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About the author:
I now write full time and live on a small ranch with my family and our clowder of barn cats. You haven’t laughed until you’ve seen newborn kittens playing in the weeds. It’s an amazing way to begin the day. Thank you to everyone who gave me a try. I wouldn’t have this life if not for all of you. Self-sufficiency is an indescribable gift, especially when you grow up poor. May someone help each of you the way you’ve helped me.
What inspired you to write your book?
It's a spin off from one of my other series.
Here is a short sample from the book:
Recovery Zone 12
494 AW (2507)
“There they are!”
Hiding in the hollow of a lightning-struck tree, the two thin fugitives stilled as riders crested the adjacent hill. If they were caught, the teenage boy would be added to the yearly slave roundup. His father, wanted for crimes against their rulers, wouldn’t be taken back alive.
In an apocalyptic landscape framed by early summer, the single road into town became obscured with dust from the three dozen horses. On these foaming animals were some of the most intimidating defenders the Network employed. The cold banner, a glaring red arrow outlined in black, was held high in warning of who they represented. Behind the riders was a line of bound men and boys on strong leashes. Forced to run or die, the slaves were barely getting enough air.
Heavy hooves and harsh coughs echoed to the town, where the single sentry repeated a late warning. “Network riders are coming!”
As the horses cleared the trees to enter the farmland, locals laboring there were showered with dust. They winced at the cruel treatment of their crops and of the enslaved males being dragged behind the riders, but they didn’t interfere. The citizens of New America had learned not to challenge their rulers. The price was usually more than they could pay.
Full of fear and impotent anger, the fugitives in the mossy trunk couldn’t challenge the riders, but the father kept a scarred hand on the boy’s thin shoulder to prevent him from trying anyway. The emotions of youth didn’t always allow for logic and the man wasn’t going to risk his last son in a futile battle they couldn’t win. However, he would risk both their lives in a fight for freedom with different players and different odds. This was the first step in that plan.
“Network riders! The Ring is coming!”
In the three-street town, doors locked and windows slammed shut, echoing like hammers. Young boys cowered behind defenseless, pink-eyed women, trembling. In some of the salvaged homes and barely surviving shops, terrified males were hurriedly shoved into clever slots behind wall panels to keep them from being taken. This was the yearly roundup, a month early.
As the riders advanced, their leader, Rankin, waved the crew into a defensive formation. Always sent on these runs, the team had earned the nickname The Ring because of the circle they made over Network lands to collect slaves. They were also called demons. That whispered insult was well earned. All of the women were ruthless. Their leader worked directly for the Network–both in the pristine dome and here in the deadly wastelands. In her matted red hair was a braid for each male she’d broken. They covered her back in thick, dusty proof of her brutality.
The riders formed a V as they reached the town, weapons ready in case the females here chose to fight for their sons. The Ring had a list of males to bring in, but Rankin would take any appealing targets they ran across to account for the percentage who didn’t survive the trip. She always made her quota.
“These slaves will be surrendered immediately, by order of the Network. It’s roundup time!” Rankin began calling names from the list, pointing at homes. Most of the women here owed a son in payment for a debt or fine, but a few were also being punished for their lack of financial or public support for Network causes.
Rankin’s riders went to the residences and dragged the males out, not letting goodbyes be said or pleas be voiced. Few of the mothers fought, but those who did were cut down. It was against the law to refuse an order of surrender. The penalty was death.
Screams and wails began to echo across the tiny town.
While the riders gathered the newest lot of slaves, the males already on leashes dropped to their knees, grateful for the break. Fathers comforted sons and exhausted men bound bleeding foot wounds with what remained of their shirts. Those were the luckier ones. Some of them didn’t move at all, but they weren’t cut loose. Rankin would still receive a half credit for each of the mangled bodies.
“Runners!” One of the hulking defenders pointed. “We have runners!”
To the west, a small group of teenagers had made it through the tall crops. They were almost to the trees, where the two fugitives were hiding.
