Excerpt for Scion of Conquered Earth by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Scion of

Conquered Earth

Michael J. Allen

Delirious Scribbles Ink

Copyright

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people—living, dead or in between, businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.


Copyright © 2016 by Michael J. Allen.


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below.


Delirious Scribbles Ink

P. O. Box 161

Fortson, Georgia 31808-0161

www.deliriousscribbles.com


Interior Layout ©2016 Delirious Scribbles Ink

Cover Design ©2016 Delirious Scribbles Ink

Author photo: Jim Cawthorne, Camera 1

Cover image courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center


ISBN 978-1-944357-01-6 (hc)

ISBN 978-1-944357-00-9 (intl. tr. pbk.)

ISBN 978-1-944357-02-3 (epub)

ISBN 978-1-944357-03-0 (kindle)


Printed in the United States of America

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Scion of Conquered Earth / Michael J. Allen. -- 1st ed.

Dedication

For B, B & J.


Sorry for turning you into captive sounding boards in all of those amusement park lines.

Table of Contents

1: Flight

2: Survival

3: Vile Escape

4: Capture

5: Kindness and Torture

6: Burr’s Vengeance

7: Freedom

8: Dogged Through the Ruins

9: No Escape

10: Fool for a Pretty Smile

11: The Great Train Escape

12: Ogres & Pixies

13: Taken

14: The Search

15: Windfall

16: Failure

17: Escape

18: C.A.S.S.I.I.

19: Calculations

20: Horrors of War

21: Quiet Between Storms

22: A New Friend

23: Unsuitable

24: Stranger on a Strange Planet

25: Pirates

26: Bureaucracy

27: Through the Murk

28: Pain & Consequences

29: Useful & Useless

30: Modern Medicine

31: Gestures

32: A New Beginning

33: Big Brother

34: Edge of Destruction

35: Shadows & Truths

36: Walk into Eternity

37: Dirty Deeds

38: Never Know Until You Try

39: Broken Molds

40: More Choices

41: Fighting & Frolic

42: An Offer Seldom Refused

43: Starburst

44: Lost Souls Intertwined

45: A Simple Favor

46: Rogue Calculations

47: Good Business

48: Hard Feelings

49: Welcoming Aboard Trouble

50: Heroism

51: Endings

52: Betrayal

53: More Surprises

54: Conspiracies

55: Devil in the Details

56: Conflicting Intents

57: Stolen Futures

Excerpt: Desperate for a Friend

Get Involved

Acknowledgements

About the Author




1: Flight

“Pain is gain!” The high pitch cry told him the aerobics instructors were about to eat him alive—literally.

Lost more ground than I thought. He cursed. Got to move faster.

Loose tile and smashed brick slid beneath his soles. He went down, catching himself on ruined buildings and shattered glass with an already bloody hand. He scrambled back to his feet and pushed another burst of speed from his body.

“Pilates are life!” another woman shrieked.

He didn’t look back. He raced toward less cluttered streets. Blast craters in the roadway and the discarded belongings of a city’s fleeing population forced him to dart this way and that. He jumped onto a hover taxi smashed into a new career as an accordion, scrambled across its hood and leapt to clear a bloated corpse.

“Let’s go ladies! Feel that burn!”

The teen reached a relatively clear stretch and risked a backward glance. Too-long uncut brown hair obscured his vision and filled his mouth with bitter reminder of how filthy he was. Not even half a block behind him, five women pursued dressed in leotards and sweatpants shredded enough to give him an eyeful he might otherwise have enjoyed if they hadn’t been trying to eat him.

A section of torn asphalt shifted under one foot as he glanced back.

Like lipstick applied in an earthquake, dried blood stained their mouths beneath wild eyes and haphazard ponytails.

He cursed and raced between a pair of destroyed cars, blackened by laser blasts from invasion fighters. The sortie left a dozen burned out vehicles in his way like a morbid obstacle course. He ducked into the back seat of one and over half a child’s skeleton too fused to the frame beneath it to be pried loose and gnawed on by feasters like the ones on his tail. He slammed the opposite door from his way and darted over the roof of the next car.

Road fell away several stories on its opposite side, revealing a vehicle graveyard hosting another feaster camp with a dozen crazed looking lawyers.

“Get your body bikini ready!”

“I object,” a lawyer yelled back.

“Me too,” the teen gasped.

He spun left. His shoulder clipped a side mirror, stealing his balance. He regained it in time to leap atop the next nearest car.

“Why don’t you guys do lunch without me,” he jumped again, edging the crater in an attempt to escape from both groups. He gestured to his loose hanging golden jumpsuit. “See, not enough meat for the effort.”

“Carbs are the enemy!”

“Bailiff, restrain that man!”

He cleared the traffic jam and darted through a series of bomb-gutted storefronts. He dug into long exhausted reserves for a bit more speed. He knew he didn’t have it, knew he couldn’t keep up the pace.

Something had told him to avoid the bombed out gym, but he’d been desperate for something to eat or drink. He’d found food all right, some poor animal—he hoped it’d been an animal—roasted on a makeshift firepit surrounded by deranged aerobics instructors seated on half-flat exercise balls.

He cleared half the block and darted down a tight alley.

Tattered suits and shredded leotards pursued him, getting into each other’s way and tearing into one another. It wasn’t their fault they wanted to eat him. The invading aliens—Welorin—had done things to them. No one knew what went on in the re-education camps, but the terrifying byproduct craved a meal of anyone the camps didn’t produce.

He’d been desperate. He’d been careless. Put simply, he’d been stupid and stupid led him into not one but two of the feaster camps in the same chase.

He tripped on something he’d rather not think about, sending him tumbling into an old trashcan. The can careened off brick, clanging like a dinner bell and bowling its way through a pile of rain melted boxes. The makeshift hiding place disintegrated. Its occupants, a woman and a small boy, shrieked.

He scrambled back to his feet and ran three steps before cursing and whipping back around. He snatched up the can. “Run. Go, now.”

He hurled the can back the way he’d come, snatching everything at hand and hurling it at other debris in a rushed attempt to clog the alley. He hurried in the pair’s wake, knocking over anything that came within reach.

The debris-clogged alley and the feasters’ amplified competitive natures tangled his pursuers into a clawing, dogma-spewing Black Friday mob. He made it to the other street and shot glances both ways. Buildings lay at wrong angles everywhere. Reddish flames burned behind a putrid haze, ghost lights within diseased fog.

