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Rebel heart, p.19
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       Rebel Heart, p.19

           Lizzy Ford
 
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Chapter Eleven

  THEY SMASHED INTO THE water. Cold water poured into the cabin. Lana fumbled with her harness and yanked it free, slogging through the rising water. She struggled to pull herself out of the cabin, against the flow of cold river water. She gripped the doorway and pulled as hard as she could until her legs were free. She planted them against the side of the helicopter and pushed free.

  Floating in the shocking cold, she oriented herself in the darkness. The water-breather worked, but the lifesaver was slow to inflate. Finally, it caught, and she kicked her feet as it pulled her towards the surface.

  Lana’s head broke free, and she pushed the water-breather up, gasping. Her arms and legs were already too cold to feel. She looked around, unable to see Brady or the other soldier.

  “Brady!” she rasped. “Brady!”

  There was no response. Lana looked up at the bridge, trying to determine which way it was to shore. She’d die if she stayed in the water. She wasn’t too far from shore, though any distance felt impossible with her cold body.

  She pulled the water-breather down and focused hard on kicking her wooden legs. With grueling slowness, she drew nearer the shore. Finally, she felt rocks scrape one leg, and Lana lifted her head. The bank was within reach.

  She stretched and pulled herself onto the bank, shaking hard with cold. She couldn’t stand, not with her frozen body, and she rolled onto her back, out of the water.

  Hot tears started down her face. Lana lay gasping, unable to catch her breath for several moments. When she could, she pushed herself up and gazed out over the dark river.

  “Brady!” she cried again.

  No answer. An idea occurred to her. She pulled her micro free and rested her wet thumb against it until the screen unlocked; it worked. The Horsemen were in her other cargo pocket. She scanned the area for any other micros operating in the area.

  There were none. Brady could’ve lost it in the river, but she should still pick up some electromagnetic fluctuation, if he was anywhere except the bottom of the river. Lana sank to the ground, too shocked to register what to do next.

  Anger and sorrow collided within her. Brady hurt her, yet he’d been her only friend and protector. Her last words to him had been spoken in anger. New emotions flooded her. She’d admired him as the Guardian, but she’d fallen in love with the rebel leader. Her anger at him slid away as she huddled against a large river rock, alone. Tears filled her eyes, and she sobbed.

  Lana cried for a long time, shaking. When no more tears came, she roused herself. Her Guardian was truly gone. Her whole body resonated in pain at the thought. She had to get the Horsemen to safety.

  Her clothes were still drenched. She needed new ones, or the cool night would do her in. She pulled her micro free again and looked for the nearest emerops.

  Another address popped up. Her address. She’d been too tired and cold to remember just how close to home she was. With one last look at the river, she turned away and climbed the bank clumsily before heading towards the road leading from the bridge to her home.

  Home. Her throat tightened at the thought. She’d never expected to see her condo again and couldn’t shake the feeling it wouldn’t be the same. There was no electricity in this part of the state, and looters would’ve likely taken everything.

  But it was all she had left. Her step faltered, and more tears spilled.

  Be strong. For Brady, she told herself. The thought of him almost crippled her.

  While her step was anything but sure, Lana forced herself onto the road and walked. Her body shook off the chill by the first mile marker and by the second, the moon was directly overhead. She heard disconcerting sounds of heavy weapons fire in the distance, and the forest smelled as if it were burning.

  Brady’s caution and Mr. Tim’s words returned to her as her thoughts cleared with the exercise. She looked around when she reached the third mile marker, aware she was a sitting duck. The rebellion’s grays were enough to get her shot by anyone. She moved off the road into the ditch.

  At the fourth mile marker, she paused. The road was ripped open, as if by a massive bomb. The gap was twenty meters wide and on the other side, a graveyard of burnt-out vehicles. The scent of charred flesh and metal still lingered, and Lana covered her mouth and nose with her hand as she started forward again.

  Morbid curiosity drew her from the gutter to the highway. She walked down the middle of the carnage, peering into hulls of greencars. Some had charred bodies while others were empty. She’d read many reports of damage and was struck by how easy it had been to dismiss the humanity of the war they were in.

  She pulled out her micro to see what had happened along this stretch. There were no media reports, but one intelligence spot report described the carnage.

  Attack on feds fleeing towards Sky Bridge. No survivors.

  Lana replaced the micro, looking anew at the green cars and their silent occupants. It was impossible to identify anyone or anyone’s individual vehicle. Yet she couldn’t shake the thought that these weren’t any feds; these were the feds from her condo community.

  She continued walking down the middle of the road. The destruction disappeared by mile marker five, only a few hundred meters from the turnoff to her condo community. She looked back at the lines of those who fled, overwhelmed again.

  If not for Mr. Tim, this would’ve been her fate.

