goods or services. Still, Petra wasn’t a fool. Nowhere in Razor City was truly safe. She slid the thick, compact square disc under the bar and dropped it in his opened palm. “I think you’ll find the information useful. It’s proof your competitor is funding the Uprising.”
“What kind of proof?”
“Emails to and from an anonymous address that detail the transactions.”
“Did you trace the address?”
She lifted an eyebrow. “No.”
“You really want me to try? You really think either of us is safe having that kind of information?”
Max was silent a moment. “No. Probably not.” He frowned thoughtfully. “But it would get me in good with Scarlet if I could hand him one of the Uprising.”
“I probably wouldn’t be able to. The Uprising uses signals bounced off other signals all over the place. It would take a super computer to track them.” She cut him a wry look. “You got one of those?”
“Right. Well, neither does anyone else. The Uprising has kept underground for this long for a good reason. They’re good.”
“You don’t even care who they are? You don’t even want to try?”
“Why would I? It’s not my problem. I’m not interested in taking them down. I’m not interested in joining them.”
Max nodded. “You’re interested in my money.”
He passed her a thick envelope under the bar, and she tucked it into the pocket of her long, red leather jacket. He glanced at her. “You sure I won’t get caught with this?”
She shrugged. “Not unless you’re dumb enough to flash that disc around. No one will even know I was in the system. It’s not exactly a high tech operation over there at the machine shop. It’s just a small local network. I covered my tracks. You got what you wanted.” She flicked her fingers in dismissal. “Leave me alone.”
Max didn’t like this. He frowned. “That’s not very nice, Petra. Don’t you want to finish your drink and have another with me?”
She felt his hand on her knee. “Come on, Petra. I know I paid more than this job was worth. I know it wasn’t that hard for you. I expect you will make it worth the money.”
Petra did not wait for his hand to slide higher up her thigh. She drew her hand from her pocket and jabbed the barrel of her small, single shot pistol into his side. This was the sort of place where you came prepared. “Don’t make me use it, Max. Not here. You know I’ll be out the door and in the wind before anyone even notices you’re dead.”
Max held up his hands in surrender. “Come on, Petra. There’s no need for that. I thought we were friends.”
“We aren’t. Keep your hands off me. I did the work. You got what you wanted, and I got my money. Now go away before I get angry.”
He glared at her, but he didn’t need to be told twice. He hopped off his stool and disappeared into the thrashing crowd. Petra lifted her chin and turned back toward the bar. She didn’t regret the termination of her business relationship with Max. In a place like Razor City, you had to know when to cut your losses.
He was a pervert, anyway. He had to be more than ten years older than she was. She pushed the drink he’d brought her away. She wasn’t an idiot. There were men like him all over the city, and she knew better than to take a drink from one of them.
He’d better not have shorted her on the cash.
She motioned the publican for a fresh drink. On the screen above his head, Prince Dante peered out at her. For a moment, she felt as though his large, almond-shaped grey eyes could see straight through the television, as though he was looking directly at her. She grimaced and gave him an obscene hand gesture. She hoped he could see her. She spun around and hopped down off her stool.
A tall, dark-haired man in black leaned against the bar, smiling at the pretty young red-headed woman perched on the stool beside him. Petra heard her laugh heartily at something the man in black said. The woman tossed her red hair and laid a hand on his thickly muscled arm. Her fingernails pressed into his flesh as though she were marking him. Petra rolled her eyes and paused right behind her, crossing her arms over her chest.
Key Kelly leaned down to murmur at the pretty red-head. She turned her head to look at Petra. Her eyes were as cold as ice. Petra lifted her eyebrows at her. If she thought she was going to argue about being dismissed, something in Petra’s gaze changed her mind. She hopped off her stool. She tossed her hair and strode away without looking back.
Petra scowled. “Having a nice time?”
“Quite, thank you.”
“I thought we were here to work.”
“You’re here to work. I’m just here to make sure Max doesn’t get out of line.”