He caught a glance of the woman and child disappearing around a cluttered corner.

He probably should have followed and escaped pursuit ducking through broken buildings. With his luck, he’d stumble into another feaster camp, or worse, lead his pursuers to the pair he’d sacrificed time removing from the lunch menu.

He ran the other direction, taking advantage of the clearest roadway to both gain whatever extra lead it would afford him and draw the feasters after him.

He made it almost a full block before they fought their way out of the alley. A frazzle-haired woman in a tiger striped leotard shoved her way to the front. “First!”

Her near twin shouted behind her. “Second!”

“Hearsay, I object!”

A patent leather briefcase hurdled out of the alley. It slammed the ponytail of the lead feaster, sending her sprawling. “Sustained!”

The other lawyers chuckled, and the melee resumed. A robe-bedecked woman broke from the fight and pointed after him, “The accused is not dismissed!”

They chased him down a street bracketed by wrecked buildings leaning like stubborn dominoes against one another. Varied degrees of ruin mimicked his pursuers—some in far better shape than others.

He cut across a parking lot and headed down another street, ignoring shrieked oaths of those already demented then tortured into madness. His pace slowed. He ordered his limbs to keep moving, but they resisted the haste he demanded.

His heart thundered in his ears, rising above the following mob. It got louder, resolving into explosions accompanied by a low whistle which pricked the back of his head.

He whipped a glance over his shoulder. The feasters—restrained by who knew what brainwashing from eating one another—fought their way up his wake, making better time than he, oblivious to the danger racing their way.

He stumbled to a stop in a debris-littered parking lot, his legs still feeling in motion.

Ash rained once more from a putrid looking sky. He stared, shielded eyes raised. Unhealthy swaths of green and yellow streaked ever-present thunderheads horizon to horizon. Metallic grey death cut through the putrid skyline toward them.

Three triangular fighters streaked up the street. Green lasers ripped up the city on a direct line to him. Some sort of energy bolt seized derelict vehicles and building chunks, wrapping them in a corona of sparks and lofting them upward.

Blasts cut into the feaster mob. Bolts hit them, launching several screaming toward heaven.

He gaped as their bodies curved a lazy arch through the air back toward the ground—and him.

He fled. “There has to be some universal law against lawyers raining from the sky!”

Several feasters fled for cover. Others charged in his wake before deciding easy meat was better than dinner fleeing through a fire zone. They fled toward cover as fast as they could drag their fallen comrades home for dinner.

A ruined gas station offered his first real cover in a hundred yards—other than the hover cars the Welorin used as Hacky sacks. The huge blown out crater on its far side suggested it’d already been a target. It shared a fallen-in storefront with some kind of hair boutique. Opposite a small alley another building had been demolished. A sign stood in the wrecked parking strip advertising a combined air force and star force recruiting office, a tattoo parlor and a sandwich shop crushed like a Panini.

The fighter blasts strafed over him, exploding street and debris. Heat washed past him, singeing his hair and partially regrown eyebrows. A chunk the size of his head blew sideways, catching him in the midriff and knocking him into the smoking hole.

He scrambled from the mini-crater, hands burning on still hot concrete, and paused at its edge. The fighters turned a lazy bank in the far horizon.

“Yeah, come on back. You might have missed a mailbox or something.”

<They’re coming back to see if they missed you, little brother. Time for hide and seek.>

He froze as the voice rolled through his thoughts. He didn’t remember a brother, though he knew the nameless voice. It was right. He had to get out of sight if he wanted to survive the assault.

He checked his back path. No feasters barred his way, but there were at least two camps that direction. The horizon around him was a mass of jagged broken buildings and ripped up streets. Any could have provided shelter, but also a target.

If they’re even empty.

He examined the little crater. It was hot enough still he might lie in its burning recesses and the Welorin would think him dead—or an easy target. The alley seemed the best cover. He’d have two avenues of escape even if it wasn’t.

He bolted toward the gas station, running around the long way in hope it’d misdirect the fighters when they came back for him—assuming he survived the next strafing run.

Laser blasts and lofted debris rained down toward him. He counted the blasts as they raked the roadway, trying to sense their firing pattern. At the last possible moment, he ducked back the way he came.

He fell.

A laser blast cut through where he should’ve been standing, sucking the air from his lungs and leaving his exposed skin sunburnt.

He didn’t check the fighters.

He scrambled to his feet and limp-ran across the blasted front of the gas station.

The fighters streaked overhead, their blasts centered where he’d fallen.

He jumped behind a large plastic sign reading: Shella’s B*U*Tique.

The fighters swept overhead again without firing a shot.

He ducked out from under cover and rushed into the alleyway. Mounded debris clogged it, turning it into a V-shaped valley—not the cover he’d hoped to find.

He flopped down against the boutique wall and cursed.

Every decision seemed the wrong one. Even minor victories turned wrong. With his luck, his interference had left the mother and child he exposed roasted on a spit for some shark in a torn business suit.

He shuttered and his gut knotted. It gurgled at him, reminder that he hadn’t eaten either.

Not that there’s much I can do about that.

He wondered about the sandwich shop. After so many months, anything not crushed or spoiled had been looted. The recruiting place might have had some food. It was the places that didn’t actually sell food that he’d found the tidbits that kept him going.

Fighters swept the area again. A hover van lofted into the air and fell toward the ground—toward him. He scrambled over the hill of debris and down the alley. The van crashed down on his heels, crunching metal and crackling power drowned everything else in his ears. It rocked, nose on the building, then toppled off with a crash.

The teen eased toward it, careful not to touch the clinging energy field. It flickered away. He touched the side of the van, jerking back his hand.

It was cool to the touch.

Whatever power launched it airborne cracked the chassis like an egg. A reek of rotten flesh escaped its interior. Holding his breath, he eased into the gap for a look. Everything inside stank, scorched by laser and cooked in summer heat. An ice blue duffle bag lay wedged beneath the feet of a child’s corpse and the seat in front.

He tugged at it.

He pulled.

He braced a hand on the seat back and yanked. It came free, breaking the child’s leg in its path.

Bile rose in his throat. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to, well, you know.”

The bag held a menagerie of small stuffed animals. Other than something to pillow his head or burn he didn’t have much use for them. He eased them from the bag and set them in the child’s lap.