The waist-high brown hounds padded forward at Rankin’s shout. Canines had suffered the same biological changes as humans after the war, making them larger, angrier. Their eyes flamed when triggered. Some of them could even snort fire and they would attack any target, no matter how big or small. Menacing, the fire hounds ran at the rear of the slaves to keep them from escaping–unless there were runners.
Spotting the fleeing men, the hounds gave chase without being ordered to do so. They’d been bred for this purpose.
Fresh screams echoed as the large dogs caught up to the slaves. Those who stopped, the dogs escorted with slobbery nudges and growls. The men who kept fleeing or tried to fight, the dogs ate. The system was designed to keep the animal escort fed without the extra weight of carrying their nourishment. It worked out well for everyone except the slaves.
“That’s all of them from town.” Lena was second in command. She wiped her bloody hand down her filthy pants and then shoved her hair from her face. She always grew it out at the beginning of each roundup and cut it when they were finished. The frustrations of long hair kept her angry and on Rankin’s crew. Only those with fire stayed. Rankin was a hardened, harsh mistress.
Nearby, four of the sentries were binding crying boys to leashes as the townswomen reluctantly brought them out. All of them were thin and unattractive.
“We require one more male!” Rankin demanded. “Give me a gift and we won’t torch your homes.” Rankin scanned the shacks eagerly. Last year, she hadn’t asked for a bonus from this town. It was their turn to pay homage to her mercy.
When no one came forward, she growled, “I can smell them, you know! If I have to come in and sniff, I’ll kill every one of you and still take your males!”
A door was snatched open across the street, revealing a stern lady with huge arms and a dirty jumper. She shoved two trembling boys onto the dirt walk. “Took me a minute to catch them.”
Other townswomen scowled at the orphanage keeper, but Rankin was happily. “Two! Nice.”
Rankin made the motion for her riders and dogs to hurry, not sure what was delaying things with the teenagers. “Thank you for your cooperation. May you all have a Network day.”
“Same to you,” came the muttered, expected reply.
It was a dismissal. The women who had been waiting for it left Rankin’s sight. Those hiding males in cramped, mousey slots tried to remember how to breathe.
“Next?” Rankin demanded, stomach suddenly tightening. Trouble might be coming.
“The next location is…” Lena scanned their sheets. “Hey, a blond. That’s a double credit!”
Rankin snatched the papers, annoyed at not getting the exact answer she’d requested.
“Daniel: blond, paid for, priority.” Rankin kept reading, unease growing. “Owner provided address for pickup. Approach location with caution.”
Rankin recognized the address and the name. “Pruetts!”
Her riders sat up straighter, scanning the town. Pruetts meant blood.
“Not here, you idiots!” Rankin snapped. “They have the boy. Get ready while we wait for the dogs.”
“Do we fight them?” one of her newer riders asked quietly. “We have the same boss.”
“We’ll eliminate them if we need to,” Rankin answered in mock confidence. She ignored the instinct demanding she mark the boy’s name off as dead and go. “They’re only bounty hunters. We’re killers.”
Her crew snickered in agreement, reminded that they alone of Network employees had permission to kill anyone they needed to. Even the legendary Pruett family had to get orders first.
The shabby street had become deserted around the waiting pink-eyed troops. Peppering the shops were lists of items people were forbidden to have (radios topped every one), prices to be charged, and Wanted posters that covered entire front walls. One in particular, a tall male with blond hair and a scar over one hand, was shown more than the other escaped males. Simon was the current leader of rebels trying to oust their rulers. There were also advertisements for the Bachelor Battles on these walls of death. Each laminated photo featured a bloody, victorious female clutching a terrified man as her prize.
Near the edge of this oppressed town, a thin blond boy barreled from a slimy home put together with toothpaste and fishing wire. He slipped painfully down muddy rock stairs.
“They know where to search, boy!” his mother shouted from the makeshift home. “Pruett hunters can’t save you!”
Heart pounding, Daniel ran awkwardly through the piles of rubble that edged the road, then detoured into the thorn trees bordering the adjacent property.
The poison branches reached for him, but the boy ducked in perfect time to their swipes and made it through untouched. He’d made this run many times, though never in panic.
Weapons clanged over grunts as Daniel neared an opening in the trees and burst into the front yard.