“He did get out of line. Luckily, I can take care of myself because you seemed quite caught up.”
Key smirked. “Are you jealous, Petra?”
She tossed her long, pale blonde hair. “No.”
His face changed so abruptly, she nearly jumped when he stepped forward and caught her arm. “What happened?”
“Your gun. Did you something happen?”
Petra had almost forgotten she was still holding it. She tucked it back into her pocket. “No. Nothing. I’m fine. I took care of it.”
Key crossed his arms over his broad chest and leaned back against the bar. “Petra, is there something I should know?”
“Max is just a jerk, okay? He got his merchandise. I got the money.”
“Good.” He caught her arm. “Come on. Let’s go before it starts to get dicey in here. I’ve already seen some bounty hunters looking keen on the guy in the corner over there.”
Petra glanced over her shoulder at the thin man in ripped jeans and a grubby tee-shirt. His eyes were huge and dark. They darted around the club with a cagey intensity that suggested he’d just realized he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. His face was probably on the wall of every bounty hunter outpost in Razor City. He had the look of a very hunted man. He looked as though he wanted to run but was too afraid to call attention to himself.
“No wonder. He looks as if he’s afraid of his own shadow. What the hell is he doing in here, anyway? Everyone knows what kind of place this is.”
“He was handing out Uprising pamphlets in the bathroom.” Key eyed him in interest for a moment. “Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure I saw him on a wall somewhere.”
Petra lifted her eyebrows. “Are you thinking of collecting?”
He shrugged. “We could use the money.”
“Come on. We didn’t come here to pick up an errant bounty. Besides, the hunters would probably jump on us before we ever got to him. We don’t need them to start looking too closely at us. We’re probably better off letting him take the heat off us until we can get out of here.”
Key smiled. “Maybe we should stay. We haven’t seen a good fight in a while.”
Petra glanced at the thin, frightened man. “It doesn’t look like it would be much of a fight. That guy looks like he would go down in one punch.”
“Don’t underestimate the Uprising. They’re very well trained. Many of them are killers. They’ve been preparing to take down Scarlet for ten years.”
Petra crossed her arms over her chest and rolled her eyes. “Of course they’d say that. It keeps people scared.”
“It keeps some people hopeful. And more people are joining them everyday. It’s looking like they might actually have a chance.”
She scoffed. “No, they don’t. No one’s going to stop Scarlet. He owns this city and none of us can do a damn thing about it.”
Key looked at her with a curiously pitying expression in his brilliant blue eyes. “Petra, don’t be like that. Ren didn’t believe that. He thought there was a chance.”
She glared at him. “And where did that get him?”
Key sighed, but he didn’t reply to this. He reached for her. She shrugged him off and spun away from him with a toss of her head.
She went alarmingly rigid.
“Petra, what is it?”
“It’s Cage Spears.”
Key glanced around the club, but he did not see the man of whom she spoke. “What? Where? Are you sure.”
“Yes. I’m sure. It’s him. I would know him anywhere.”
“The Nobles don’t come in here very often. When they do, they make an entrance. They make sure everyone knows.”
“Not always.” She lifted her hand to point at the man across the room, standing on the edge of the dance floor. He didn’t seem to be watching the dancers, though. His dark eyes were sweeping slowly around the club as though he were looking for someone or something. He was a handsome man in his mid-thirties with shortly cropped blonde hair, but he was so cold, so austere, he might have been a statue.
Key was surprised to see him there. “What’s he doing?”
Petra glared across the room. “Probably looking for someone else to frame for treason.”
She was moving toward him before she even paused to think about what she was doing. It took Key several seconds to realize what she intended to do and dart after her. He caught her arm and dragged her back. She threw off his arm and spun back toward Spears.
She struggled, but he was much larger and much stronger than she was. “Let me go, Key.”
“You can’t go over there.”
“He is the one who sent Ren to prison. He framed him. Ren could die because of him.”