An adult’s skull dropped away from its neck.

He jerked in surprise. His breath froze.

A light gleamed through the spiderwebbed windshield.

He scrambled out of the van and up the debris pile to gaze through a dirty window at an electric light shining within the remains of Shella’s.

He smashed the window open with a brick, taking care to clear the broken shards along the edges of the window. He slipped inside, assaulted at once by a palatable wall of perfumed hair products. He gagged and choked, poking his head out the window to catch a cleaner breath then turned back to the light.

It shone like a ray from heaven inside a small bathroom. He rushed across the shampoo-slick floor, ignored the shattered sink and threw open the commode.

Thick black slime clung to the water’s edge, spots of who knew what made up a galaxy of ick. He cupped two hands and lowered them into the bowl. The slime attached itself to his fingers, but he raised the water to his lips. Bitter, warm water quenched his thirst, the scent of weak chlorine tickling his nostrils.

He drank the bowl empty, relishing his slimy quench of heaven.

A blast shook the building.

A heavily laden hair product rack fell sidelong, slamming into the bathroom door and closing him in with a smash. It didn’t worry him at first. Instead, he collected a wealth in paper towels, liquid soap, and oh-so-precious toilet paper.

He struggled open the tank, arms weak with hunger. Chlorine scent to rival the perfumes reeked from the stagnant water. An army of thumb-sized roaches ringed the water’s edge. He snatched at the bugs, several fleeing through the water before he caught a slippery, flailing morsel and shoved it into his mouth. Still moving legs tickled his throat, but meat was meat, and things were desperate. He tried for another, but they slipped out cracks he couldn’t. He filled hands with heavily chlorinated water. It burned his throat, but he drank his fill. One of the shampoo bottles might serve as a canteen for the rest.

He opened the door.

It didn’t budge.

He cursed. Of course, I should’ve known it was too good to be true.

<Poor little brother, always so put upon.>

“Shut up.”

He shoved and strained until his breath fled. He drank more water and fought the door some more. He finally wrestled it open enough to slide out an arm. He reached through the gap, finding a rack and myriad bottles against the door. He dug them away, eyes closed and seeing with his hands.

The door shifted more.

He dug.

The door opened enough for him to squeeze through. He took one last drink from the toilet tank, threw the duffel through the gap and crawled after it.

He’d have to remove the fallen rack before he could canteen the rest of the water and risk flushing to see if the pipes had more perhaps cleaner fare.

He turned toward the fallen rack.

“Holy heavens.”

The outline of a door, painted over and previously blocked by the shelf stood sentry in the wall between the boutique and the gas station’s convenience store.

Food.

If the power was still on beyond the door, there might be a feast of foods awaiting him. If nothing else, with no other entry to the store, it’d be a place to hide, rest his ankle, and be safe for a while.

The door didn’t budge.

He beat at it with a stool until he broke through its lower panel and crawled into the store. What remained above dangled dangerously from a twisted aluminum skeleton. Dead fluorescent lights hung from last tenuous threads of electrical wiring, illuminating the room with occasional sparks—that the building had power at all was something of a miracle. They swung back and forth slowly, pendulums of doom rocked by fighter craft barrages to spread seemingly infinite dust reserves. Cracks riddled the cavernous ceiling above the skeleton, chunks of concrete clung to rebar by their fingertips. Dust and shattered ceiling tile littered every surface. Shelves teetered drunkenly into their neighbors while others lay on the floor uncaught by their peers.

Food lay on their shelves and at their feet—a fortune in canned items of every description, crushed foil bags of chips, snacks and a few cans of powdered baby formula.

If Shella’s or the store had working water, he’d rest. He’d feast like a king.

He glanced at the ceiling.

At least, he’d feast until the world crashed down on his head. The store had stood this long. Who knew how long it’d survive.

The sound of approaching fighters filled his ears.

“No!” He wailed. “No, no, no...”

He heard them fire.

The building rocked.

The ceiling fell.

He backpedaled, heel caught, toppled backward.

Everything went black.

2: Survival

“Wake up, my little alar, you’ll be late to destroy a world.”

An explosion shattered his dream, wrenching the teen from blissful oblivion. Panic wrapped wicked fingers around him, held at bay by some intangible source of control. A heavy blanket of rubble buried him. Flashes of recent memory crossed his debris-enforced blindness. There was no way to tell just how much wreckage covered him.

He choked on dust, but there was nowhere for it to go but back into his face.

His limbs were pinned. Harshly angled wreckage dug into his legs and chest. A collapsed rack even managed to get underneath him. He struggled and strained, shoving ceiling pieces, aluminum frame, and lighting fixtures away piece by piece. The whole effort made him feel very much like a magician’s assistant trying to shove away swords stuck into his coffin.

An eternity later thick but cool air relieved his suffocation.

He looked around and moaned. “I’m cursed. Whole world to smash and they have to target my head—again!”

Wait, if the first hit took my memory, maybe this one...

He dug into his mind. An ache filled it. Lost memories thrashed around in his brain, angry beasts hurling themselves against some unknown barrier. Their pounding insistence was a constant throbbing headache, worsened by persistent thunder, Welorin fighter barrages, and the occasional falling ceiling.

He cursed, fighting back the urge to cry.

Missing memories ached like the gaping wound of a dead friend. He couldn’t remember what had brought him to Washington D.C., but it had been a mistake. He didn’t even remember his own name.

The initial invasion flashed across his thoughts in twisted, broken fragments: arrowhead-shaped fighters bombarding the ground, detonations deafening him from every direction, beings in toe-to-crown armor with heavy weapons running everywhere and blood misting the air. They’d tried to grab him, but he’d slipped from them and ran until he literally collapsed.

He wanted to escape. He had to get away—though to what he couldn’t remember. Three months he’d ran, survived—if only barely.

Another round of fighter bombardment shook the ground, threatening to bring down more of the roof already burying him. He shot a glance upward. A massive ceiling section had been replaced by the nose of an ambulance. It hung above him, dangling by crumbling fingers of cracked cement.

He had to get out. He had to get unburied. He had to escape—now.

He struggled to rise. Foot-long pins and needles ran up and down his legs. Pieces of fallen ceiling and tumbled shelves kept his legs pinned. He fell back, nearly impaling himself on the collapsed rack beneath him. A deep breath beset his lungs with more dust, and they objected violently. Once he finished choking, he spit grit and curses.

