FUSION

In the near future Britain will face Armageddon and one girl will fight to save its rebirth from epic destruction.

In a Network of failing wealth, high school graduates compete to avoid becoming Outcasts: a revolt of failed Recruits being extracted to die in apocalyptic ruins.

When seventeen-year-old Serena Knight is targeted by demons and thrust into a government intent on supremacy, her future disappears. She meets Kit, a slayer from an unseen realm, continually haunted by his past of sins whose aim is to keep her alive. But when her father is kidnapped and secrets exposed, surviving not only matters for Serena's sake, but her entire family’s.

Now Serena must learn mortal combat, finding support from Kit in their hunt for clues behind an android army, a prophesied bloodline and the story of Recruitment. But the government has been lying about their plans for domination, and Kit has secrets of his own that could affect everything.

*Could be considered Divergent/TMI fan-fic*

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3. Chapter Two

 

The Network was under a strict curfew of 9pm.

At eight forty-five each evening sentries would flood the streets, ushering home residents who still wandered about. People didn’t resist instruction, though they weren’t always happy to oblige. It was a harsh rule many didn’t care for but no one opposed because of a little thing called ‘cautions’.

Cautions were given for discrepancies and failure to comply with Network rules. For each one given outside a four week period, it would take another four to clear from record.  If three were gained in a month, a meeting was held between the traitor and The Six who would decide the fate of the accused.

The faulted mostly became Outcasts.

It was near five o’clock when Serena threw her brush at the wall. She was nowhere near ready and Jet would arrive any minute. Because it was the night before Recruitment, the powers of the Network had allowed open access between all Classes (except Upper Classes One and Two—invitation only). This meant that instead of only being able to leave one’s home Class once a month—or more depending on viable reasons—visiting was allowed at any time to any Class before curfew. The Nexus was bound to be packed.

“This is ridiculous!” Serena cried. “Why won’t you go the way I want?” She’d been struggling with her hair for the best part of an hour. She’d already tried to fashion a bun and pony tail, but her locks were being relentless and nothing looked right with her attire of jeans and a hoodie.
                Her eyes were the only splash of colour on her face aside from red lips. A dust of blush kissed high cheekbones and neon earrings adorned her ears—the pinks, purples, blues and reds swayed into each other like gentle waves.
                On the desk was the special edition ‘Straight 2 Curl’ spray her mum had bought a few weeks ago. With her natural waves, Serena had said that it was wasted, but now she generously applied it. The can said it would take up to a minute to work so she went to the hall to retrieve her shoes.

In the lounge her dad’s bookshelf stretched across the far wall, filled to the brim with old history books and paperbacks. His ‘javelin’ was mounted above the TV, twisted and curved with sharp blades protruding from both ends.

Above the sofa next to the TV hung a tapestry; three names were stitched into the black fabric: Kerr, Josh and Caoihme. Sometimes her mum would sit with it in her lap and run her fingers over the threads silently. She never shared who they were, just like Serena didn’t discuss her accident, so she never pushed for the truth.

The doorbell rang just as she buttoned her blazer. Her parents were both teachers and rarely home before five. They were very cautious of Serena leaving the house other than for school and made her check with them before she went anywhere. She hadn’t been able to brief them on her absence—Jet still hadn’t said where they were going—and so left a note on the kitchen counter, knowing she’d face extreme repercussions later.

Serena stepped into the hall to take inventory of her hair in the mirror. She startled as it began to pop into loose curls, some were tighter than others but they flowed like streamers down her back. When she pulled on a strand it bounced back into place, firm as a spring.

“Are you going to tell me where we’re going yet?” Serena asked when Jet arrived wearing a coat too thick for the weather.

They followed the pavement round the park and trekked across the grass. Jet never complained about having to take the long routes to avoid roads, just smiled like the extra time was no big deal. Ever since Serena’s accident she hadn’t been able to face them.

“If I told you it wouldn’t be a surprise.” He led the way through a car park and back onto the streets. Luckily most of the roads were adapted to be pedestrian walkways so Serena only had slight trepidation about making her way across. With the expense of specially adapted cars, not many people owned vehicles, so most roads were usually empty in the evening.

