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Rebel heart, p.23
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       Rebel Heart, p.23

           Lizzy Ford
 
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  Chapter Fifteen

  “SO WE’VE DETERMINED YOU have no physical coordination or skills. You don’t cook, either.”

  Lana flushed at the matter-of-fact tone Mike, Kelli’s husband, took. The towering, slender man was looking over a list with a frown.

  “We have a lot of things we need people to do, but you possess virtually no skills. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were a fed.”

  “She’s a student,” Kelli said. “Your family must’ve saved their whole lives to send you.”

  “I’m not sure where to put her,” her husband said with a frown.

  “I was a technology major,” Lana offered, unaccustomed to feeling skills sought after by feds were inadequate everywhere else. “You said you have a generator you need help fixing, right?”

  “You can’t do anything else.” Mike smiled to soften the words. “We have someone from Harvard here who can’t figure out the generator. But, if it’ll keep you busy …” His look was doubtful.

  “She made it across Tennessee,” Kelli pointed out. “She’s got something in that head of hers.”

  “Give it a try.”

  “Thank you,” Lana said awkwardly, recalling Elise’s words that she’d never make it on the outside. She wasn’t certain what kind of skills these people had that she didn’t.

  “We’ll think of something,” Kelli said as they walked down the street. “I don’t think you can fix the generator, so don’t worry about it if you can’t. If you didn’t notice, we have no technology here outside the hospital. We even had to learn to start fire from scratch.”

  “I never thought the world would come to this,” Lana said. “Or there were people like you.”

  “You probably got some of that brainwashing in college,” Kelli said. “You were probably the only non-elite there.”

  “I was,” Lana agreed. “It’s a different world.”

  “At least we have a chance to start over.”

  Lana gazed at her, unable to shake her surprise that those in this small community were the opposite of what she expected.

  “If everyone is reduced to the same level, it might help people remember we’re all the same,” Kelli added. “Do you think so?”

  “I think the elite class will never understand that,” Lana said honestly. “There are good among them, but they just aren’t like … this.” She gazed around.

  A handful of people were building an annex onto one of the buildings with their hands rather than with the technological tools she’d seen create structures. Some people dug trenches while others placed pipes in the trenches and covered them again with dirt. Men and women worked over large cauldrons of food in one building while young men and women focused on making blankets, clothes, and other textiles in another.

  With their hands. Lana glanced at her own palms, which were soft and slender. She knew the manual labor class worked with their hands, but she didn’t realize they used them to do more than serve the elite. Warmth crept up her face as she thought how stupid she’d sound to someone like Kelli.

  “Here it is.”

  Lana looked from her hands to the massive, seven-foot-tall Tesla generator. It sat between the boardwalk and one of the buildings where the people had dragged it. Much like her, the generator sat useless. Yet it was the only familiar thing to her in the town. Lana’s hand went instinctively to the pocket with her micro before she dropped it.

  She circled the generator. It was the size of a greencar—large enough to power the town. Aside from the chunks missing along the edges from the townspeople dragging it, it looked like it was in good shape.

  “Don’t worry if it’s too much,” Kelli said. Lana couldn’t help feeling irritated at the assurance in Kelli’s voice, as if the town had already decided she wasn’t likely to hold her own.

  She was tired of feeling that way.

  Lana went to the side opposite Kelli and pressed her thumb against the keypad. The control panel opened. Though hibernating, the Tesla generator displayed no error messages. She flew through the options on the command panel. The metal panels on top of the generator opened like a flower, automatically adjusting themselves to catch the most sun. Lana looked around to make sure no one was watching then pulled her micro free. She set it on top of the control panel and assessed the results, then activated the generator’s artificial intelligence so it would adjust as needed to power the town. She returned her micro to her pocket.

  “There’s nothing wrong with it,” she said, returning to Kelli. “It’ll take a couple of days to charge. There’s no energy stored in it right now. Once it’s charged, it’ll power the town for two weeks without a new charge or indefinitely, if I set it to recharge as needed.”

