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Defiance rising, p.3
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       Defiance Rising, p.3

           Amy Miles
 
THREE

  I press my foot against the door like Bastien suggested and feel it give way. I suck in a breath, not because of the squeak of the rusted hinges, but because I find myself rooted in place. What if there is a group of Squaddies right on the other side waiting to pounce on me?

  “Stop being such a baby,” I mutter to myself.

  “What was that?” Bastien calls from below.

  “Nothing.” I shove the door open and find myself on a completely deserted street, not at all unlike the one I came in on earlier. I poke out my head and look both ways to make sure the coast is clear before closing the door behind me. Creeping down the darkened street, I feel a bit like a ninja.

  I learned about the stealthy men in black from one of my dad’s small collection of books. He called them comics. As a kid, I used to spend hours poring over the colorful pictures, memorizing every detail.

  I hug the rough textured brick wall as I slowly advance. A strange thumping, like the beat of a large drum, ripples up through my fingertips. I pause and listen. No matter which way I crane my neck, I can’t tell where it comes from. I wonder if this is the source of the tremors.

  This part of the City has less glass blanketing the streets. The buildings are higher here, with fewer windows and doors. Large signs hang at odd angles from the rooftops, the letters too faded to tell what they said. I step nimbly over the jagged cracks in the path where weeds have sprouted and thrived.

  A large truck lies on its side, nearly sealing off the narrow street. The wheels have gone flat, the underside has corroded from weather and the back half is blackened.

  Skirting along the back end of the truck, I notice the interior has been ransacked. There’s no way to tell if it was done by scavengers or aliens. Resting my hand against what at one time was probably one of the back doors, I peek around the truck toward the street ahead. It comes to a T less than twenty feet ahead of me.

  My fingers curl instinctively around the handle of one of my blades but I release it with a weighted sigh. It will do me little good against a Caldonian laser. Shifting my hand, I grasp my pistol and sink low as I leave the protection of the truck.

  Moonlight temporarily brightens my path as the clouds shift overhead. The biting chill in the air makes me shiver as it pierces my shirt, making me long for the coat I outgrew last year. In our commune, everything is second hand. You outgrow a shirt and pass it down the line. Most of our clothes are more stitching than fabric now. I make a mental note to be on the lookout for a replacement as I make my way through the City. Perhaps scavengers haven’t pilfered everything of worth yet.

  “Easy,” Bastien growls as he catches my arm to deflect my gun as I whip around at the sound of his footfall right behind me.

  “How did you do that?” I hiss, relaxing my grip on the pistol. I point it at the ground and reset the safety.

  “I’ve survived living here all my life. I know a few things about being sneaky.” He presses back against the wall beside me.

  I glare back at him, annoyed but deeply impressed at the same time. I pride myself in never letting anyone sneak up on me. It used to drive Eamon crazy when we were sparring. Bastien has just moved one notch above contemptible in my books.

  “What are you doing here?” I ask, staring back the way he came to make sure he wasn’t followed.

  “I thought you might need me.”

  “Hardly.” I roll my eyes and shift away so his arm no longer presses against mine. I might be slightly impressed, but that’s no reason to allow touching. When I study his profile in the dark, I notice a faint tick under his left eye. “You got scared all by yourself, didn’t you?

  “Please,” he snorts. “I live down there, remember?”

  I smirk at the slight waver in his voice. Maybe he’s not so tough after all. “Well, now that you’re here, why don’t you lead the way?”

  Bastien snatches my free hand and yanks me toward the corner. I grit my teeth as his fingers wrap around mine. The strange thumping sound swells as we reach the end of the block and veer straight through a large dark opening in the brick wall. Shattered glass and wooden shards decorate the doorframe where double front doors once resided.

  The interior of the building is vast and mostly empty. An overturned metal table greets us at the front of the building. Yellowed paper and other supplies lie scattered about. Our shoes leave prints in the dust as we pass through the small room and into a vast space beyond. I pull back to cover our tracks, but Bastien tugs me forward. “No one ever comes to this factory. We’re safe.”

  His voice echoes about the room as we pass by large hulking machines, silent and powerless since the day of the Assault. Nearly fifteen different varieties of these rusted relics dot the wide expanse. “What is this place?” I ask, staring all around.

  I feel small in this cavernous room. The ceiling rises high overhead. Our passing echoes through the hollowness.

  Bastien points to a long, low table with wheels on top. “This was a fabricating plant. These rollers were used to shuffle parts back and forth.”

  “What did they make here?” I ask, running my fingers along the rollers. I pull back my hand as several feet of rollers begin to spin as a result of my touch.

  “Not really sure. It was picked clean several years ago. Come on,” he tugs on my arm and leads me toward a set of metal stairs near the middle of the building.

  Moonlight fragments through bits of glass protruding from window frames along the steps as we climb to the floor above. I pause to lean over the railing, wondering what it must have looked like when electricity gave life to this machine mausoleum.