The sky was clear and welcomed a slight breeze. If the Walls didn’t exist, Serena was sure they’d find storm clouds on the horizon; there was a pressing atmosphere and the scent of rain that wouldn’t relent. With the perimeter of the Walls, wind was rarely felt, but the humidity was as damp as monsoon season and very uncomfortable.

“At least you decided to wear trainers,” Jet recognised as he pointed to her black footwear. “High heels would be too uncomfortable for where we’re going.”

The Nexus was like a half moon banking the horizon and the crowds of people its craters. For the only time that year in non-working hours, it was packed with students from all Classes. LC1 sported their torn clothes, shouting and play-fighting like a pack of wild animals as they took to painting the streets—a few of them were inked with tattoos of a luminous glow (whenever they had the money, they liked to spend it endorsing their dangerous sides rather than livelihoods). Some MC1 loitered about, plugged into their wireless earphones, and sporting similar hats. A few MC2’s smiled as they past, their higher family incomes made them shine like new pennies; their residency was holding their own celebrations tonight, revealing an undisclosed technology to the community.

Serena and Jet made their way through the hustle and bustle at the station and bought two return tickets to LC1. Whilst the tickets printed, he punched out a text. Serena hadn’t visited LC1 before, not surprising considering its track record, but knew enough to know it wasn’t the place for someone who couldn’t cross roads. Her trust in Jet was immeasurable.

She catalogued her surroundings, searching the crowd for any familiar faces, anyone who might know what else was taking place. But everyone made their way out of the station as another shuttle pulled in and more Unofficials poured out. It was difficult to keep track of faces when there were so many. She couldn’t even step aside without knocking someone with her elbow or treading on someone’s feet.

When a bench cleared on the platform, she made her way over. The wood was splintered with tiny needles so she sat on her hands to ease the pain. A metal seat would be more suitable, as she kept telling Jet, but he argued it would get pulled onto the Link by the magnetic charge.

It was hard to believe that the same students who crowded the Nexus now would all be in the first stages of Recruitment tomorrow. At this time in less than twenty-four hours, they’d all be adjusting to their dorms, settling into bed away from their normal lives. After tonight they wouldn’t have a free pass again.

Serena was about to see what was taking Jet so long when she recognised her invisible man.

A tall, dark, and incredibly familiar stranger leant against a column. The brown around his jawline hinted at five o’clock shadow. His hair was burnt umber, the warm hue of autumn leaves. He shot Serena a sideways glance like he impulsively knew she was looking. The curious rise of his eyebrows made her redden and she turned away.

She wondered who the guy was. What Class he was from, but guessed he was MC2: his semi-formal attire would agree. But she’d never seen him around before and his appearance outside school was disconcerting.

He was talking to a girl with dark hair, dressed in white.

“I haven’t seen him for nearly two weeks,” a boy said to his friend. “I keep asking around but no one knows where he is.”

On the bench behind Serena were two boys she recognised from her neighbourhood. They spoke in hushed voices. “Maybe he’s found somewhere else to stay,” the friend with long hair replied. “The sentries might have found his location.”

“He would have informed someone by now if he had. Andrew isn’t the type to just disappear without a trace. I’m worried.”

“I’m sure we’ll hear from him soon,” Long-hair said. “Newman is a smart fella.”

“Apparently not enough. I just can’t help think the same thing’s happened to him that’s been happening to all the other Outcasts. No one knows what’s going on.”

“Serena?” She jumped when Jet appeared in front of her. He handed over the tickets and she stuffed them in her back pocket. “You okay?”

“Nervous,” she admitted. “I have no idea where you’re taking me.”

LC1 was once a town called Brentwood. In the early twenty-first century it had been a major trend of Essex, harbouring a mass of self-proclaimed celebrities. Boutiques had been of chief fashion, all owned by those brought to fame by the orange tan and fake eye-lashed stereotypes of a reality TV show. Now those places were discount stores, newsagents and takeaways.

Some of the original buildings had survived. The train station on Kings Road had been adapted for the Nexus, and opposite an old hotel had been reduced to rubble. Once called Beckett House in the high street, an apartment building had been transformed into Recruitment Dorms.

Serena and Jet made their way off the shuttle. The roads were plunged in darkness, lit only by the occasional lamp post. Jet stopped under a traffic light; its dull amber glow cast him in mystery.