  Kelli was quiet for a moment in surprise. “We’ll have to check the Tesla receivers in all the buildings,” she said. “I can’t believe you know what to do. The Harvard guy didn’t!”

  “I was a good student,” Lana said, afraid to say more. Without her micro, she doubted she could do much more than turn it on.

  “Now we know what to tell Mike!” Kelli said. “You can check all the receivers.”

  “Kelli, I really need to get to Colorado,” Lana said. “My family is there.”

  “Lana, Mike won’t risk sending anyone over there, not after the three who went and never came back,” Kelli said. “And the soldiers say the same: don’t try it.”

  “Please, Kelli. It’s important I see my … my father again. He needs me,” Lana begged. “I’ll check all the receivers and make sure the town will have energy before I go. Just please ask Mike to help me get across.”

  Kelli’s gaze went to the generator. At last, she nodded. Lana almost sighed in relief. All Mike had to do was get her across the river. The rest, she’d figure out when she got there.

  “Mike’ll be happy about this,” Kelli said, smiling. “He said only a fed could turn this on. I’m happy he’s wrong.”

  “Me, too,” Lana forced herself to say.

  “I’m going to let him know. You’re welcome to explore the town,” Kelli said as she started away.

  Lana looked back at the generator, dread in the pit of her stomach. She trailed Kelli. Jack trotted ahead of them back into the town. By the time Lana caught up, he’d had been lured into one of the buildings by a little girl with a handful of uncooked rice. Lana stepped through the doorway, patting Jack.

  “You must be Lana,” a woman said, rising from the corner with a sleeping child cradled in her arms. “This is the nursery. We watch the kids during the day while everyone is working!”

  Jack was obediently following the girl in yellow that fed him rice. She led him to the other side, where a group of toddlers were playing with toys carved from the forest’s trees. Another corner contained crates full of sleeping babies while older children sat reading antique books in the center of the room. The children were monitored by a few teens, who sat in one corner laughing and talking.

  Lana watched the toddlers greet Jack excitedly. They surrounded him, offering him whatever food they had and petting him.

  “They love your dog,” the woman said. She moved to the nearest empty crate and placed the baby inside it. “I was just getting ready to head over to get their midmorning snacks. Want to come?”

  Lana nodded.

  “I’m Melissa.”

  “Lana.”

  “You came at a good time. It’s taken us a few weeks to get everything running smoothly. Well, mostly smoothly,” Melissa said. “Still a lot of us trying to deal with not having light at night or our favorite foods.”

  “I can imagine,” Lana said. “But this is so much better than anything I expected.”

  “Mike says along the Mississippi, all the towns are like this. We’ve been trading experts with the neighbors. No one here knew how to plant crops, but the next town over was made up of farm laborers. It’s working out better than any of us expected.”

  “Winter will be rough,” Lana said.

  “It will be. We’v
e got plenty of wood, though, from the forest. That’s how they did it in the olden days.”

  At least now they’ll have real heat, she thought to herself. The generator would be more than the town needed, even for winter.

  “Has Kelli showed you around?” Melissa asked.

  “A little.”

  “These are the kitchens. These buildings here each have a different purpose. Meat preparation there, breads and everything else there, then the last building is where we cook. We centralized all the ovens from the town into one area. The kids get snacks twice a day,” Melissa explained, leading them into the building smelling of bread.

  “Where do you get fruit and vegetables from?” Lana asked, gaze skimming over the oranges in crates.

  “We trade for them or get them from the military. Not sure how they ended up with so many oranges.”

  “So the PMF and military really are helping.”

  “They are. We invite them for dinner, but for the most part, they just do patrols and bring us supplies. Mike handles the coordination with them.”

  Melissa motioned to a crate of oranges. Lana took one side and the redhead the other. They carried the crate back to the building acting as a nursery.

  “I still can’t believe how nice it is here,” Lana said. “It’s not what I expected.”