  We round the second floor banister, passing by a row of offices with glassless windows that look out over the factory floor, and proceed up two more flights of stairs. I had no idea the building was so large from the outside, but by the time I hit the landing for the roof I’m panting. Bastien releases my hand, wiping sweat from his palm. “We can’t go out there with you panting like a grizzly bear.”

  I scowl up at him, clutching my chest. My side burns as I lean back against the wall. “Follow me back to the forest and we’ll see who can get to the top of the mountain first.”

  He rears back with an air of mock disbelief. “Are you inviting me to follow you home? That’s a bit forward don’t you think, Princess?”

  I grind my back teeth. “My name is Illyria, not Princess.”

  “Really?” He laughs. “I would’ve pegged you for a Sarah or Jill.”

  I shove him out of my way and open the door to the roof. He follows close on my heels, his laughter trailing off as he eases the metal door shut behind us. A layer of black gravel-like pebbles blankets the roof. Our shoes crunch with each step we take, but I realize I don’t have to worry about being heard over the rhythmic thumping that rises from the city below.

  Bastien motions for me to duck down and I crouch, careful to keep my head low. We scurry across the wide expanse and huddle against the waist-high ledge that lines the roof. I peek over the side and gasp.

  The City is laid out before me, sparkling like sunlight on a rippling pond. A sea of windows are illuminated from within by white lights a thousand times brighter than Bastien’s flashlight. Never before have I seen such vibrant evidence of life. Everywhere I look, men are working, laughing and arguing.

  Is this what the world used to look like? I wonder.

  I can see people moving on each floor of the building closest to us, men dressed from head to foot in black uniforms. Beds, dark wooden furniture and open doors within the walls that overflow with clothing, adorn the rooms of a building that stands five windows high. Each room has a similar décor, worn and smothered with a hideous floral design, from the blankets to the material hanging at the windows. I can see images surrounded by golden rectangles on the walls and small tables with books stacked high.

  “They have electricity?”

  Bastien
nods, placing a finger of his lips for me to be quiet. He jerks his head back toward the City and I fall silent.

  “See those cranes?” He points to the left at tall metal machines shifting large chunks of rubble. “The Settlers began cleaning the streets a while back. They use the cranes to do the heavy lifting. Then those large flat-bed trucks roll in to take the debris away.”

  I stare down at a huge vehicle with metal belt-like wheels as it rolls up and over abandoned cars. “What is that?”

  “Military tanks. I like to call them the Sweepers since all they do is clean up their own mess. The Sweepers work in a grid each night. They’ve already cleared away most of the north end. Now they are working their way toward me.”

  I glance over at him. His jaw clenches and his fingers clamp down on the metal ledge. “Do you think they will find you?”

  He nods, not turning to look at me. “It’s bound to happen someday, right?”

  Everywhere I look, there is movement, like a bee hive abuzz with life. My stomach begins to twist at the thought of just how many Caldonians live here. I was a fool to think my parents could ever make a dent in something this big.

  A part of me wishes I could run back to the forest and hide from the truth, to forget this confusing place with all its foreign objects that all look like they want to kill or maim me. Before I came here, I felt like I could make a difference, now…I know better.

  I look to Bastien beside me and wonder how he has managed to survive on his own for so long. He is all alone here. If he were attacked, no one would be there to cover his back. No one would come to help if he gets hurt.

  I can’t imagine what my life would be like without my friends, without someone to talk to or get angry with. Someone to share life with.

  A few streets over, I watch a Squaddie patrol march down the street. There are twenty aliens total, each marching in sync with the next. A patch of red adorns their upper right chest but I can’t make out what the symbol is from this distance. I grit my teeth in anger as I see that they clutch large, cannon-like guns.

  The night my dad fell to a Caldonian laser, I learned that red means dead. My mother told me that when the Caldonians first arrived, the streets were flooded with red──blood illuminated by laser fire.

  The Squaddies disappear around a corner and my gaze is drawn to the right, deeper into the City. Three brilliant white lights shine up into the sky, bouncing off the wispy clouds as they pass. Each circular light has been placed in a triangle around the last remaining skyscraper, apparently to illuminate all sides. I squint, peering through the light at the webs of metal that encase the building.

  “What is that around that tower?”

  “The Shard?” Bastien turns away and sinks down onto his backside, leaning against the roof railing. I follow suit. “It’s called scaffolding, used for constructing tall buildings.”

  “Build? But that place is a ruin. Why would they-” I cut off as realization hits me like a slap in the face. Electricity, street cleaning crews, building teams…“Why are they rebuilding the City?”

  He shrugs and shakes his head. “Beats me. I thought they would’ve built their own cities by now, but apparently they want to take ours.”