“You can’t just go over there and confront him, Petra. He’s got bodyguards, and he could bring the bounty hunters down on us in a heartbeat. It wouldn’t do any good. You aren’t going to get your brother out that way. You’ll just get hurt or thrown in prison yourself.”
She glared at him. “You think I’m trying to do some good? What good have I ever done anyone?”
“Petra, this isn’t the way.”
“What other way is there? Work with the Uprising? Hope the guards won’t kill my brother before the rebels finally move on Scarlet and either become the new dictators or be crushed under the Marshals’ boots? Come on, Key. There isn’t any good in Razor City anymore, but that doesn’t mean Cage can’t get what’s coming to him.”
He looked appalled by this speech, and she ground her boot into his foot. He growled in pain and released her. “Petra–!”
She wasn’t listening. She darted through the cluster of dancers. Two large, dangerous-looking men stepped into her path before Petra could reach Spears. The Noble barely glanced her way. “Cage!”
His dark eyes flicked to her as though she were nothing more than an irritating insect. His bodyguards looked at her coldly, but they didn’t seem to think she was much of a threat. Spears probably got shouted at in the streets and in clubs all over the city. The men looked prepared.
“You son of a bitch!” She launched herself forward, hoping to take the bodyguards by surprise. She tried to dart between them, but they were ready for her. They each shot out a hand in a single fluid motion to catch her arms. She bared her teeth at them. “Let me go.”
They didn’t speak to her, but their cold, alert eyes were warning enough. She wasn’t getting through them. She wasn’t going to let that stop her.
“You put my brother in prison!” She wasn’t even sure Spears could hear her over the pounding melody. “You framed him!”
He could hear her. He lifted his chin. “I am sure he was guilty.” He spoke softly, but his voice carried over the music with a chilling clarity. “People often fail to accept that their loved ones are guilty, but they nearly always are.”
She struggled to reach him, but his bodyguards were prepared. “My brother was innocent!”
Spears lifted an eyebrow. “You don’t speak out against King Scarlet in Razor City unless you are looking to get arrested. Your brother must have been looking.”
Petra screamed in outrage. The sound wove into the music. She reached out for him again, clawing at the air as though she might draw his blood through the sheer force of her anger. The bodyguards were utterly unimpressed. Spears peered back at her so calmly, she thought the tight, roiling ball of rage inside her might explode. It didn’t. She wished it would.
It wasn’t fair. He shouldn’t be able to look so cool and so unbothered by her loss. He should have to pay. All of Scarlet’s men should have to pay.
She felt Key behind her. She could feel the tension in his body, but he looked as relaxed and undaunted by her outburst as Spears and his men. Spears’ eyes swiveled to him. “You would do well to get your friend out of here.” His voice was still eerily tranquil. “I’m sure you wouldn’t want to see her in trouble, too.”
Key inclined his head almost imperceptibly, but Petra could not mistake the expression in his eyes. There was nothing to be accomplished, not in this place, not tonight. She didn’t care. She wasn’t trying to accomplish anything. The man had taken her brother from her. She just wanted to take something from him in return. She didn’t even care what it was.
“Are these people bothering you, Mr. Spears?”
Petra paused and glanced up at the large man in grey coveralls she’d seen drag off a dead man and prop him against a wall. There was no expression in his curiously blank, colorless eyes.
Spears shook his head. “I think they were just leaving.”
“Yes,” Key said in a low voice. “We were.”
“No, we aren’t.” Petra bared her teeth at the security guard. “I just want a few moments alone with Mr. Spears.”
She felt Key sigh behind her. He stepped forward and seized her arm. The grey security guard took her other. She kicked her legs, but the bodyguards stepped back to evade her. She yowled angrily as Key and the colorless man lifted her up and carried her out into the alley.
The air outside was chill and rank. As soon as her feet hit the ground, she spun around, but the security guard looked at her with an icy, immobile expression. “Get out of here, kid.” His voice was a low rumble. “You’re better off out there. Don’t come back until you can control yourself. We can’t have people attacking Nobles in here. We’ve got enough problems. It ain’t good for business.”