“We need to wait,” he told her. He looked excited but the tremble in his hands betrayed his fear.

Serena shifted her weight. The rest of the passengers had already begun their journey to the high street. “What are we waiting for? Let’s just go.”

“We can’t go anywhere without our tour guides.”

Justice appeared as if by magic, throwing her arms around Jet’s neck and planting a big kiss on his cheek. She’d brought her friend from school; both of them wore ripped jeans and sturdy boots; they looked ready to rob a bank.

“I’m so glad you made it,” she beamed, slowly pulling away as she attempted a seductive drawl. Her puckered lips faltered when Jet stepped back with sorry eyes.

“Thanks for inviting us along,” he extended, “I’m sure we’ll have fun.”

“No problem.” She rolled her shoulders back, one, two, three times, before tossing her ponytail over her shoulder. Her attempt at nonchalance was comical at least. “If Titan and I didn’t have connections on the inside this would never happen.”

Titan lived up to his name. He must have been near seven foot. His arms were trunks of twisting bark and his chest was broad as a ship. Serena could envision him a stern fighter, a durable shield, not taking trouble from anyone.

“What exactly is it we’re doing?” Serena probed. Maybe they could shed some light on the matter.

But Justice just snickered. “You didn’t tell her. Afraid she’d chicken out?”

“It was a surprise,” Jet explained.

“And I’m not a chicken,” Serena said.

“Not yet.” Justice leant against a rusted fence and examined her chipped nails. “But once we get into the Outlands we’ll see how that bravado stands.”

“The Outlands,” Serena gasped. Her eyes stuck on Jet. She stared him down, upset that he hadn’t shared something so big. The Outlands weren’t meant for anyone, especially Unofficials looking for some fun the night before their Recruitment. It was a known fact that attempting egress would result in cautions and a meeting among the panel of leaders. No one knew what existed beyond the Walls—another purpose they served was to protect residents. Serena didn’t want to risk anything.

Going near the Wall meant travelling through the forest, a place she’d never been allowed to visit, even in her own Class. Her parents kept her under strict rules never to wander into the outskirts. Being in LC1 in itself was a major stretch of the boundaries—the Outlands would blow their minds.

Jet shuffled and looked away from her reddening face.

“Are you crazy?” she asked, reading his expression carefully. “No one’s permitted to go out there. It’s out of bounds for a reason!”

“Justice and Titan’s relatives work as sentries on the Wall,” he said, “they’ve agreed to sneak us out, and one of them will go with us. It’s fine.”

Serena shook her head. Did Jet not hear the absurdity in his statement? “Sneaking out is exactly what constitutes as breaking the rules. Their relatives should know better, they could lose their jobs for allowing this.”

Justice cleared her throat. “In all fairness, this is a one-off. They’ve not done it before. We’re the first people besides the sentries to go out.”

“Wow, that makes me feel so much better,” Serena joked. “What could possibly go wrong?”

“Don’t worry.” It was the first time Titan had spoken and his voice was surprisingly soft, a big deviation from his resilient appearance. “You’ll come to no harm. We’ll make sure of it.”

“Speak for yourself,” said Justice, but when Titan gave her a glare which made her step back, her resolve faltered.

A car slowed and the grinding of the internal mechanics was audible as it passed. Most vehicles were fitted with a function called Transmagnet mode which allowed them to switch from four-wheel drive to a magnetic mode suitable for the Nexus Links. Cars and taxis travelled in the Link underneath the shuttle, some on the floor and some on the ceiling.

As the car rolled into the entrance, a magnetic claw reached out and placed it in on the grid. Two large magnets emerged from the bonnet.  Serena saw the computer screen on the dash indicate two more had materialized at the back and four underneath. The car shuddered as the tyres tucked themselves under the chassis.

Aurora and Henry, Serena’s parents, only had a car intended for on-road driving. They said, “Everything we could possibly need is right here, there’s no need to venture further. We’re safe where we are.” She’d never understood what they’d meant about being safe—it wasn’t like they were ever under threat.

For a moment the idea of grabbing a ride home captured Serena’s thoughts. There was a taxi firm below; maybe she could get a ride.