He searched his surroundings for any tool that might free him. Debris littered the floor—the useful bits just out of reach.

He wiped dust from his eyes with stiff blood-caked fingers. At invasion’s beginning, it might’ve concerned him—no longer.

He twisted to one side, trying to claw his way across the tile floor. The effort sent pain lancing up and down one leg. He dug his nails along a ridge of broken tile, gritted his teeth, and shoved what he could out from under his body.

He flopped down, breath ragged, and let the pain fade. His stomach threatened sudden revolt in gurgling defiant tones.

He studied the mess pinning his legs. He shifted them again. Pain lanced up one.

“Pinned,” he grunted shoving debris off the pinned legs, “and talking to myself. Wonderful.”

<At least you’re not hearing voices, princess.>

One leg came free. He collapsed back down and panted for breath.

Yellow caught his eye.

Just beyond his reach under a shelf, several packaged cakes hid from casual view. Otherwise useless debris drew some within reach. He ripped the plastic with his teeth and shoved one into his mouth. He choked down lumps of sweet, pasty, disgusting heaven.

“Ugh, the bug was better.” He gagged down several more.

The building rocked, groaning metal heralding the ambulance’s pending arrival. Dust rained down, insult to injury by nonexistent fairies out to get him.

A giggle escaped him.

He swore.

Focus, stay focused. You’re losing it.

He lost it.

Panic seized him. He thrashed about, yanking at his pinned limbs and causing himself mind numbing pain.

He blacked out.

His mind raced through days and nights, smoke and wreckage, blood and violence. Nausea filled his dream self as poisonous looking yellow sponges with eyepatches and spears danced around him. Sponges became brutal looking pixies throwing sticky dust in his face. Suppressed memories of carnage too real for the most violent horror vid played back around him from a dozen angles.

His mind swam through thick, lethargic darkness toward the surface.

<Always knew you’d just give up and die, wimp.>

He lurched to a half-seated position, shouting at memories, “Shut up. Just shut up.”

He grabbed a nearby shelf and yanked it over on top of himself. Cans and bags tumbled onto him, some striking in extremely painful ways. He wrenched a shelf from its framework and positioned it into a makeshift fulcrum.

He pulled on it from below, but couldn’t manage any leverage. He tried again. He wouldn’t give up. His brother was wrong. He would never give up.

He combined his free leg and impromptu lever, prying once more.

Shrieking pain proved his only reward.

Another barrage rocked the building. Chunks of ceiling tumbled down around him. The ambulance’s horn blared and didn’t stop.

He swore and then swore more for good measure.

He levered the shelf off of the framework, shoved chunks of concrete under it for more height, hanging as much of his weight on it as he could from beneath.

Pain wracked his body.

He pushed it away.

The shelf’s edges dimpled.

He shoved against debris with his free leg.

His vision tunneled.

His lever bent, moments from buckling.

He kept up the pressure, unwilling to give up. The rubble shifted a little to one side. He wrenched his leg from beneath the debris, scraping sleeping flesh across what felt like predator’s claws.

The lever buckled, dropping all its supported weight onto his ankle.

He howled.

The ceiling groaned. What remained above him dangled with malicious intent.

His heart hid in his ears.

Cold sweat trickled down his back.

The ceiling stayed where it belonged.

A titter escaped him. He slid his ankle out of the garbage and examined it with practiced motions. A massive purple bruise, centered on his ankle bone, spread over the pale limb. Twisted and later slammed, it remained unbroken but burned like fire under the least pressure.

Using both hands and one leg, he crawled behind the store’s counter and flopped against one wall. Clear of emergency medical squashing, he checked himself out more thoroughly. He found no other injuries and by some miracle after all he’d been through, his tough jumpsuit remained whole.

Glass doors lined the wall next to the counter. Occasional cracks shielded collapsed and toppled shelves bearing a myriad of assorted containers. He crawled to the first and threw the door open. Cracked glass panes flew from the door and shattered, distracting him from a faint sour aroma. Hands shaking with excitement rooted through yellow jugs. With a triumphant cry, he raised up an intact jug, ripped the top and poured its contents down his throat. It dropped from his hands. Side by side, he and the jug spluttered and coughed up white curd clumps.

He moved to the next door, sweeping shattered glass from his path with one sleeve. He searched through syrup tacky plastic bottles. He opened the first sealed bottle he found and sipped at the neon green liquid. A taste later, he guzzled the bottle, its carbonation burning down his throat. He repeated the process several more times, slowing to every other bottle.

He scrambled around his varied hoard and seized the next door. Door, frame, fragmented glass and the rack behind it collapsed atop of him. He jerked his head out of the way of a dagger-like shard of glass, avoiding impalement by a fingerbreadth. He covered his head and threw himself backward out from under an avalanche of dark glass bottles. He smashed into the hoard. Bottles careened in all directions, adding venomous hiss to the sound of shattering glass.

The ceiling groaned in empathy.

He cursed, resisting surrender to frustrated tears.

Recomposed, he scavenged what few intact bottles remained. He found a broken shovel in a corner and with enormous effort, stood. Limping and wishing the ambulance horn a speedy death, he collected anything possibly edible and his hoard of drinks into the blue duffel and a few plastic bags.

The store scavenged clean, he dumped the remainder from the yellow jug, reclaiming its cap. He limped down a short hall. A collapsed cooler lay across its end, blocking a rear door. Bathroom doors stared each other down. He considered the ladies’ room door a few moments before grabbing the men’s room handle.

Locked, of course.

The women’s bathroom opened easily. A blinding swarm of flies exploded from the doorway. A monstrous stench of rot, feces and perfume wrenched the breath from his lungs. He staggered backward, covering his face. His bile rose, stomach convulsing, he scrambled forward, wrenching the door shut as he disgorged the precious liquids in his stomach.

Several minutes of just breathing passed. He gulped air, stench still in his nostrils and threw open the door once more. A tangled knot of bloated corpses dominated a small room of ripped clothing, writhing maggots, shattered porcelain, and standing water.

He stared, his mind buzzing louder than his ears.

A man’s lilting voice entered his thoughts. <What do you see, young sir? What story does the evidence spin?>

His mind probed what his fingers desperately didn’t wish to. He turned and threw up again. The buzz of flies lessened and beneath it, he heard a slow trickle of water. He turned back to the room, noticing for the first time the trickle pouring onto the floor from a fly mobbed broken valve. His gaze flitted to the bodies, stomach knotting.