The four black-cloaked people there were working on a fighting routine, moving in tandem with beautiful knife slashes, spins, and leaps. Their long, black cloaks flared out together in a stunning, unintended visual effect.
The sweaty family stopped and lowered their weapons, staring at Daniel with sympathy as more screams sounded from town. The Ring was moving again. The bounty hunters could hear the heavy hooves and chilling cries of individual slaves.
“You know the law!” Candy’s mother, tall and thin, answered the boy fearfully. “We can’t hide you.”
Daniel ran to Candy, his friend, in terror. “Help me!”
“Get out of here!” Candy yelled, shoving him toward the tree line. The little girl was in shock. “Don’t let them–”
“My family sold me!”
“Sold?” Candy repeated in horror, young mind spinning into a hazy rage. It was their worst fear.
“We have company,” Candy’s father stated softly from her mother’s side.
Sentries were reaching their driveway. The thorn trees lining it were poisonous and carnivorous, with vivid red and green coloring. Thick limbs reached hungrily for the excited riders, but they weren’t in range.
Candy scanned the homestead, already knowing there was no place she could hide him. Her home was a white dome buried in the ground. There were sheds and a storage building, and two heavy-duty mopars for traveling the apocalyptic lands. The Pruett’s were better off than most, but none of it could save Daniel.
“Mother?” Candy asked for help in that one word, dazed with the pain. They sold him!
Candy’s mother winced, but didn’t answer.
“I’ll be alone now,” Daniel moaned brokenly, shaking. “They’ll hurt me!”
“You’re mine!” Candy hugged him in useless comfort. “I will find you!”
“Promise me!” Daniel demanded, panicking.
Candy kissed him, stealing his first taste. There was no doubt she would lose everything else.
Her eyes were red when she pulled back, sent into the first stage of Rage Walkers disease early. “On my life, Daniel. I will come for you!”
“There he is! Release that male,” Rankin ordered arrogantly from her horse. “His family has transferred ownership to the Network.”
“You can’t keep him, Candy,” her mother warned shakily. “You can only die and kill the rest of us with the attempt.”
Candy’s anger became more pronounced as her mother tried to force them apart. Both kids struggled wildly.
The thorn trees struggled harder to reach the observing riders, drawn by the emotions.
Tiring of the drama, Rankin kicked her horse forward to drop a leash around Daniel’s neck.
He reached up to take it off, and she grabbed his wrists and expertly tied them to the waiting straps on the rawhide tether.
Candy raked her new claws down her mother’s arm to get free. She ran after Daniel.
Rankin spun around and punched the girl in her shoulder. She didn’t like kids.
Holding her aching arm, Candy determinedly rose back to her feet, glowering with teary red orbs. “He’s mine!”
Angel, Candy’s cousin, rushed to help. The two girls fell into their training, spinning and slashing the air with their knives.
Spooked, Rankin’s horse reared up and almost unseated her.
Trying to calm the tall mount, Rankin got too close to the hungry thorn trees. A branch slipped eagerly around her neck.
Fighting to keep from being punctured or thrown, Rankin snatched the knife from her belt. She sliced through the thorn going for her throat. It managed to scratch her before she used her fist to snap off the branch.
“It figures Pruetts would have these…things!” Rankin sneered, flushed as she manhandled her horse into submission.
Her riders smirked, but when Rankin told them to advance, they obediently surrounded the small family while Rankin retrieved the end of the leash.
Candy’s mother wrapped her up tighter this time and the family slave, Candy’s father, grabbed Angel.
“If you weren’t so useful tracking down trash, I’d slit all your throats!” Rankin waved at her riders to proceed, viciously yanking Daniel’s rope to make him stumble and fall.
“Help him, mother!” Candy shouted, fighting to get free. “Help me!”
“You can’t take over this family if you’re dead,” her mother sadly insisted, holding her with iron strength. “Pruetts never openly oppose the Network.”
Candy realized she wasn’t going to get help from her parent. The full change of Rage Walkers disease spiraled through her small body.