  “I think we all just want to make our new home as pleasant as possible. Most people didn’t get a second chance like we did. Kids, come eat!” The toddlers left Jack at her cheerful voice and crowded around the crate.

  Lana watched, feeling more alone than she thought possible. The people of the town had barely survived an apocalypse Mr. Tim and others should’ve prevented. She should’ve prevented. Maybe if she’d paid more attention to the information coming in or been a better analyst … part of her knew there were no indicators she missed. Another part of her found that to be impossible.

  “Jack,” she called. “Thank you, Melissa.”

  Melissa smiled in response, her hands full with a toddler trying to steal another’s oranges.

  Lana stepped into the street and looked around. The people of the town were employed in maintaining and improving their new lives. Lives she’d helped destroy.

  If she didn’t get the Horsemen to safety, more might be lost. Greenie would find her or someone else would. She couldn’t risk staying here too long. Restless, she returned to her room in the warehouse and lay on the bed, thinking hard.

  Dark fell, and several of the lanterns in the warehouse were lit. Hers stayed dark. She waited for Kelli to find her and eventually rose, hungry. She and Jack joined the others on the street, going to the bonfires. Lana looked around for Kelli and saw her near Mike at the far bonfire. Kelli’s features were drawn, her gaze distracted. She sat with a plate of food, not eating.

  “Are you well?” Lana asked, approaching.

  “Yes, thanks,” Kelli said. “I’m so sorry! I forgot you!”

  “I can find my way here,” Lana replied with a smile.

  “Go grab some food.”

  Lana did. The woman carving this night’s kill gave her extra for Jack. Lana returned to sit by Kelli. When Kelli said nothing, Lana spoke.

  “I met Melissa today,” she said.

  “Melissa’s great with kids,” Kelli said. “I spent the day at the medical facility. My little one hasn’t been doing so well on his treatment.”

  “I’m sorry to hear that. There was nothing in the supplies to help?”

  “Unfortunately, no. We’re taking it a day at a time.”

  Lana felt for the quiet woman as she fell in to a sad silence. More soldiers in gray and black made their way down the bonfires, pausing to talk to Mike. Lana couldn’t relax until they’d left. Jack helped her eat her meat and then finished off the rice and beans. She sat back, comfortable with the warmth of the fire. Kelli giggled as she fed Jack the remainder of her meal as well.

  “Meat’s hard to come by,” Mike reminded them, crouching nearby. Though his words were firm, he patted Jack.

  “Any news today?” Kelli asked.

  “Just the usual. A few more stragglers, rumors of a new East-West War,” Mike summarized with a shrug. “A few of more of the feds’ secret supply facilities were found today. They were all open. Something must’ve happened to destroy whatever kept them locked. It’s a good thing for any survivors out there. The military is trying to find them all and pull out the supplies before anyone else steals them.”

  “Were there a lot of them, I wonder?” Kelli asked.

  “They’d found five already within the area they’re patrolling. Seems there are a lot of them along the river.”

  “How wonderful.”

  Lana was quiet. Mike’s gaze fell to her.

  “Great job with the generator,” he said. “We didn’t think it would ever work.”

  “Thanks,” she said.

  “I understand you want to cross the river.”

  Lana nodded.

  Mike gazed towards the Mississippi. “We could use someone like you here. In fact, all the cities along the river could.”

  “I really need to get to Colorado,” Lana said quietly.

  “The PMF has subs. They can take you to the opposite bank, but they’re the first to say not to do it. No one makes it onto the bank with the security the feds installed to keep us Easterners from crossing,” he said with a shake of his head. “I’ll think about it. I’d rather see you alive and here than blown to pieces trying to get across the river. You could always wait a few weeks or so to see if they disable the security.”

  Lana sought the words to convey her urgency without revealing just how important it was.

  “The girl misses her family, Mike,” Kelli said. “She fixed the generator. She definitely contributed. If she wants to leave, she can help us check the receivers then go her own way.”