I can’t.

<Coward.>

I just can’t. He reached for the door handle.

A stronger voice cracked like a blow to the cheek. <You will stand, you will look, you will see.>

He bristled, and his expression turned mulish. He pulled the door shut, realizing as it clicked the treasure buried in hellishness. He threw the door back open, eyes falling upon handle and blade concealed by fingers and flesh. He gulped a breath, choked on it, turned his face away from the bathroom and replaced the first. He rushed into the room before his courage fled and grabbed for the knife. Loose skin sloughed off beneath his grip, but the hand refused to let go. He tugged at it, his lungs tightening.

The teen balanced on his good leg, spun the shovel and drove its half-blade into the wrist. It stuck fast, and he wrenched at it, breaking hand from arm and freeing the knife. His lungs burned. He pulled the shovel away, and the knife wielder’s body toppled. Lungs straining to exhale blew out their breath in surprise. A short club between the bodies, caked in ichor dangled a copper key.

He gagged on his new breath and rushed from the room. A dozen fresh breaths and twice as many pep talks later, he reclaimed the bathroom key, shutting the door behind him. He unlocked the other door, took a deep breath and opened it.

Beside a faint aroma of urine, the bathroom was perfect. He cursed.

Between half-remembered voices and buzzing flies, he hadn’t realized the constant drone of ambulance horn had fallen silent. Behind the nearer silence, a deeper silence hung in the air, empty of laser barrage and explosions. Little hairs across his body stood up and screamed for him to flee.

His ankle twinged at the thought of flight. “No.”

He stepped to the sink. “Not everything can go wrong.”

He cranked open the tap. Cool, clean water flowed from the faucet. A laugh, hedging toward the hysterical, escaped his lips. He gathered his belongings and locked the door. He drank his fill. He rinsed and filled the jug. And he bathed for the first time in memory. Once clean, he ate and drifted off to sleep.


3: Vile Escape

A resounding crash followed by a siren wail woke him. A shrill voice screamed muffled curses. “Mine. Mine. Mine.”

He bolted upright, catching his head on the underside of the sink. He cursed, grabbed the shovel/crutch and eased the door open.

Where he had been trapped, the smashed ambulance filled the store, doors wide. Before it, a tangled storm of dirty blonde curls rose up and down with each repeated cry and thunk. From behind, her frame seemed famine-stunted at the brink of adolescence.

“Uh... Do you need some help?”

She whipped around, face blood-flecked and eyes wide. A bloodied pipe wrench dripped upon an unrecognizable corpse. She smiled and whispered, “Mine.”

She charged.

He raised the shovel in defense and hesitated.

<Now, my little alar, we don’t hit girls.>

“That’s got to be negotiable.”

An instinctual cringe responded to her answering glower.

He bolted into the bathroom, slammed the door and locked it. Something heavy—and probably bloody—hit the door. “My store.”

Another blow struck. “My home.”

Another landed with each wail. “My stuff. Mine. Mine. Mine.”

Cracks and dents peppered the wood, none well targeted. He glanced around his temporary refuge. Concrete block supported the wet wall. A quick mental image placed the walk-in refrigerator beyond the left. He swung the shovel at the right. The broken blade carved chunks of drywall and old, yellowed fluff. His blows fell into time with hers. Wide eyes watched him through widening wrench holes. He cursed and swung faster.

The shovel broke through, not to darkness, but light and several low growls. He shoved a chunk still hanging from its paper to one side only to jerk back as canine teeth snapped at his hand.

He growled back, running low on curses.

He turned his back to the door and speared the shovel into the grout lines between concrete blocks. The blade splintered, breaking clear of the handle. Hot pain stroked one cheek.

She giggled.

He thrust the shaft through a hole in the door. “This is the men’s room, go away.”

She yelped, and something heavy clattered to the ground. He shoved away the immediate surge of guilt and resumed digging through the right wall.

New holes filled with snapping teeth. The shovel collided with one, sending the creature yelping away. The wrench knocked a hole in the door, just shy of the knob. She reached in. He slapped her hand, hard enough to sting his.

He snatched up his bags and threw himself between the wooden frames, exploding into a well-lit storeroom. Loose kibble scattered liberally across the floor slipped under his feet. He caught himself, planting the shovel as a brace. Three dogs snarled from the feet of little miss wrench.

They charged.

Without thinking, the shovel handle spun in his hands and snapped out, striking two of the dogs in their noses. He caught the third’s open jaw with the shaft. He shoved it back.

Little miss wrench snatched up an empty glass bottle and hurled it at him. “Don’t hurt my puppies.”

Behind him, he heard, “My puppies.”

He cursed, scanning the storage room while dodging more rapid fire bottles. Bottle-girl snatched up a claw-hammer. He backed away, keeping the dogs at shovel length. “Look, we can all be friends. I have some food and —”

My food.”

“Our food, sissy,” Bottle-girl said.

He reached around behind, fished out something small and tossed it to the nearest dog. He repeated the toss several times, adding one more for Bottle-girl.

The dog to his right snatched up the yellow sponge cake, biting through the wrapper. It spat the treat out and began to lick at the ground. A second dog sniffed it, pressed its ears back and snarled.

Little miss wrench pressed her way into the room, a new trickle of blood on her upper lip. She hefted the wrench.

He gripped the shaft in both hands. “Look, I don’t want to hurt you.”

He tensed.

The third dog, ignoring the sponge cake, whined and looked toward an exterior door. The second dog followed its gaze, ears flattening.

A loudspeaker crackled to life with a piercing feedback whine. A robotic voice he’d heard too many times drained the blood from his face. “Citizens of Earth,

“The Welorin Protectorate aren’t your enemy. We’ve come to protect you from the wicked Alistari Empire. Surrender, and you will be sheltered, clothed and fed. Every citizen is vital to the rebuilding of your world. Every worker is valued.”

He shot a glance at both girls, realizing in that instant that they weren’t twins despite appearances, maybe older and younger sister. He chanced a look at the digital read out on his jump suit’s left forearm. He met what he thought was the older girl’s eyes. “We have twelve minutes.”