  I rub my forehead, trying to process the possibilities. “It doesn’t make sense. Why go to all the trouble when they tore it down in the first place?”

  He grabs a handful of black pebbles and sifts them through his fingers. I watch him, curious at how little this discovery seems to affect him. Surely, he has to be worried about capture. How could he not? He’s practically living underneath hundreds, if not thousands, of aliens. “Did you figure out what that thumping is?”

  “No.”

  “Take another look. This time look behind us.”

  I rise up onto my knees and peer across the rooftop and over the ledge. Bright lights glow in the distance, but instead of building up, it looks like the machines are going underground. I watch a large crane with a claw on the end gouge into the earth and pull out a scoop full of dirt.

  I sink back down next to Bastien. “They’re digging?”

  He nods, his gaze hardening as he stares back at me. His eyes look almost sapphire in the dim glow of the lights nearby. The light stubble on his face is a carpet of shadow in the faint light. “I told you they’re looking for something.”

  “So that’s it? The thing causing the tremors?”

  His eyes narrow. “So that’s why you’re here? To find the Grounders?”

  I clam up, wishing he’d stayed behind so I could deal with this revelation on my own. “They can’t just be using cranes. I’ve felt the tremors in the forest.”

  “They’re using Diggers, long tube like machines with a giant drill on the front. It’s about the length of my subway car and I’d say it could hold at least twenty Squaddies, maybe more.”

  “But why? There’s nothing out that way…” My breath catches as I realize the aliens’ intent. “They’re searching for us.”

  Bastien nods, dropping the stones through his fingers. They plink against the other rocks, settling back into place. He brushes his fingers over them and then dusts off his hands on his jeans. “That’s what I’m thinking. Any idea why?”

  I chew on my lip, wondering how much I can tell him. He didn’t have to save me from the Sky Ship, but he did. He didn’t have to give me this revelation tonight, but he did. I sigh and lean my head back against the ledge, staring up into the sky. I can just glimpse a wide expanse of glittering stars beyond the shifting clouds.

  “My parents were part of the rebellion. A few years ago, they managed to do a lot of damage to the Caldonians in this area. They attacked supply lines and drove the aliens into the City. Once they realized we must be located nearby, they started hunting us down. At first, it was only one death here or there, then a couple per month. The war waged throughout my childhood and our numbers dwindled. Some people fled in search of help but they never returned.”

  My throat constricts. “Six months ago, my mother was among a scouting group that was wiped out. They were the last adults among us strong enough to lead, to fight back. All that is left to keep the children safe are my friends, a few elderly people and me. The rebellion has crumbled.”

  Bastien’s head dips so low his chin meets his chest. His arms rest across his raised knees, fingers twiddling with a bit of plastic he has ripped off one of the pipes. “So you’re on your own now?”

  I nod. “We’re it.”

  He scowls and tosses the plastic away. “We’re never going to win this war.”

  “War?” I scoff. “There is no more war. We don’t have the supplies to fight back any more. They have more manpower, more guns, more everything. How can we fight that?”

  “I don’t know!” He slams his fist down into the roof, his knuckles burying into the gravel. “We can’t just give up.”

  I hesitate before laying my hand on his arm. The contact feels…awkward. “We’re not. We just have to regroup. I’m sure there are other survivors out there.”

  “Like me?” He snorts. Bitterness drips from his words. “I’m all alone here on the front lines. A lot of good I’m doing, hiding out with the rats.”

  I scrunch up my nose and squint my eyes, torn by his pain and my loyalty to the commune. I let out a deep breath and decide to take a chance. “Come with me.”

  The words escape my lips before I can steal them back. It’s insane. There’s no way my friends would let him step foot into our cave. Our loss has been great this year and too many wounds still fester to allow for trusting a complete stranger.

  I can feel Bastien watching me. He doesn’t speak or move. From the corner of my eye, it looks like he’s holding his breath. “You don’t mean that.”

  I groan, burying my head into my arms. “I don’t know what I mean. I can’t stand the thought of you being all alone down in that subway. I don’t know if
I can trust you or if I should toss you over the side of this building.”

  Bastien chuckles softly, swiping a lock of hair from his forehead. It flaps around his face before he tucks it behind his ear. “I’d prefer you trust me.”

  A smile tugs at my lips as I raise my head to look at him. “I want to, but it’s hard. You’ve been a pain in my butt all night.”

  “Look who’s talking.”

  I shove my hair back from my face as the wind picks up and curls over the ledge, sending it into a tangled frenzy. “Do you hear that?”

  I strain to hear a faint sound over the thumping of the Grounders. Bastien’s brow furrows as he glances up at the clouds overhead. They move swiftly in fine feather-like bands. His hair blows back off his face as he turns to look at me, his grip tightening on his shotgun. “Hear what?”

  The sound grows louder and I stiffen as I realize what’s causing the hum. “It’s a Sky Ship! Run!”

 
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