  Mike sighed. “All right. I’ll talk to the PMF. None of us know enough about the receivers, so we do need your help before you go.”

  “Of course,” Lana said, her hopes rising. “I can check them tomorrow.”

  The couple exchanged a look. Mike rose and left. Lana shifted, sensing she’d said something to cause the silent communication between Kelli and Mike.

  “If you’re alive, I’m coming for you. Just give me some sort of sign.”

  Lana froze at the words. It took a long moment for her to register Mike hadn’t spoken them, and the familiar voice came from the implant in her ear.

  “You feel all right?” Kelli asked.

  “Yes, thanks. Just … I think I need some sleep,” Lana said, standing abruptly. “Come, Jack.” She itched to grab her micro or tap her ear and respond.

  Brady—her Guardian—was alive! Lana’s body went on autopilot as her mind returned to her fall from the helo. She’d seen Brady thrown from it and no bodies wash up on shore. While she knew his genetic engineering made him harder to kill, she’d never imagined he’d survived. Even hearing his voice, she couldn’t help thinking she’d heard him because she wanted to hear his voice again, not because she actually had.

  Lana returned to her little room, shaking with emotion. The lanterns hanging from the warehouse ceiling were all lit. She whipped out her micro and toyed with it. She’d been afraid to try to contact anyone through her personal net, fearing discovery by General Greene. Slowly, she replaced the micro. She couldn’t endanger these people. Greene would level the city to get to her.

  “I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you.” Brady’s voice held the gravelly note it had since his neck was injured. “Elise’s safe. She swears you’re not dead.”

  Lana lay down, relieved to hear his voice again. Tears filled her eyes. She ached to respond but had to be satisfied with the knowledge he was alive.

  His voice turned softer. “I hope she’s right.”

  I miss you, too, Lana thought. She wiped her eyes, embarrassed to feel the tears on her cheeks. She’d destroyed these people’s lives and lost the only man she’d cared for. Now, she couldn
t even talk to him without doing worse.

  “We started at your condo building. Dan says the condos were leveled about two days after the helo went down. No one was alive when we arrived. We’re now in a city along the Mississippi. There are …” Brady went on.

  Lana listened as he described their plan then continued to talk about the others. She’d expected his voice to cause more confusion after she learned what he was, but she felt only comfort and hope. The news that no one had survived the strikes on her condo building made tears rise for a different reason. Mrs. Watson had been kind to her and Jack.

  Lana rolled onto her side and listened, crying herself to sleep for a different reason this night. She’d never felt so happy or terrified. There was no guarantee she’d make it to safety or that he’d live long enough to find her. All she could think about was their night together and how much she needed him here this night. She was in love with him, only she couldn’t tell him yet. She may never get the chance to tell him or to apologize for their last exchange being one of anger and frustration.

  But maybe, just maybe, she’d have a second chance. Exhausted by thought and emotion, she drifted into sleep.

  The next day, Lana finished checking the last of the Tesla receivers. Most were in working order and just needed to be reactivated, a simple process she used her micro to do when no one was looking. Several of the buildings had been stripped of receivers to supply the hospital with extra ones. She’d checked the hospital’s first then worked her way down the buildings along the main street.

  By evening, she’d finished. Satisfied, she stepped into the street. She could imagine the lives of the people here would change dramatically again once they had energy.

  The day had been unusually hot and humid, and she wiped sweat from her forehead. She was grateful when a cooler evening fell. She stepped from the final building and watched men and women carry cauldrons towards the bonfire area. Several more refugees had arrived earlier in the day. Like her, they were welcomed with open arms. She couldn’t help but feel grateful to the people of the small town.

  The distant roar didn’t register until the jets were overhead. Lana looked up curiously, wondering if the military was doing maneuvers. The jets came from the west, beyond the river, a realization that didn’t register until the ground shook under the impact of the first laser missile strike dropped.

  Lana was knocked off her feet. A surprised silence fell over those in the street before someone bellowed.

  “To the shelter!”