“Hard work will be rewarded,” the drone continued. “Generous rewards are provided for information leading to the apprehension of lawyers, aerobics instructors or cabbies. These evil puppets of the Alistari have corrupted your system and must be re-educated.”

A shiver shot through him. Both girls hissed in unison. He couldn’t blame them. Lawyers and aerobics instructors devolved into feasters terrorized wasteland survivors—though no one knew what happened to the cabbies.

“Look, unless you’re desperate enough to go surrender to that spider drone, we need to just sit here nice and quiet.” He offered what he hoped was a warm smile. “We can continue our homicidal tea party later.”

“Mine.”

“Right, yours.” He checked his chronometer. Ten minutes remained. Fools enjoyed last easy breaths. The wise ran. He flexed his ankle—if able to run. They could hide. The store hadn’t been searched—at least before an ambulance had opened it up to the world.

He eased himself toward the door. Dogs turned back to him, lips peeled from their teeth.

“I’m just going to check,” he shot glances between the girls, the dogs, and the heavy steel door. He unlocked it and inched it open to peek out.

“Mine!”

She tackled him, driving both of them out the door. Her wrench flashed down, pounding divots in the concrete as she screamed and he dodged side to side. The dogs joined her attack, adding flashing teeth to his troubles while she struck with one hand and pulled at his satchel with her other.

He shoved it at her. “Take it, just be quiet a minute.”

She squealed with glee, mumbling, “Mine, mine, mine.”

The dogs rushed to her, more interested in her and her rummaging than him. He glanced up the street and let go his pent up breath—empty. He checked his wrist. Seven minutes remained. Maybe they’d been too far away to hear.

He rose to a crouch and checked down another street. The spider drone strolled away across broken streets and crashed vehicles as if its six flanged and bladed limbs strode upon rose petals. Its spherical body swept side to side, dark red eye sockets scanning terrain and reporting back to the real danger.

Did the drone hear her screams? Has it reported us?

He crawled to the store’s other corner and looked up the way it’d come.

His heart fell.

Only two or three dozen humans comprised most snatcher teams. So few couldn’t search everywhere. They missed people hidden well enough. The enslaved snatchers, bent under the weight of glowing orange collars, often did miss people.

He cursed.

The team coming their way numbered twice the average, and he couldn’t spot a single orange glow.

He caught the movement in his peripheral vision, diving to one side and bringing his staff up in defense. The wrench swept into the building side where his head had just been.

“Mine!”

“Stars, shut up!” He pointed. “Don’t you see them? They’re all collarless!”

She blinked up the road, smiled at him and raised her wrench. Her assault drove them more out in the open. He swept her legs from her and considered living with the guilt of braining her just to make her stop. Leaving her unconscious would doom her to being caught and who knew what.

“I don’t want to hurt you.” He looked up to where the other sister kept the dogs restrained in the storage room doorway. “Either of you, but those are collarless. We have to be quiet, hide, something.

Little Miss Wrench rolled back to her feet and charged like a maddened bull. He dodged, knocking her from her feet once more.

“Stop her, damn it,” he gritted his teeth. “Those people snatch for the Welorin because they like being cruel, like hurting people. Do you have any idea what they’d do to you and your sister? Stars, they’d probably roast your dogs to celebrate your capture.”

Miss Bottle eyed the dogs and the snatcher team coming down the road. She shoved thumb and finger into her mouth and made an ear-splitting whistle—practically summoning the snatcher team.

Why aren’t they more afraid? Don’t they understand?

Wrench girl stopped her assault. She raced toward the door, stopping only to collect the blue satchel, and applied her wrench to a square manhole cover. It squealed from infrequent use but opened until support arms locked it that way.

The satchel went first, followed by Little Miss Wrench. Bottle girl climbed part way into its opening and then grabbed squirming dogs one by one, handing them down.

She paused after the last dog, watching him.

The sewers might provide him escape. The sisters seemed sure it would, or they’d have been more afraid. He’d seen others try sewer entrances for escape only to be yanked downward to who knew what horror.

At least two horrors and three sets of teeth awaited if he followed. He glanced toward the approaching snatchers, weighing his chances.

Bottle girl tossed back her sponge cake and decided for him. She descended, released the braces and closed the sewer entrance behind her.

He scanned the horizons. The fighters had done their job well. Apartment buildings and businesses around him were smoking ruins. There weren’t any good hiding places left. He couldn’t get far enough away with his ankle.

Three minutes remained.

Vehicles were out, as were dumpsters and blown open storefronts. They were always searched.

Catcalls and laughter rose in the distance. It was such a strange sound these days he glanced over his shoulder.

He rushed into the storage room. Loose kibble stole his footing. He crashed down onto the concrete. He cursed.

His pulse throbbed in his throat, each beat a second lost that might mean his capture.

He crawled back to his feet and locked the steel door behind him. The store had escaped search before, and the ambulance hole probably wasn’t visible from ground level. Of course, the girls probably hadn’t screamed their heads off the last time a team had passed it.

The gaping hole he’d left in the bathroom drywall displayed the smashed door beyond. If they entered the store, they’d search the cooler. They’d search the pristine men’s room, find the back room and him inside it.

There has to be somewhere I can hide.

A horrible thought occurred to him.

<You haven’t the balls, little brother.>

His gorge rose.

If he’d had the right clothes, he could’ve pretended to be a feaster. So many cruel bullies in one place might make them bold enough to attack him anyway, torment a flesh eater like a rabid animal.

He had the knife and shovel handle. He considered picking a defensive position that limited their numerical advantage and making use of them. He’d lose, but he’d fight.

<Or you could man up.>

I’m going to hate myself for this.


4: Capture

He rushed through the wall into the store, casting around for the straws he’d seen earlier but hadn’t needed. He grabbed a handful and rushed back to the bathrooms. Rather than turn into the men’s, he sucked in a breath and realized how pointless the clean breath really was.

He heard the snatchers near, calling to one another, telling off-color jokes. He heard them tromping on the roof. They’d find a way in, leaving him no choice if he wanted to survive free another day.

He edged around the bloated mutilated flesh, glad trod maggots didn’t scream. He unwrapped the straws and wrapped the papers around them to keep them together. He fit them into his mouth and crawled toward the rotting flesh, struggling not to vomit through his breathing tube. Three corpses provided just enough bloated flesh to hide beneath until the snatchers passed.

The thought sent him into convulsions. He spat out the straws and retched.