She hissed at him. He slammed the door closed in her face. She yanked on the large handle, but he’d locked it from the inside. She cursed and spun to face Key. He stood in the alley with his hands in his pockets. His sandy hair blew around his face. He looked remarkably calm. She glared at him.
“So that didn’t go well.”
She scowled. “You could have been more helpful.”
“I think I was quite helpful. Just not in the manner you wanted me to be. Come on. Let’s get home.”
“He shouldn’t be able to just walk in there and be so calm. He should have to pay for what he did to Ren.”
“This isn’t the way. Get a hold of yourself. You got the job done. We’ve got the money.” He wrapped an arm around her shoulders. It should have been a soothing gesture, but his grip was firm.
She hesitated and glared at the door. “It’s not right. Nothing in this city is right anymore.”
“We have to get to the compound before it gets too late. They outlanders will be on their way into the city center. We don’t want to meet them on the way.”
Petra sighed, but she didn’t argue. She nodded. He gripped her hand, and she did not resist as he pulled her along through the winding backstreets of Razor City. They glided silently through the shadows and debris. Even the vagrants ignored them. They looked away as though to avoid attracting the young man’s and woman’s attention, as though they feared Key and Petra might fly at them or attack.
No one trusted anyone in Razor City.
A scream rent the quiet of the night. Key paused and threw back an arm to stall Petra. She leaned against him and peered around his shoulder toward the flickering neon lights of the main street ahead. Key’s fingers bit into her wrist. He crept forward, as light and quiet as a cat.
The street beyond the dark, dank alley was deserted but for three of Scarlet’s Marshals, dressed in brilliant crimson suits. A young woman cowered between them. They weren’t touching her, but their menacing posture suggested they intended to as soon as terrorizing her lost its hilarity.
Petra grunted in disgust. “Come on. Let’s keep moving.”
Key half turned his head to look at her in surprise. “You’re not going to do anything?”
“Against the Marshals? Like what? She’s got no chance. What do you think you’re going to do?”
He scowled. She tugged on his hand, but he resisted. He took a step toward the street.
“You want to go help her? Fine.” Petra released his hand and spun back toward the alley. “I’ll see you back at the compound if you survive.”
He didn’t move. He cursed under his breath and turned his head toward her. “This isn’t right, Petra.”
“You do what you have to do to survive, Key.” Her stomach roiled with nausea. “You don’t have a choice if you want to stay alive.” She took a step toward him. “You’re the one who was just stopping me from fighting.”
Her words didn’t matter. She saw it in his eyes. She felt sick. She felt like screaming, but this was Razor City. You didn’t fight Scarlet’s men in Razor City, no matter how appalling and gruesome their crimes, no matter how wrong it felt to leave an innocent girl alone in their midst. Not if you wanted to stay alive.
She wished she were somewhere else. She wished she and Key and Ren were in a different city in which Scarlet’s men didn’t roam free, where they didn’t do whatever they wanted to whomever they wanted with no consequence. She wished she were in a place where speaking out and fighting back against the horror and corruption didn’t get you imprisoned or killed.
They weren’t somewhere else. They were home in Razor City, and the only way to stay alive was to not get caught lurking in alleys contemplating rescuing a stranger from the king’s private police force. You didn’t stick your neck out for a stranger in Razor City. Sometimes, you didn’t even stick your neck out for a friend.
His brow furrowed, but he nodded shortly and caught her hand. They avoided the main streets where the Marshals patrolled, supposedly keeping the peace. There was no peace in Razor City.
Key tensed as they left the protected area of the King’s territory. There were no Marshals or Nobles in the areas outside the city center. There were other dangers. The outlands were dilapidated and hostile. Smoke lingered in the air, wafting from the smoldering remains of warehouses and abandoned houses that had fallen to the vandals and outlaws.