Her muscles swelled, ripping her clothes. Her black hair shot out. Her claws extended and her black pupils became crimson flames as she attacked her mother.
The thorn branches in the driveway withdrew to their proper places in shocked disapproval.
Candy spun from her mother’s bloody face as the riders left, Daniel being pulled behind Rankin. She took off running, executing an amazing jump to grab her fallen weapon and clear half the distance. Knife ready, she leapt again.
Rankin sensed it coming and shifted. She kicked the child in the head with the heel of her boot.
Candy dropped to the ground in a heavy pile of pain, puking. The other signs of the disease faded, but her eyes remained crimson. They ran red with tears.
Candy’s mother and father hurried toward them as Rankin glared without compassion. “He belongs to the Network now. If you want him, come fight for him in the games.” Rankin gave Candy’s mother a knowing sneer as the couple reached them. “Don’t wait too long. You’re a changeling now, stage one, and Pruetts burn out fast.”
Staggering to her feet through the misery, Candy pointed. “Pruetts will send you all to hell!”
Startled at the words from a child, Rankin kicked up dust to coat the family as she turned toward the driveway. “Heaven and hell don’t exist, child. There’s only been the Network for four hundred years.”
“That is going to change!” Candy vowed. “Someday, I’ll take the power from them, the same way they’ve taken something I love! I won’t stop until you’re all gone!”
Her family gasped at the open defiance, expecting harsh retribution.
Rankin snorted, but didn’t stop. On a slow day, she might have executed them all for such blasphemy, but she was busy and even a burnt-out Pruett with her slave and whelps was dangerous. It would interrupt the roundup and their rulers wouldn’t tolerate that. Another time, however… Rankin dragged Daniel through the gate, indifferent to his pleas as she mentally added this family to her death list. If she got this chance later, she would certainly take it.
Candy hissed at her mother as Daniel was torn from her life. She didn’t speak, but her expression screamed.
Candy’s mother lowered her chin in shame, causing the four ugly gashes on her cheek to resume dripping blood over her neck and chest. “No.”
The façade she would become known for settled over the young girl in a sheet of ice that would never completely thaw. She turned from her mother without giving the expected forgiveness. She wasn’t capable of it.
Back on the road, the thundering hooves and screams of the roundup echoed in a haunting chorus that Candy knew she would hear in her dreams. One of those voices belonged to Daniel.
“I will come for you!” Candy promised, heart breaking. Daniel was already struggling to keep up and breathe through the dust. “For all of you.”
The fugitive males in the trees eased from their hiding place a few minutes later and resumed trudging toward the town. The group they had traveled with before this had been slaughtered by snakes last week while they were out scouting for water. The wilderness was rough.
“Come on. We have to talk to the orphanage keeper.”
Baker understood leaving him here was a kindness, but he still felt abandoned. Why couldn’t his father love him as much as he loved the missing brother?
Simon knew well his child’s torment, but he had to get to the borderlands and locate a safe zone. He couldn’t do that with a son along. He would have to blend, to act as if he was a slave running errands. At other times, he would have to be able to make a fast escape. The boy would be lost in one of the struggles and Simon was tired of sacrificing his sons to the cause. He knew the Pruetts and he knew this town. The boy would survive here.
Simon fingered the small tattoo on his neck. They had protected him once. Now, they would do the same for his last surviving child while he tried to detect a way to rescue the captives. Simon stared at the Pruett property as they passed it. With their help, he might even be able to build a different future–one where the Network no longer existed and men were free.
Eight Years Later…
Nothing Ever Changes
New Network City
“Hello! Welcome to the first interview segment for this week’s episode of…the Bachelor Battles!”
The ticketless crowd of citizens gathered around the dome responded wildly to the start of the most popular game. Cameras atop giant screens rotated to show adoring outside viewers in all directions who were beating on each other, spilling drinks, kissing. Tonight’s party in New Network City would be massive.
“We are talking by comlink with Candice Pruett as she arrives at the gates of our fair city. Already famous for legendary bounty hunting successes, the Pruett family is worth a whopping seven hundred million UDs! Wadda ya say, folks? Let’s make her welcome!”