  Inexplicable anger at the politician surged through her. He’d used her and saved her, not for her, but for his own purposes! And here she was: back where she’d been the night he called her away. Only this time, she’d lost everything: her belief in him, her Guardian.

  She’d meet the same fate as those on the road to the bridge. There was no one to protect her now. All she had was herself.

  Wiping away angry tears, Lana trotted to the entrance to her community then slowed to a walk when she became breathless too fast. She was weak and chilled. To her surprise, the condo community was as quiet as the night she left. Moonlight spilled over triangular roofs into grassy front yards. The parking lot was empty, and the only sign of unusual activity was the open gate.

  The grisly scene leading to the condos likely dissuaded anyone from visiting, she rationalized. She went to her condo and walked up the stairs slowly. She paused to look around again, caught in the surreal sense that everything that happened the past few months hadn’t touched the condo community. She could almost pretend nothing occurred.

  Pressing her thumb to her door, she realized there was light lining the windows of the condo beside hers. Lana’s hand dropped. The occupant of the neighboring apartment was Mrs. Watson, a retired fed. She was an older woman who may not have gotten the same communiqué that sent all the other feds in the community to their deaths trying to escape. Still, Lana wasn’t convinced she wanted to discover what lay behind the door after the travesty along the road. She hesitated until recalling Jack, the shepherd mix she’d left with Mrs. Watson.

  Lana walked down her stairwell and up Mrs. Watson’s stairs. She knocked and inched away, not wanting to find her neighbor and dog dead. The door opened, and Lana gripped the railing to keep from fleeing.

  “Lana?” Mrs. Watson’s features registered surprise. Her brow knitted together as her eyes took in Lana’s clothes.

  “I’m sorry,” Lana said quickly. “I shouldn’t—”

  “You’re drenched. Come in.”

  Mrs. Watson left the doorway. Lana hesitated before following. The apartment was almost as she’d last seen it: comfortable and crowded with oversized furniture and rugs coating every carpeted space. The only difference was the boards hammered over each of the windows, and the weapons sitting beside Mrs. Watson’s rocking chair and stacked on the couch. The woman was armed as well as Brady, Lana noted.

  The occupant of the large chair in the corner of the living room launched towards her in a flurry of brown and black fur.

  “Jack!” Lana exclaimed as the large animal knocked her back. “I can’t believe you’re okay!”

/>   “He’s more than fine. He took out one thug,” Mrs. Watson said proudly. “I didn’t think he had it in him after how you baby him.”

  Lana’s face grew warmer. Jack smelled clean and looked healthy with his long pink tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth. He jumped on her again, planting his paws on her shoulders. Mrs. Watson disappeared down a darkened hallway, returning quickly.

  “Jack, down! Put this on,” she said. In her outstretched hand was a robe. “Just place your … your uniform in the dryer. Jack! Down!”

  Lana flushed. Mrs. Watson only offered a small smile, shoved the robe at her, and resumed her seat on the rocking chair. Lana retreated down the hall, trailed by the happy dog. The condo’s layout was the same as hers, and she found the bathroom where she expected. She changed, grateful to be out of the cold, wet clothing.

  Her gaze settled on the lights, and she wondered how the elderly woman had electricity when no one else did. Lana drew a deep breath and placed the clothing in the round dryer in the linen closet before returning to the living room. The retired fed had cleared a spot for her on the couch. A steaming bowl of soup awaited her on the coffee table. Jack sat beside it, wagging his tail.

  “Thank you, Mrs. Watson,” Lana said, overwhelmed by the kindness of her neighbor. She sat, patted Jack, and lifted the warm soup, sighing. “What are you still doing here?”

  “I have everything I need here,” Mrs. Watson replied. “Solar generator, a year’s supply of food, weapons. No need to go elsewhere.”

  “You might need more than a year of food,” Lana said before she could stop herself. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

  “It’s that bad?”

  “Yes.”

  “I’ll deal with it when it comes.”

  Lana smiled faintly, grateful for the familiar woman’s gruff calm.

  “What’re you doing here? I thought your boss would’ve airlifted you out.”

  “He airlifted himself out.”

  “Typical of the political elite,” Mrs. Watson said with a frown. “At least you didn’t get caught up in the rush to the bridge.”

  “I was … working that night,” Lana managed.

  “Lucky you. Doesn’t look like any of our neighbors made it.”

  Lana lowered the soup, her appetite gone. “Is it safe for you here alone?”

  “With enough weapons, yes. Most of the condos have been looted already. I blew apart the last thug that tried to get in here. They come back every couple of days,” Mrs. Watson said and indicated the living room window with one gnarled hand. “They threw in a grenade last time. It was a dud. I got as many boards up as I could.”

  “Who are they?” Lana asked, eyes on the window.