There was noise here. Lots of it. It was as though a sound barrier lifted as they darted out of a dark, silent alley and crossed the invisible line between the King’s province and the outlands. There were shouts, screams, whoops of laughter or cries of pain. A band of outlaws in leather jackets and ripped jeans prowled along the division, wary to cross. They looked as though they were waiting for some innocent to wander too close, waiting to yank them out of the circle of the King’s light and into the treacherous shadows of the outlands.
Key and Petra avoided them. She clutched his hand almost painfully, sliding along the wall to remain in the deepest gloom. The street lights were burnt out in this part of the city, and the houses were quiet, dark and still. No one but the outlaws and the rebels lived in the outlands.
In the distance, in the no-man’s land between the outlands and the city center, a dark, quiet monolith rose above the decrepit, abandoned houses and buildings around it. Petra relaxed. She felt Key’s hand tighten convulsively in hers. The old city mall was as forgotten as the world in which it had once held a place.
“Just a bit further,” Key breathed.
Almost home. The streets ahead were ravaged by the war that had torn apart the country. Vagrants’ bonfires flickered among the ruins of what had once been houses, shops and cafes. The buildings that still stood were blighted by the graffiti that warned passersby of the small tribes of vandals and outlaws that had taken up inside them. There were no alleys through which to creep unnoticed through the gloom. They would have to run for it.
Key met Petra’s eyes. She nodded. They ran. Just ahead, they heard shouting and loud, wicked laughter. It was coming closer. Key grabbed Petra’s arm and yanked her around the side of a crumbling brick building that had once been a pizza shop. The large, round neon pizza sign above the door still buzzed, but the neon bulbs had long since been smashed by bats or slingshots or errant bullets.
Key pushed her back against the wall, standing in front of her as if to guard her as a young woman raced past. Her face was red and twisted in terror. Moments later, two men flew past in pursuit. Petra started as if to follow them, but Key pressed into her to keep her in place. “No,” he hissed. “We’re almost there. We have to get home. You said it yourself. It’s the only way to survive. We can’t rescue every foolish person who gets caught up by the Marshals or the outlaws.”
She hissed air out through her teeth, but she hung her head. “I know.”
“It’s a terrible place.”
When the shouts faded, Key stepped away from her and caught her hand. “Come on. No stopping.”
They raced through the streets. They didn’t stop. The old mall loomed up before them, set back from the main thoroughfare. The large, razed asphalt parking lot was empty but for a few school busses with shattered windows and flat tires. Petra had never known how they’d gotten there. They had simply always been there, as long as she and Key and the others had taken shelter in the mall. She didn’t mind them. They seemed to deter any errant vagrants from wandering inside.
The mall was dark. The windows had long since been blacked out and boarded over. There was no sound from inside. Key tugged her toward the side of the building. They ducked into a narrow cement tunnel. They didn’t run. No one would come for them now. They were safe.
Petra breathed a sigh of relief as they strode along the lighted passage toward the thick steel door up ahead. Key smiled. “We made it.”
At the end of the tunnel, he bent down and lifted a hidden panel on the right side of the door that concealed an electronic keypad. He punched in the code and yanked open the door. He held it open for Petra. He smiled. He didn’t like going out into the city if he could help it, but he almost never let her go alone. He was as relieved to be home as she was.
Inside, the mall was as noisy as the club, and its tribe was as motley. Music pumped through the cavernous common room. Kids in bright, mismatched or ripped clothes with painted faces or wild haircuts skateboarded or roller bladed on a huge ramp on the far side of the room. Others gathered in small groups at tables spread around the main floor, watching the skateboarders or the others dancing to the pounding music on a large, well-tread dance floor. More played games in the corner. The younger ones chased each other around, shrieking and whooping with laughter. On the east side, a long, flat counter ran the length of the room, and several kids served drinks or food to the others.
They were all laughing, smiling or otherwise enjoying themselves. Inside the mall, it was as though the war had never happened. They were safe here, and they were together. It had happened, though, and the children and teenagers inside the mall had lost their parents, aunts, uncles or siblings to the devastation or to King Scarlet. They were the real lost children of Razor City, and this was their home.