The audiences cheered as an average looking teenager flashed onto the enormous view screens. Sunken black eyes lined in deep shadows only hinted at the pain that she, like all females, spent every minute battling. Dressed in a high-collared black cloak, the girl’s harsh, eager grin and deadly stance marked her as anything but ordinary.
“Tell us, Candy. Why did you sign up for the Bachelor Battles at such a young age? As most of our viewers know, Games contestants are usually in search of a breeding pass or a slave. So Candy, why are you here?”
The reporter cleared her throat and a low mutter came over the speakers, “Did we lose her?”
“Hello? Miss Pruett, are you there?”
“Don’t ever. Do that. Again.”
Softly spoken, the words rolled over the audience in menacing waves.
“Um.” Not expecting it, the surprised reporter stumbled. “Do what, Hun?”
“Call me Candy.” Click!
“Hello?” The speaker faded to another mutter the microphone wasn’t meant to pick up.
“Pull me off this one.”
“Why? I’ll tell you why! She’s that Pruett changeling, the one the Network fined a million UDs for hurting a relative when she was twelve! The whole family is ruthless and I’ve already paid my dues! Pull me off this one. I don’t have a death wish.”
“Welcome to New Network City, Candice Pruett,” an annoying computer voice echoed from the security monitor. “Please enjoy the scent of roses that we have genetically rescued from the ashes of our past.”
Candice ducked the sprayer as she was finally waved through the gates, but her all-terrain vehicle wasn’t as lucky. The front was coated.
Entry to the dome housing the games complex was a series of checkpoints with ever-increasing security, due to rebels who regularly snuck into the city to create havoc. The first station, where Candice had hung up on the reporter, had sported large guns and stern, muscled sentries.
Candice drove slowly, taking in the sights while trying to ignore the smells. Thousands of people lived in the protection of this city. Thousands more came in each day for work, trade, or entertainment. It made for an awful combination of odors she’d forgotten about.
“Should have taken the spray,” Candice mused.
New Network City was all around her now, vastly different from the green, lush valleys of Ohio. Gilded dirt paths among apocalypse rubble couldn’t compare to the Pruett family homestead and Candice was wise enough to recognize that and be grateful. The debris left from the war had been removed or hidden by nature in most places, but not here. This city belonged to the eastern half of the council and they wanted these constant reminders of the tragic past. It kept everyone in fear.
After the war, the country had split into three sections. Directly in the middle was an unknown area called the Borderlands, where the Wild West had returned in a new version of hell. The sides of New America were each controlled by a division of the Network, though the west coast outpost was as foreign to most as those mysterious lands in the center. People from the west preferred to stay there, but it was hard to imagine them attempting the weeks-long trek anyway, considering the odds of death. Few places beyond this city were safe, and that was also deliberate. Life, liberty, and happiness were myths in this new world. Ruled by a well-protected council of ten secretive, vicious women who stayed isolated from the rest of society in their fortified dome, almost everyone had been beaten into submission. New American citizens existed in terror and anger, secretly loathing the leaders who used blood as a distraction. Even while fighting a disease that was sending humanity into extinction, nothing had changed. It still only took bread and circuses to control the masses. With those, you could even steal a person’s sons.
Discerning a clear stretch before the next sentry station, Candice clicked the recorder in her hand, staring at her destination without fear or the nervousness she had expected. Unless everything went perfectly, she would die in their shiny dome. In case that happened, Candice had chosen to leave a recording of the things she knew to be true. She had been working on it since leaving the Pruett homestead. She considered it her will.
“The first known cases of the disease are from a small pirate island in the south. Their entire population was decimated by a mysterious illness that transformed the residents into lunatics with a taste for blood. It was called Rage Walkers disease when it migrated to America and no female was immune. Cursed with painful needs and a streak of violence, humankind could have been wiped out right then, but the disease hadn’t finished mutating.