  “Everyone’s trying to survive. You do what you have to in that situation, even work with people you didn’t think you ever would,” Mrs. Watson said wisely.

  Lana’s face grew warm again, and she silently thanked the retired fed for brushing off her grays so diplomatically.

  “Can you fire a weapon?”

  “Poorly,” Lana admitted.

  Mrs. Watson appeared thoughtful before she pushed herself to her feet and hobbled to the couch. She picked up a handgun-sized laser weapon, set it down, and picked up a smaller one.

  “Take this one,” she said. “Keep it on you at all times.”

  “Are you sure?” Lana asked.

  “I have enough. It was my daughter’s long ago. She couldn’t shoot a greencar if it was in front of her. Here’s how you load it.” Mrs. Watson demonstrated with a deftness at odds with her age. Lana watched then took it when Mrs. Watson held it out to her. “You came from the river?”

  “Our helo went down and got tangled in the bridge’s support wires.”

  “That would explain why you were wet. You’re lucky if you fell out of the sky into the river and lived to tell it.”

  “I don’t feel lucky.”

  “You’ve always struck me as a smart girl. I’m sure there’s a reason for your survival.”

  Brady. The ache deep within her started again. Lana pushed him from her mind. It hurt too much to think of her Guardian. She couldn’t help feeling bad she’d never taken much time to get to know her neighbors better. She knew nothing of Mrs. Watson’s family. Mr. Tim never gave her the time to form friendships. Her condo was nothing like Mrs. Watson’s. Lana’s apartment held the basics: a place to sleep, a place for her clothes and enough furniture for Jack to sleep on.

  “Where were you headed when you fell out of the sky?” Mrs. Watson asked.

  “South, I think,” Lana said vaguely. As much as she liked Mrs. Watson, she feared trusting anyone ever again. “I was with some … ah, well, others who knew where we were going.”

  “Rebels?”

  “Yes. PMF members.”

  An awkward silence fell. Lana lifted her soup again and sipped.

  “Your condo was likely broken into,” Mrs. Watson said after the long pause. “You can stay here tonight. Probably safer. I put up boards on all the windows. No guarantee we’ll survive the night, but you probably understand that.”

  “I’m beginning to,” Lana said. She set down the bowl, emotions bubbling again. “Mrs. Watson … I have nowhere else to go. After tonight. I mean, I know where I should go, but I …”

  “You’re scared?” Mrs. Watson asked with a gentle smile.

  Lana nodded.

  “You should be. These are scary times. I’ll give you as much ammo as you need. People overestimate how much food they need. As long as you have water, you only need to eat once a day.”

  “I can access the emerops storage facility,” Lana added. “Walking across the country seems crazy.”

  “In my time, walking was the best way to evade being caught,” Mrs. Watson said. “I never told you I was one of the original members of the special ops security teams, did I?”

  Lana shook her head.

  “I was on their first team in the East-West War. The second team had the benefits of genetic modification. We didn’t. We had to rely on our wits as well as our bodies to get into and out of some really rough places. If you need to walk cross country then walk cross country. Maybe by the time you get there, this all will be over.”

  “You’re a wise woman,” Lana whispered. “I’ve never been on my own before this. I don’t know if I have what it takes. I’m not like you.”

  “Get some rest. The guest bedroom has been ready for visitors since my daughter died ten years ago. In the morning, I’ll feed you, pack you a bag, and send you on your way. Mission first, my dear.”

  “Thank you, Mrs. Watson.” Lana smiled, amused at such hardcore words from a woman whose frail frame would struggle under the weight of a laser shotgun. Still, she heard the wisdom of hundreds of special ops missions in Mrs. Watson’s voice. Mrs. Watson was right; Lana needed to complete her mission, even if she wasn’t sure how to do it.

  Without Brady. Her smile faded, pain filling her breast. If only she hadn’t been so angry at him when they parted. Or if they’d met at a different time. Or if the helo hadn’t gone down.

  Near tears again, Lana retreated to the guest bedroom, sat on the bed, and withdrew the micro. She began to plot a route west. Jack stretched out on the floor beside the bed. Her gaze went to him in consideration, and she wondered if it was better to take or leave him.

  The emerops facilities were placed strategically, with one never more than two days from the next closest depot. Of course, most of those travel days were by vehicle of some sort. She chewed her lip as she watched the micro map multiple routes, gauging how much food and water she’d have to carry to survive. And ammo. She’d have to take as much as she could.

  She cried herself into a restless sleep. Jack’s snoring and the Horsemen under her pillow kept her from sleeping well. She couldn’t stop thinking of Brady. She even caught herself touching her ear to keep from sliding her finger behind it to the subcutaneous net implant. Even if she had one more chance to talk to hi
m, she wasn’t sure what she’d say. But she missed the sound of his voice, and her body yearned for his touch again.