  People scrambled, and Lana looked around, lost. Everyone was going into one of three buildings. Another explosion flung her to the ground. She covered her head as dirt and debris rained over her. When it stopped, she twisted to see a crater at the end of the street near the river. Jack rose and shook himself off.

  “C’mon!” Someone grabbed her and hauled her up. Lana glanced at Mike as he released her and dashed into the nearest of the three buildings. Jack trailed them.

  Another missile slammed into the street, and the building around her shook. Lana braced herself and hurried after Mike. He led her down a set of stairs and through a thick metal door at the bottom. Lanterns lit the underground, and people huddled in quiet groups. Lana had the impression of more than a single-room shelter. Corridors punctuated by lantern stretched in each direction off the room. Mike strode down one, and she checked to make sure Jack was with her before following.

  The underground tunnel led through several other chambers. Lana suspected the labyrinth of tunnels and chambers ran beneath the entire town. She waited to feel the walls shake from more strikes but felt nothing.

  Mike stopped finally in a chamber where two soldiers—one in black and one in gray—were dusting themselves off. Lana watched them speak briefly before the two in uniform started down another tunnel. She looked around. Kelli waved her over to a small group of four.

  “Rough day,” Kelli said.

  “You all are prepared for anything,” Lana said. “Are your kids safe?”

  “They are. The hospital has several doors leading down here. They evacuated everyone.”

  “So were you expecting someone to strike the town?” Lana asked, touching one metal wall. “This doesn’t seem like something you built the past few weeks.”

  “It’s part of the Underground Railroad,” Kelli answered. “We took a lesson from the East-West War and created bunkers and tunnels between cities to escape the eyes of the feds. We did the same in Georgia. I assumed they were everywhere.”

  Lana was quiet, wondering if she should know this, since she was posing as a non-fed. She had no idea that such an elaborate system existed for the lower class. In fact, she was finding she knew nothing of the class she was born into.

  “I guess the receivers don’t matter too much now,” she said.

  “We’ve got extras down here. I hope the generator survives the attack,” Kelli said. “Can I ask you something?”

  The edge in her voice warned Lana. Lana nodded, and Kelli stepped away from the others. Lana followed and crossed her arms.

  “You’re running from something, aren’t you?” Kelli asked.

  “Would it matter if I were?”

  “No. Mike already told the soldiers the person they’re looking for isn’t here. I don’t know how you changed your profile, but you appearing the same day the soldiers came by looking for someone new and suspicious can’t be a coincidence.”

  Lana looked towards Mike. He made his way around the room, checking on people with smiles of assurance.

  “And, well, when you got the generator to work, we kinda figured it out,” Kelli added. “Only feds can do that with a fed generator. It’s how they’re programmed. We have our own kinds of generators, ones that don’t work nearly as well.”

  We. Lana wasn’t sure what to say.

  “Did you open the supply facilities, too?” Kelli’s voice had grown softer.

  Lana nodded.

  “It was very good of you.”

  “I didn’t know people were … I should’ve done it sooner,” Lana said.

  “I’m glad we didn’t turn you in.” Kelli’s smile was genuine. “You helped a lot of people that way.”

  I killed so many more, Lana thought to herself.

  “I take it these guys are after you.”

  “I’m not sure,” Lana said. “No one can know where I am.”

  “I just assumed … maybe the rumors of another civil war are right,” Kelli said, her face growing worried. “We don’t have enough food down here to last for too long.”

  “Did you ask her?” Mike asked, joining them.

  “What we thought,” Kelli answered.

  “Both sides put out a lookout for you, and the army-type said the feds had issued two lookouts,” he said to Lana. “I’m pretty sure these jets aren’t here for anyone else. They must’ve tracked you somehow. You still want to get across the river?”

  “Yes,” Lana said.

  “I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you.”

  “I’m the one who should be sorry. I didn’t mean to bring this upon you.”

  “They’re prepping to take you across now.” Mike motioned for her to follow.