A tall, thin teenaged girl in an olive green fatigue jacket over ripped jeans strode over as she caught sight of them from a table of the older kids. Her long, honey blonde hair was tied back in a tight braid. She’d been with the Uprising. She always wore her fatigue jacket when she visited the Uprising. Petra smiled as she approached them.
“Key. Petra.” Beth’s voice was as serene as a still brook. It wasn’t the sort of voice that belonged in Razor City. “You’re just in time for dinner. Jayne barbequed tonight. I’ll have Cera bring you some plates.”
Key waved his hand. “It’s all right, Petra. I’ll get them.”
Petra glanced at him, but he smiled and strode away before she could reply. Beth lifted an eyebrow. “Long night?”
She wondered how her best friend always seemed to know exactly how she was feeling. “It did not go as expected.”
Beth frowned. “Did Max try anything?”
“Yeah, but he found out real quick not to do it again.” Petra frowned. “Spears was there.”
Beth blinked. “Cage Spears? He was at the Blade?”
Petra’s expression must have revealed her feelings. Beth wrapped an arm around her shoulders and led her toward the small group of teenagers with whom she’d been sitting. Petra paused to hold her back. Beth lifted her eyebrows. “I’m sorry. Did you do something you ought not to have done?”
“Yes. But not what I wanted to do.”
“What did you do?” Her voice was not as serene now. She looked almost angry. Beth was almost never angry.
“I just wanted to talk to him.”
“Damnit, Petra, we’ve talked about this. We have to keep our heads down. We don’t want Scarlet and the Marshals to start noticing we’re out here.”
“He is the one who framed Ren! He’s the reason he is in prison.”
Beth sighed. “I know that, but you can’t do it like this.”
“How else, then? What do you think is going to happen? The Uprising is going to save us all? You think they will win against Scarlet and set everyone free?” She gestured around them at the kids. “The Uprising hasn’t brought any of these kids’ loved ones back. They haven’t brought Ren back. Your parents are still in prison. Their parents are still in prison or still dead. The Uprising hasn’t done anything but stir up trouble.”
“I know you’re upset, Petra.” Beth didn’t seem offended by her friend’s remarks. Her own anger seemed to have cooled. Her voice was soothing, and Petra felt herself calming almost against her will.. “I’m sorry about Ren. I am sorry for all of us and for everyone whose lives Scarlet’s ruined.”
“You should be angrier, Beth. You deserve to be angrier. I’m angry all the time.”
Beth smiled sadly. “I know. But getting angry isn’t going to help anyone.”
Petra sighed. “You’re right. You’re right, Beth. There’s no point. Everything is lost.”
“That is not what I said.”
“If everything rests on the Uprising’s shoulders…then everything is lost. My brother might as well be dead.”
“Don’t be so dramatic. It won’t be like this forever.”
“That’s easy for you to say.”
She blinked. “Why?”
“Because you have hope. You have something to live for.”
“I have something to fight for. And so do you, Petra.” Beth turned her toward the main floor. She gestured as Petra had done. “Look around us. You did this. You and Key, Ren and I. We did this together. We have a place for these kids, a place where they can be safe and happy and healthy. We are their family now. They are ours. What chance do any of them have if you give up? You have to keep surviving.”
Petra considered this. The kids looked happy. They looked as though they hadn’t a care in the world, as though they’d forgotten about the pain and the death around them. It was a kid’s paradise. In this place, the party never ended. No one told anyone what to do, and no one belonged to anyone unless they wanted to. It was a kid’s dream, but at what cost? It hadn’t been worth losing their families.
“Yeah,” she murmured doubtfully.
“They are safe and happy because of you, Petra.”
“They wouldn’t have needed us if not for Scarlet and his Nobles.”
Beth sighed. “Perhaps, but that doesn’t change that they do. And that you were there for them when they needed you. Don’t stop being there now. Don’t let the pain suck you under until you completely lose sight of what we’re doing here.”