I can’t. Think. Think!

He eyed the door that at any moment might fill with snatchers. He pulled the knife and rushed the door, pushing it partially closed. He pressed the blade to the drywall, laying his index finger along the back of the blade to help cut through the easy-clean plastic wallpaper. He juggled the numbers while he slashed. Assuming the wall the same thickness as the men’s room, there ought to be just enough room between frames to squeeze behind the door in a way that no one should fit. The stench and bloated flesh would drive them back. They’d never look.

His knife sliced down and caught on something. He fought through it. A surge of electricity bit into his arm. He jerked back, losing grip on the knife as the lights all went out. A quick glance didn’t find the knife, but he’d cut enough. He grabbed the drywall, glanced out the door and threw it into the men’s room.

He rushed back behind the door, pressing his shoulders against the old insulation with the shovel handle held in white-knuckled hands.

He reined in ragged breath, trying for slow quiet breathes despite the sweet rot taste assaulting his tongue. Noises came from the store: jokes, curses and smashed who knew what.

He glanced left and saw his own face in reflected shadows.

He closed his eyes and held back the urge to scream.

Stay still or chance it?

He rushed out from cover and cocked the shovel handle back a moment before he realized just how much noise breaking glass might make. No time to debate, he shoved a hand into bloated flesh, dragging a handful writhing with maggots free and hurling it at the mirror.

He ducked back into his hiding place. Footfalls neared. He went still. Disgust and wriggling worms clung to his hand, but he fought the urge to wipe them clear.

A beam of light lit the room. It flashed off the dripping mirror onto the horrid tableau.

A deep chuckle echoed off the tiles. “Somebody tried to have some fun.”

A nasal voice answered. “Didn’t go well for them, though, did it, Burr?”

“Uncover your nose, Chris. You sound like an idiot,” Burr said.

“It stinks.”

Burr stepped forward without answering, his light reflecting oddly off of something

“Why would someone leave a knife behind?” Chris asked.

“They were in a hurry,” Burr said. “You smell burnt insulation?”

“Over that?” Chris asked.

“Search the place. Someone’s hiding.”

The teen tensed.

“And check the breakers.”

Footsteps trailed away with Chris’s voice. “Boss says we’ve got a hider. Tear the place apart.”

Squishing sounds preceded Burr’s lowered voice. “Poor slobs. If you’re going to take a woman, put enough fear in her that she never thinks to fight back.”

The teen’s jaw tightened. His hands flexed around the handle. He shifted slowly peering out enough to use the mirror to see Burr.

An enormous dark-skinned man bent over the bodies, one hand sifting through gore and heavy boots crushing maggots. A hunting knife hung from his right hip and some kind of rubber loop from his left.

The lights flickered back on.

A resigned voice filled his memories. <Unnecessary brutality happens in war sometimes, son. Some men become their darker selves, but a good commander doesn’t tolerate such atrocities. Not against women. Not ever.> A shot followed and then a falling body.

Burr tsked. “Jumped an astromarine, dumb jackasses got what you deserved. Should’ve clubbed her first,” he chuckled, “Or shared with more men.”

Heat built up in his chest. I should club him over the head or use him as leverage to get out of here.

“Burr, Burr!”

Burr turned.

The teen jerked backward out of sight.

Chris rushed to a halt. “A girl just popped her head out of a manhole.”

“Then go get her,” Burr said.

“In the sewers?” Chris asked.

“If you’re too big a woman to go after her, why did you come tell me?” Burr asked.

“You said if you found out we’d spotted someone but not told you—”

“I’d send you away for re-education,” Burr chuckled. “You’re safe. No one would believe you’re smart enough for a lawyer.”

Chris exhaled. “Cool.”

“Get her, or we’ll find out for sure.”

“What?”

“Go.”

Chris rushed off.

Burr chuckled. “I hate cowards.”

The door whipped from in front of the teen, replaced by Burr’s looming bulk. The lost knife came down. He ducked to one side and struck out with the staff. A jab to the face made Burr step back. He struck again at bare chest between sides of a pocketed vest.

“Surrender, maggot-boy, you’re not a fighter.”

He kicked out, following up with a low swing at Burr’s fatigue-covered leg.

Burr took the blow and threw a left-handed haymaker which he barely ducked.

Burr shoved his left into the rubber loop, its copper-studded knuckles sparking blue. He slashed with the knife. A shallow cut burned across the teen’s arm. The shovel handle clattered to the ground. He dove after it.

Burr’s fist hit him in the shoulder, a subtle shock making it through his jumpsuit.

He grabbed at the flex conduit he’d cut into earlier with one hand and Burr’s vest with the other. He yanked the bigger man off balance and thrust bare wires into his chest.

Burr yelped and jerked backward.

He followed the shock with clasped fists to the shoulder, sending Burr into a disoriented turn. He grabbed the staff and slammed Burr with an upward swing.

The big man fell face down into the bloated flesh.

He turned to run. He stopped, swore and traded the handle for his dropped knife. He grabbed Burr by the back of his hair and saved him from drowning in rot. He pressed the blade to Burr’s throat and tried to pry off the taser knuckles.

“Should’ve left me to die, maggot,” Burr slurred.

“I can still kill you.”

Burr snorted, dislodging a maggot. “You’re a coward.”

“All I want is left alone.”

“Not a chance.”

“Why not? Why do the Welorin want us? Why won’t they let us live in peace?”

“Don’t care. I only know two things,” Burr said.

“What’s that?”

“Never hesitate to kill someone who wants to hurt you,” Burr said. “And always bring backup.”

Someone tapped his shoulder. He whipped around. His shovel handle slammed into his face.

Everything went black.

He awoke, head throbbing and wished the world would consider a target other than his skull. He peeled his face from concrete and a puddle his nose suggested he not examine too closely. Wheel-less shopping carts strung together with barbed wire surrounded him and about a dozen other males. Another several corrals filled a supermarket parking lot like moons in orbit of a bizarre modern day Romani caravan.

Shrieks and catcalls punctuated his thoughts. Beneath the resentful glow of a parking lot light over another corral, several men dragged a screaming woman toward the center camp. He pushed himself to his feet. Balance fled. He tumbled, falling hard to his rump.

“For the best.” A slim hand behind a nasal tone held him from getting up once more. “Heroes don’t last long in the camps.”