  Lana went, troubled that someone had discovered her and endangered the lives of those in the town. She’d been safe for ten days on her own; maybe hacking into the fed system to change her profile was enough to draw the attention of someone working for General Greene.

  The tunnel grew narrower as they moved away from the chambers. Jake trotted behind her, his nails clicking on the concrete floor. The metal lair was much cooler than the air above ground, and water stained the walls on one side of the tunnel. She guessed they were paralleling the river. They walked for fifteen minutes before the tunnel intersected with another. Mike took them right, and the air grew even cooler. The tunnel ended at a thick metal door. He opened it. There were three PMF soldiers inside and a small submarine.

  Lana looked at the soldiers uneasily then to Mike.
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  “Be careful,” he said.

  “Thank you, Mike,” she replied and stepped forward.

  One of the soldiers opened the submarine’s door and climbed in. Lana squeezed herself and Jack into the small space behind him. With Jack beside her, the tiny compartment was crowded. The soldier touched his thumb to the navigation control board. The engines purred to life.

  “I can take you to the dock on the other side. A friend can take you beyond the security measures. We can’t do more than that, though, without drawing the attention of the feds,” the soldier told her quietly. “This is one of our smuggling routes. We hook a few submersible containers to the back of the sub.”

  “It’s a good one,” she said, looking around her in the submarine. She pulled out her micro as they traveled at the bottom of the Mississippi. Everything west of the river was blank. She had no authority to access anything and no ability to see the emerops facilities or fed facilities.

  She was about to lose her only tool. She tapped it against her thigh, deep in thought as an idea formed. The messages and information she’d discovered had been forwarded to Mr. Tim. The East Coast’s infrastructure systems still reported to her micro, but she could tap into them from the Peace Command Center.

  The submarine bumped against the dock on the other side of the river, and the soldier turned it off. The door cracked open, revealing a similar platform to the one that had been on the other side of the river. A single PMF soldier in gray stood waiting. The man who piloted her across the river stayed in the sub, and she and Jack climbed out.

  “See you tomorrow, Jim,” the soldier awaiting her said to the other solider.

  “Bright and early,” came the response.

  Jim closed the door, and Lana watched the submarine sink quietly into the surrounding water and disappear. He motioned for her to follow. Lana trailed him through a network of tunnels, sometimes away from the river and sometimes parallel to the river, until she was too disoriented to know for sure which direction they went. At last, the tunnel sloped upward and dead-ended at a thick metal door.

  “Head due west or south and you won’t run into any patrols or security,” the solider said quietly, his hand resting on the door. “There are a lot of swamps in Arkansas, so just stick as close to the roads as you can. And avoid towns. They’re monitoring all population hubs within a hundred kilometers of the river for refugees. Ready?”

  Lana drew a deep breath and released it. She nodded.

  Jim opened the door. She stepped through it. The door closed behind her, leaving her in near-complete darkness. She waited for her eyes to adjust and squinted around her. The river was several hundred meters away. Behind the walls she’d seen from the opposite side, there were hundreds of the fed’s special security forces in semi-permanent camps. Alarms were sounding, and lights flooded the river and area around it.

  Ahead of her was the darkness of a thinning forest. The door to the underground tunnel network was hidden behind a boulder and draped with moss. She checked her micro and did as the PMF soldier said, heading due west. When she’d gone a hundred meters, she squatted and set her micro down. She set it to connect with the fed’s central computer system just before dawn, hoping to draw attention away from the town of Randolph while giving her a head start.

  “This looks messy,” Brady’s quiet voice came across her net. “Hope you’re as far from this shit as possible.”

  Lana smiled. She considered responding then looked down at her micro. She gave it a few more commands then buried it under a bush.

  “Come on, Jack,” she whispered. “We got a long way to go.”

  “Elise says you used to call her to kill bugs in your room. I’m wondering how you made it out of the Peak.”

  Brady’s comment made her stifle a laugh. She needed anything to take her mind off the next few hours, because she had no idea if she’d survive what she was about to try.

 
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