Petra thought about this. “Yeah. I’m sorry. I just…I don’t know what to do. I can’t help Ren at all.”
“You might not believe it, but there are people who are working on it.”
“I just wish I could believe they could do something.”
“You just have to have hope, Petra. It’s all we have in this world.”
Petra nodded. She smiled at her best friend. “Thanks, Beth.”
“Does that mean you feel better?”
“No, but it means I won’t complain to you anymore tonight.”
Beth smiled. “Well, if that’s the best I can expect, I’ll take it. So…since you’re here, I assume you were not arrested by the Marshals.”
“No. I was kicked out of the Blade by the weird bouncer, though.”
“Well, it’s not the first time that’s happened.”
Petra smirked. “No. It’s not the first time. It probably won’t be the last, either.”
“But you got the money.”
Beth nodded. “And you made it back without any trouble, I assume, since you both look relatively unscathed.”
“Yes. We made it. One of these days, we’re going to have to get some cars.”
“You know there isn’t any gas left in the city. Scarlet’s men have taken it all, and there isn’t any more coming in.”
“There’s gas. You just have to know who to ask.”
Beth didn’t reply to this. She didn’t seem to want to talk about it. She didn’t seem to like to talk about what the Uprising did and did not have in their hidden compound somewhere in the outlands. She liked to keep that part of her life separate from her friendship with Petra. She claimed it was to protect the mall, but Petra suspected it was more to protect the Uprising. Even within the tribe of lost children, there were those who could not be trusted. Petra knew Beth trusted her. She just didn’t want to know. It was safer that way.
Beth had been sitting with four of the older kids. She tilted her head in their direction. “Come on. You should eat something.”
“Yeah.” She sighed, but she threaded her arm through Beth’s and walked with her to join their friends at the table. She could use something to eat. She could use another drink, too. She hoped Key wouldn’t bring fruit juice.
Petra reared back. A tall boy with dark hair and sky blue eyes appeared in their path as though he’d materialized from thin air. He smiled at them. He had a nice smile, but Petra’s guard shot up as though he’d bared his teeth in a leer. She glanced at Beth. Her best friend’s expression hadn’t changed, but her green eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. Beth didn’t like Shaw, either.
“Hi, Shaw.” Petra’s voice was unenthusiastic.
If he noticed, he didn’t let on. “I heard you were out in the city.”
“Yeah. I was working.”
“I’m glad you made it back okay. Actually, I wanted to talk to you about that. I’ve been working on this new program. You might find it interesting. I thought you could help me find a buyer–“
Beth stepped in smoothly, taking Petra’s arm. She smiled at him. “Petra’s had a really long night, Shaw. She really just needs to have some dinner.”
“Oh. Yeah. I could join you–“
Beth’s smile didn’t waver. “We have some things we need to talk about in private. I’m sure you understand.”
Shaw opened his mouth to reply, but Beth steered Petra away without a backward glance. Petra smiled gratefully at her friend. “Thanks, Beth.”
“It’s Shaw who should be thanking me. You looked like you needed someone to take your anger out on, and he was looking appetizing.”
Petra snorted. “Yeah. You might be right. There’s just something about him I don’t like.”
“Yeah. I know what you mean.”
“He seems awfully keen to get into the inner circle.”
Beth smiled. “Well, we are the coolest.”
Petra laughed as they reached the table where the older kids sat. She wasn’t so sure how cool they were, but she supposed she didn’t blame Shaw for wanting to eat with them. Inside this compound, they were the top brass.
“Hey, Petra,” Lux, a tall, muscular black girl with long, black dreadlocks greeted her with a jerk of her chin. Lux’s large, dark eyes were rimmed in a shimmering red kohl. They looked huge and uncannily alert. Even as she spoke to Petra, her eyes scanned the room with a sharp, narrow gaze. She was the head of security for the compound, and she took her job extremely seriously. She was dressed in black tonight. She’d been patrolling.