He forced the hand away and rose again to face an older man, maybe mid-twenties. A head shorter but twice as gaunt, his long, tapered nose looked as badly broken as the taped glasses perched upon it.

“I’ve heard it said heroes that interfere with their games become the play toy.”

“What they’re doing is wrong.”

He shook his head. “Wrong doesn’t really matter anymore. Keep your head down, and you might survive.”

“Not him, Marvy,” a dark-skinned man drawled. “Burr’s got a hard on for that one. That’s why he’s already collared.”

Marvy’s thin brows rose. “You’re the one that almost killed Burr?”

He didn’t answer, reaching up to feel a collar fitted around his throat.

Marvy shook his head. “Got a name for your tombstone, kid?”

He searched his mind, racing faster and faster to find it this time before frustrated anger grew into panic. Sweat dripped from his furrowed forehead.

“It’s all right,” Marvy said. “You can trust me.”

The black man snorted.

Marvy shot him a dirty look. “Shut up, Terrance.”

“Ask him where your food is, kid,” Terrance said.

“Shut. Up.”

Terrance turned back to the others in hushed conversation.

“I can’t remember my name,” he said.

“Don’t pay any attention to that loud mouth,” Marvy said. “You can trust me.”

He regarded Marvy, just as unsure of him as his own name. The constant struggles to survive after the invasion had left him little time for introspection, but rising fear was all his mental scouring could turn up. Nameless voices plagued him, scolding, accusing and teaching in aching fragments. Through it all, true memory eluded him.

Marvy turned his back. “Fine, be that way.”

Blood drained from his face. He shivered. “I really can’t remember.”

Marvy scrutinized his face. “You can’t remember.”

“Stars! Why would I lie?”

Marvy cursed. “Just get away from me.”

The teen shifted toward Terrance’s group.

“Forget it, kid, don’t none of us want in on the trouble you’re in,” Terrance said.

Metal scraped concrete. The others backed away from him, fearful eyes behind him.

Burr marched into the corral, eyes narrowed. A muscled woman in similar fatigues followed with a digital clipboard in hand. She drew a stylus from a bun of dark red hair.

“Name,” Burr asked.

The teen looked up, words failing him.

“Says he doesn’t remember,” Marvy interjected.

Burr turned on Marvy, shoving him backward into the barrier with a thick arm. “Shut up, worm.”

Marvy’s painful collision with the barbed wire resulted in only a quiet whimper. The small man retreated toward the other prisoners. They shied away from him as they did Burr lest proximity garner Burr’s attention.

“Name or pain,” Burr demanded.

His thoughts raced, but not fast enough to catch up with his missing memories. His dream sprung to mind. The woman had called him something he knew was and yet wasn’t his name.

“Alar,” he said.

Pain, starting at his neck, razored its way down his limbs. He jerked and convulsed, limbs contorting.

“You’re a liar, maggot,” Burr laughed. “You know it, the collar knows it, and now I know it. Lie to me again, I dare you.”

The pain waned, leaving him gasping in his own urine. He reached up to feel the collar around his neck. Its clasp design inhibited easy removal by the collared.

“Tell me your name,” Burr said.

He tried to remember once more, anything to avoid the pain. A soft beep escaped the collar. It beeped again then again more and more often.

“Tell me your name,” Burr said.

The collar beeped and with each beep seemed to tighten more. It squeezed more and more painfully as he searched for his memories. It grew harder to breathe.

“I don’t know,” he spat, “I can’t remember.”

The mind-numbing pain didn’t hit him, but neither did the collar stop tightening. A rapid beep seemed to thunder in his ears while he failed to inhale.

“He doesn’t know,” the woman said. “He’s not lying.”

“Why should I care?” Burr asked.

“You’re going to kill him,” she said.

Burr spun toward her. “So?”

A flat stare answered his anger. “Dead toys aren’t much fun.”

Burr smiled. He pulled a remote from his belt and pointed at the teen. The pressure released and he gulped air.

“Occupation,” Burr said.

“I don’t know,” the teen answered.

Burr kicked him in the stomach. It knocked him backward. Barbs poked at his head and shoulders. Burr’s huge hands dragged him to his feet. Standing face to face, there was only a half head in height difference, though Burr had double the width.

“I don’t like liars,” Burr said. He slammed a fist across the teen’s face. “Name and occupation.”

“You know I’m not lying!”

Burr smiled. “Name and occupation, slave.”

He met Burr’s smile with an angry glare. “I don’t know.”

Burr swung again, but the teen’s hand shot upward and redirected the blow. Before he knew it, his fist raced toward Burr. He snatched Burr’s knife from his belt, ready to repay agony for agony.

The woman’s clipboard clattered to the ground. She leapt upon him, fighting to keep the knife from Burr’s gut. “Let go of the knife.”

He fought her, the collar around his neck tightening.

Burr shoved him off, seeming to swell in size. “Tell me your name and occupation, maggot.”

“Maggot,” he snapped. “According to you, my name is Maggot.”

The collar loosened.

She got her arms around his, holding him in front of Burr.

Burr purpled. “Well, aren’t you the little lawyer? Maybe we should send you for re-education.”

“Kind of dangerous, isn’t it? Using such big words with so little horsepower to move them?” he asked.

The other prisoners gasped.

The teen slipped downward out of the woman’s grasp, leaving her to take Burr’s blow. More snatchers rushed forward, seizing him.

“He’s fast and slippery,” she wiped blood from her face. “That’s valuable.”

Burr leaned down until he was nose to nose with the restrained teen. “You’re going to suffer before you join the other lawyers, maggot.”

The teen shuddered.

“He’s too young to be a lawyer,” Marvy said.

All eyes turned on Marvy. He shrank back only to find no others around to hide behind.

“Little weasel’s right, Burr,” she said. “But he’s fast enough to outpace most runners. I say we force him to snatch.”

His guts twisted.

Burr studied him. “Doesn’t look like you like that idea. This is my camp. I run it. Until you hear different your job is to beg, bow and grovel to me.”

“Kind of hard to bow to slime under your boot.”

“Jesus, kid, shut up,” Marvy gasped.

Burr turned toward Marvy. “Make sure he has a name and occupation for me when I come back.”

“Why me?” Marvy asked.

“Cause you want to be his mama, and you might need to remind him when he wakes,” Burr turned to the other snatchers. “Hurt him.”



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