“Forty years later, the disease slowed. It became common for someone to suffer with it for decades instead of months. For a while, it was like other incurable illnesses in our history–avoided and ignored. But the post-apocalyptic birthrates didn’t rise from that horrible number of 5% male, and then another, more dangerous pattern began to emerge. The Rage Walker children were also violent. Three years after the first one entered kindergarten, there was a decree in place for all infected kids to be homeschooled to protect the rest. When it was ascertained that victims were surviving with the awful disease from puberty until death, our rulers took drastic measures.
“Understanding their population was becoming too aggressive; the Network began forcing citizens to swear loyalty and work for them, to build the dome. And they kept the games rolling. Only now, it was all convicted women in the matches as the children grew up and the Network had to do something with them.”
Revealing a bit of her strength to discourage possible assassins right now, Candice controlled the heavy mopar with one hand and the recorder with the other, putting her illegal version of history into the machine. Her grandmother had done the same, passing the chore to Candice. A public death for conspiracy would come swiftly if any of it were unearthed. History was taught by Network programs, where details were lacking and the truth was rare.
“By 200AW, a good portion of the Eastern lands had been cleared and returned to use, providing homes and farms the Network controlled. As their power grew, it became almost impossible to get a breeding pass, and the impotent fury of childless citizens may have driven the Network’s next decree. They began to allow innocent women to enter the games. If they won, they would have their choice of prizes. If they lost, it was one less violent person on the streets…and it was incredibly popular. Everyone was tired of living in the dark and the games were vivid, brutal, attention-keeping entertainment.
“When the first noncriminal female won, she asked for what all the population wanted–a mate, a family–and our rulers seized that opportunity. They already owned most of the males on New American soil and charged outrageous prices for the purchase or use of one. When that bloody winner asked for a mate, the Network changed the rules, making the prize a man. After that, our government could pass any law they wanted.”
The next checkpoint appeared in the distance.
Candice slowed the mopar to add more to the recording. Someone had to keep an honest record of their history or it would all be lost under the Network’s mountain of lies.
“The riots of 230AW were really all about the men. We were told it was over food, but the disease was still changing women, making them angrier, vicious. Our rulers, safe in their dome-covered complex, sweetened the deal. They gave pure bachelors at special times and held games with all twins as a double reward. They changed the prizes, the rules, the arenas and the lighting, blinding us with swirling violence as they took sons from nearly every family in the first annual roundup. Confident in their control through the ugliness that offered a small hope to the females, what they were really doing was culling the female population while adding to their male stock.
“By 300AW, the Network had control, reinventing many of our old terrors to get rebels in line. Always worried about women joining those few brave men, the Network cut off direct communication between the cities and censored all broadcasts. It became illegal to own a radio and the few media reports people saw were scripted.” Candice scanned the tall, flashing buildings around her mopar with an intense dislike that was hidden by her hood. She hated it here. “Now, five centuries after the fall of men, after the apocalypse that collapsed all societies across the planet, the games are on every wall screen, in every home across Network lands. We kill each other, living and dying for the chance, for the mere possibility, of an end to this pain. We are no more civilized than the barbaric men who came before us.” She sighed heavily. “In fact, we’re worse.”
Candice put the recorder away, controlling her emotions as the checkpoint loomed. The council bought or stole sons and their citizens killed each other to get them back. The cycle had no end. It was sickening to think they hadn’t learned anything from the nuclear war, that only a handful of rebel males had the courage to keep resisting.
Candice was one of the rare citizens who loathed their rulers. Some days, it was a struggle to pretend otherwise. Candice had become skilled at hiding her reflections, at controlling her violent emotions. That was as necessary for survival as breathing. Everyone was cursed for the atrocities that had been allowed, committed. Until humans were gone from the planet, women would have control and men would be what they shed their blood to possess. There was no cure for the disease, merely moments of calm between the slaughters. Achieving a stage of the illness that allowed some measure of control was all that had kept society from disintegrating again. Over the years, four stages of the disease had emerged. Candice was in stage two. She didn’t expect to live to reach the next level.
Around the checkpoint, bored troops stood straighter. Some of the two dozen defenders recognized the markings on the approaching mopar. The others responded to the wariness of their superiors and began scanning for trouble.