Petra nodded to her. They were friends, but Lux wasn’t the sentimental type. She seemed more interested in ensuring everyone was behaving themselves than socializing. She would probably be back out on the perimeter as soon as she’d finished eating the huge pile of food on her plate.
As usual, she had been paying attention. “What did Shaw want?”
Petra rolled her eyes. “He wanted to talk about some program he’s working on. He wants me to find a buyer for him.”
Lux’s eyes snapped to the tall, dark haired boy. “I don’t trust him.”
Beth waved her hand. “He’s fine. He’s just lost. He’s trying to find his way.”
“We’re all lost,” Petra replied darkly. “But we’re not all jerks.”
Lux grunted, but she didn’t say anything else. She turned her attention back to her plate.
Petra slid into the empty seat beside Jesse. He greeted her perfunctorily and turned back to the small computer in front of him. His gingery blonde hair needed a cut. It hung in his face and concealed his narrow profile from her. He was extremely skilled with computers and electronics. He wasn’t a hacker like Petra, but he could do things with hardware that blew her mind. When the lost children had needed a safe shelter from Scarlet’s men and the outlands, he’d discovered the looted and abandoned mall and gotten it back up and running. He’d even found a way to funnel power from the city center. If not for him, they would probably be living in the burnt out houses and shops where the vagrants gathered around bonfires and fought over scraps of food.
Key brought two plates of food and sat down beside Beth. She smiled up at him, and her translucent green eyes almost sparkled. Petra lifted an eyebrow, but she didn’t say anything. She’d always suspected her best friend had more than friendly feelings for Key, but Beth had never talked about it with her. Petra hadn’t brought it up.
“Thanks,” Petra said, and for the first time that evening, she felt almost peaceful. Razor City was a dangerous, terrible place, but she and the lost kids had food and shelter. They didn’t have to fear or want for anything as long as they remained in the walls of the compound. If Scarlet and his people knew about it, they didn’t seem to care much, as long as the kids stayed out of trouble. Petra sighed and bent over her plate.
A young, pretty girl in her early teens approached the table with a couple mugs of beer. “Thanks, Cera,” Key said to her. She blushed crimson red under a thick mane of black hair. She bobbed her head and scurried away before Petra could thank her.
Petra rolled her eyes, but she smirked a little into her mug. Key was popular with the girls in the compound. He was popular with most girls. He barely seemed to notice.
He smiled around at them. “Anything happening here?”
Lux shook her head. “It’s been quiet. A couple of the younger kids got into it, but Eloise broke it up. No sign of outlaws, rebels or Marshals.”
Key nodded. No one else seemed interested in talking. Jesse was ignoring his plate. On the other side of him, Rip was fiddling with one of his inventions. Petra didn’t know what it was, but it looked like some kind of brass and glass pistol. Rip was good with machines and especially weapons, but sometimes he didn’t think things through all the way. More often than they didn’t, they blew up in his face and injured him or destroyed his laboratory in the section of the mall that had once been the food court. When his work was good, though, it was really good. Beth had never confirmed it, but Petra was sure Rip was making weapons for the Uprising. If he was, it would probably tip the scales. She just couldn’t be too sure in whose favor.
“Did you get the money?” Ellis was the youngest of the group of older kids. He didn’t speak much, but when he did, everyone listened. He’d been a child prodigy, and he could fight as well as Lux. Petra didn’t know much about him. No one knew much about him. She liked him anyway. He was as good at keeping other people’s secrets as his own.
She nodded and handed him the envelope. “I haven’t counted it. It had better all be there.”
Ellis opened it. He only had to glance briefly at the stack of bills before he nodded in satisfaction. Max might be a pervert, but he hadn’t stiffed them. “This will keep us in supplies for a couple months.” He lifted his head to glanced between Petra and Key. “And by the look of you, you managed to stay out of trouble.”
Petra exchanged a look with Key. She smiled a little. “Yeah. For the most part.”
Key smirked and lifted his mug in salute. “To another day.”
Another day. In Razor City, sometimes it was all there was left to hope for.