  When dawn outlined the boards hammered across the windows, she rose. Mrs. Watson was already up, and the scents of bacon and eggs reminded Lana how long she’d gone without real food. The elderly woman sat at the small kitchen table, her weapons within reach.

  “I have these for you,” Mrs. Watson said and held up two bags. “Anti-sleepers and appetite suppressants. I hated these things, but you might need them.”

  “Thank you.”

  “Sit down. Eat.”

  Lana did. She ate fast and had second helpings. Mrs. Watson sipped tea and waited for her to finish before she motioned to the clothing slung over the back of the couch.

  “You should be dressed in civilian clothes. These were my daughter’s. I packed you a bag with a change of clothes. I only have one weapon that takes that ammo, so you can take it all. I repaired your boots last night. You’re set.”

  “You don’t know how much this means to me,” Lana said with feeling. “I couldn’t do it without your kindness.”

  “Nonsense. You’d find a way. I’m just helping start you off right. Keep in mind the vandals and thugs are out at night. You’ll want to find a place to sleep where you can protect yourself. And you must take Jack. I packed enough food for Jack for three days.”

  Lana nodded. She rose, anxious to be on her way but grateful to take Jack with her. Mrs. Watson quietly swept their dirty plates away. Lana approached the couch, where the large rucksack sat. She hesitated, recalling how bruised her shoulders already were from the harness in the helo. With a deep breath, she hefted the heavy sack and pulled it over her shoulders. She turned in time to see Mrs. Watson’s skeptical look turn into a smile.

  “Thank you again,” Lana said and started to the door. “I’m going by my place really fast. When I get somewhere safe, I’ll send help for you.”

  “I’m fine, dear, really. I’ve got enough ammo to outlast any vandals.”

  Lana opened the front door. Unaccustomed to the weight of the rucksack on her back, she almost toppled over at the first step of the stairwell and caught the banister with both hands.

  “Here. Tighten the straps. The higher on your back it is, the easier to carry,” Mrs. Watson instructed.

  Lana felt the weight lifted, and she wrenched the straps as tight as she could. When Mrs. Watson released the rucksack, it felt better balanced, though no lighter. She stepped down the stairs slowly and turned to wave at Mrs. Watson. The elderly woman stood in her doorway and waved.

  With a return wave, Lana set her gaze on the door to her own apartment up the stairs. A few minutes of huffing later, she opened the door. Despite what Mrs. Watson had said of vandals, the apartment was untouched.

  Lana closed the door behind her and looked around, dismayed. There was a reason the apartment was still the same. She had nothing. Mrs. Watson’s apartment was warm and homey. Lana’s a place to sleep and nothing more. Aside from her bed, wardrobe, and a couch, there was nothing else in the apartment. Jack slept on the couch, and all her belongings were in the wardrobe.

  The condo felt like it belonged to a stranger. Her throat tightened. The only thing remotely personal she owned—her photo viewer—had been destroyed on the Peak. She’d never thought of her apartment as lacking character. Of course, she’d rarely been there in daylight. Mr. Tim was high maintenance.

  Jack crossed to what had been his favorite spot on the couch. He sniffed at it.

  Lana opened her wardrobe and looked at the fed uniforms hanging within. They were pressed and waiting for her, as if no one had told them her life had changed. In fact, standing in her apartment, she had the surreal sense that life hadn’t changed, as if she could open the door and go to work like any other day.

  Emotion filled her as she realized she’d never had a home, even before the attacks. She’d never appreciated her former life enough to make her apartment her home. She’d never taken a chance on a man or let herself wonder what she was missing. Lana snatched the uniforms and flung them around her room. She slung the markers designating her as the Undersecretary’s assistant against the wall then crushed them with the heel of her boot.

  It didn’t feel like enough. She still felt anger and sorrow. She shrugged out of the rucksack and opened the drawers of her dresser, dumping their contents onto the floor. Looking around, she realized her life was filled with nothing but government-issued clothing and a cheap, worn bedspread.

  She had nothing but Jack. Now that there was no government, she was nothing! The flash of her reflection in the mirror caught her attention. She looked thinner, pale, scared.

  Lana sank onto the bed and cried again. She wanted Brady back. Jack padded to her and thrust his moist nose into her ear. Lana hugged him. She recovered herself and wiped her tears, gazing around one last time. It was a grueling two-day walk to the nearest emerops facility.

  With a deep breath, she rose and struggled in to the straps of the rucksack. Jack waited for her by the door, and she tucked the weapon Mrs. Watson gave her into one cargo pocket. The old woman had loaded it for her. The Horsemen were in her other cargo pocket. She touched the pocket as she moved towards the door.

  No matter what, she had to get the Horsemen to safety. She started towards the forest hedging the road adjacent to the condo community.

  “Come on, Jack.”

 
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