Candice waited at the final gate for the suspicious sentry to check her identification, spotting a rare, live interview happening on the stairs of the Justice Building nearby. Candice had been in there on several occasions to bear witness for her family, but she didn’t like the cold, gray marble or the pretentious gold accents. In her mind, such a richly designed monument had no place among the rubble still left from the end of the previous world.
“Is there any news on Rage Walkers? Has it mutated again?”
A rarely glimpsed member of the Network Council stood before the small group of reporters, wearing a fur robe with the hood up. Behind her pale skin was a line of intimidating guards who provided security inside the complex. Called defenders, in their downtime they were the personal protection for wealthier citizens, and of course, for the council.
Surprised a bat was out of the cave, Candice lingered as long as she could, storing details.
“As you know, Rage Walkers disease has finally stopped killing the host, but it inflicts them with so much torment they wish for death.” Tall, with a wide nose, Riana spoke in clipped bursts of indignation. “Many women do kill themselves to be free of the pain! It hurts on the inside, burning and stabbing, jabbing at our control until only blood can pacify it. That’s not an improvement. We need a cure.”
A front row reporter leaned in, dangling multicolored braids over her notepad. “Scientists still claim a mate can ease the symptoms, but birth numbers don’t appear promising for that option. Does the Network plan to use illegal programs to try increasing the male population?”
“It won’t be illegal, my dear.” Riana’s smile was charming, but her painted eyes glinted with cold warning. “If we agree it could help us recover from the terrible tragedy of our history, the council will clear those programs. There is no conspiracy.”
Another reporter picked up the questioning as Candice was waved through the gate with a slightly threatening stare she ignored. Pruetts were always treated that way. They encouraged it.
“Can you tell us if the disease will mutate again?”
“No one knows,” Riana answered gravely. “Scientists refuse to guess if things might get better or worse. That worries everyone. You can’t blame them, considering the annual population report has just revealed male births to be at less than 7%. The Network understands it’s time to increase our efforts.”
Candice refused to let her thoughts show as she drove by the interview. She also refused to ogle the reporters. The last thing she needed was to be recognized before officially checking in. Their rulers wouldn’t like her stealing airtime, but her family was always a popular fluff story with the media because they brought in so many fugitives. The public tallies made the Network appear as if they were keeping crime controlled, which was ridiculous. The Network caused most of the crime and arranged the rest of it personally. Their subjects just tried to survive.
Or bring them down, Candice corrected, discerning a shadow on the next building that didn’t belong there. Assassins were also common in New Network City, though none had been successful in her lifetime. That one wouldn’t be either. The red of his shirt was a bad mix with the bright sky and the tan walls below him. When he was discovered, he would be executed or put into one of the games as an example to the public. That punishment had kept rebel males fighting since the slavery law was announced. If those in charge were genuinely trying to protect the population by enslaving men, then why keep killing them? The males could be incarcerated and set up as donors. Instead, the Network had declared pregnancy illegal without a breeding pass, further cutting the number of possible male births. To the rebels, it appeared as if their rulers were helping to wipe them out.
Reaching the dome, Candice pulled into the tall garage to leave her vehicle for the week she would be here. Her family, who was on the way, would take it with them when they left. If Candice did manage to walk out of this nightmare, she and her prize would take the train back to Ohio.
The parking garage was immense, but the damp, concrete walls sent Candice’s thoughts to the gossip she’d overheard on her last train ride. Where was this water coming from? The lands around New Network City spent most of the year parched, and the small river she had crossed to get into the city was too far away to provide moisture in this garage. Rumors had speculated on an ocean border, but the wall around this area prevented anyone from confirming it. No one protested, however. The wall was for their protection from the savage world outside.
The sentries on the garage whispered and murmured, staring as Candice gave them her identification card.
The girl who handed it back didn’t look at her. “Go on through.”
She had little to fear, but Candice didn’t say so. She had a family reputation to uphold.
All around the dome, women and leashed slaves went about their tidy lives of shopping Network stores, trading Network credits, and using Network brothels. Those cheery red buildings lined one full block of the dingy, tan apartments that boxed-in the dome. Sentry stations were scattered around this ten-mile area, except for the stretch behind the complex. No one was allowed there, but rumor said it was where new slaves were brought in. Dozens of billboards and flashing signs advertising males for rent, rules of the city, and entertainment encased the wealthy, surreal town sitting at the base of the dome. Vulture Run and Bachelor Battles were the two most popular of the bloody shows. Scenes from episodes flashed continuously on the annoying advertisements.
As if it were perfectly normal to be holding another person on a tether, these junkies chatted and argued while their slaves stood docilely behind them. To Candice, the collared men and painted women were part of a nightmare she saw while awake. In her dreams, this awful indifference didn’t exist. While she was here, she would try to determine if she could make that the reality for everyone.
Candice walked up the glittery main stairs, not glancing around when howls of hounds and then screams rang out. If the rebels wanted to stand a real chance against the Network, assassins like that wouldn’t do it. With the security here, it would take hundreds of fighters, not a few solo missions.
“Welcome to the New Network City Dome,” a voice came through the nearby speaker as Candice entered the warm building. “Players must register for their game upon arrival. Please drop your card into any of the eight convenient slot boxes.”
Already hating that simpering computer, Candice did as instructed.
“Please report to the main stage by 5:30. Those not signed in at the Block will be disbarred from this episode and fined. Remember, no battling until the official start at sunrise.”
The barriers locked with an audible click, and for Candice, there was no renouncing her choice. Not that she would have anyway. There was a short pause and then an airy chime came as the gate on the center of the five arched entrances slid open to admit her to the games section of the dome.
Following the neatly lettered signs, Candice quickly reached the big gateway to the Block. She entered the lavish waiting area with black eyes despite the pink glints and growls that came her way upon recognition. Instead of getting angry or rising to the bait of the other contestants, she grinned.
The growls doubled.
These females didn’t want to be here, but they were driven by the disease. Candice, on the other hand, was eager to pay someone back for her torment and it showed. She was allowed to kill while here. The freedom was indescribable.
Candice took a spot along the wall to study the competition while waiting for her name to be called. This area was full of defenders to keep players from fighting before the cameras could catch every drop of blood. Candice evaluated them with the contestants. Depending on the outcome, the information could come in handy. Candice had made it a habit to gather knowledge since changing. It had helped her master some of the rage. She had already made it further into the disease than many females who flipped so young, but her family still couldn’t believe she had signed up for something as deadly as the Bachelor Battles. So what if the thing she wanted, needed the most, could only be found here? What she was doing was crazy, her mother had said, maybe even suicidal. She would be extremely lucky to come out alive.
Candice honestly couldn’t wait for it to start.
“Welcome back!” the announcer blared through the speakers. “If you are just tuning in, we’ve been learning about this week’s players as they take their mandatory stroll of the Block. Are ya ready for the next contestant?”
The large crowd cheered as the red curtains on the stage opened. The wall screens in the waiting area showed jeweled stars made of gold flashing in barter for supplies, weapons, rooms, and slaves. Visitors and residents, most employed by the council, shoved through the rowdy crowd in tight, tan pants and flowing leather tunics adorned by worn weapon belts and scarred skin. The silver and black jumpers of the defenders were a vivid contrast as they tried to keep control over the sprawling audience.
The Block, a protruding stage in the direct center of the complex, held viewers on three sides and the prizes in a small, shielded pen on the fourth. There were thousands of faces crammed into this arena, enthusiastically betting on who would die first. Candice suddenly loved them all. They were her kind.
“We’re at contestant number seven, who has just arrived. Let’s meet Candice Pruett!”
The crowd cheered again as her image appeared on the gigantic screen above the lavish stage.
Candice padded forward, ignoring the roaring noise and glare of the flashing lights. It had been long, bloody years, but she was finally here. The relief allowed her to step into view with the confidence of her career. She wasn’t a little kid anymore. She was a grown changeling with the fury of almost a decade to drive her. Their rulers had no idea what they’d done by allowing her to sign up at all, but they would learn. When you took something from a Pruett, there was a price to be paid. The longer the wait for payment, the harsher the penalty, and forgiveness was not an option. Neither was mercy.