But something cold grasped her hand before she could make a move. Jet pulled her close, held her by the biceps. He wore a conflicted look and bit the inside of his mouth. Serena didn’t know what had gotten into him to make him think this was a good idea.

“I just thought that for our last night we could do something memorable. Initially it was just going to be a night at Upload”—a virtual gaming arcade—“but then Justice told me about her plans and invited us along. No one else is going to have this opportunity, Serena. Don’t you want to do something so unique that you can tell your grandkids about someday? It’s going to be something we’ll remember for ever.” His grip tightened. Not once did his gaze waver from hers. “Aren’t you the least bit curious about what life’s like out there? How people used to live? It’d be a history lesson you’d never learn about by sitting in a classroom.”

Serena looked down at the demolished pavements. She’d never felt so conflicted. There she was, a pup amongst the wolves, about to embark in an illegal feat that no Unofficial ever had. “It’s against the law. It could ruin Recruitment for us.”

“We won’t get caught,” Titan stepped in. “Security is lacking because of the open-access of the Nexus. My cousin and Justice’s brother guard a section of the Wall together; we’ll leave through there. One will stay behind to keep us informed of any problems. We won’t go far, just a couple of hundred feet. Right, Justice?”

 “Right,” she granted, but she didn’t sound so sure.

Serena had to agree that it was tempting despite her worry. When she was eight she’d been invited to a teddy bears picnic but her parents had said that the woods weren’t a place for little girls, and so she’d spent the day in her room. She’d always wished she could be granted that day again and didn’t want to miss out again because worry got the better of her. And tonight sentries would be there, they knew what they were doing, even if it was against the rules.

It would be fun.

They would be fine.

Nothing bad would happen.

“Live a little,” Titan said. “I can see you want to.”

Serena chewed her lip.

“And as soon as you want to leave we can,” said Jet. “No one will force you to stay out there.”

She raised a brow at Titan who appeared more honourable than Justice. “Just say the word and we’re out of there.”

The whole division was like a war zone. Serena had never seen such wild behaviour administered before. People ran in front of cars, not even stopping to judge their speed or the safety of crossing. Loud music thud-thud-thudded from buildings, shaking apart the already weak structures. Massive cracks ruined the ground, children rushed around without apprehension, riding their bikes across the roads and swearing at anyone who’d listen.

The outdoors was crowded with dark figures that pounded the night like predators. Whether these people were running from danger or to it, Serena didn’t know, and she certainly didn’t want to find out.

The closest Wall segment was located in the outskirts of Brentwood—a long journey from the high street. After a half hour of rushing to make their appointment Serena stopped to catch her breath. It had been a waste of time getting ready because now she was all sweaty and the humidity made her flush. Jet had slowed down to offer a few words of encouragement but found it hard to stay because Justice kept dragging him to her pace.

Unlike Serena, she wasn’t exhausted at all, her make-up remained flawless and her body shifted with the power of a cat’s.  He pony tail swung from side to side in a taunting gesture that had Serena wishing for scissors.

Titan kept stride with Serena the whole way. He was pleasant enough, explaining about life in LC1 and how despite their recklessness some strove to succeed. “When I was younger I didn’t understand it, either,” he admitted. “But now it’s all I know and can’t imagine anything different.”

“But why have you destroyed everything?” Serena asked between heavy breaths. “I don’t understand.”

He smiled, revealing the teeth of a shark. “Not everyone’s like that. It’s more impressions set by our ancestors throughout the years.”

“But why would they destroy their division when they’ve already gained residency?”

“In the early days I think it was more an act of rebellion. People were annoyed with how the previously wealthy kept their status instead of treating everyone with equality. The Lower Classes were made to slave away in low-paying jobs, while other divisions gained lots for little. It was more a case of making a statement, releasing supressed rage. Maybe at the time L-C-One thought that in acting out they’d get recognition and the leaders would fund refurbishments to make us like the U-C’s, but no one’s batted an eyelid.”

 It didn’t make much sense but Serena listened and regained a steady pace. She could tell they were getting closer to the Wall because the side roads began to lessen and more trees began to populate the area. Paving turned to grass, lamp posts disappeared. Titan and Justice each pulled a torch from their backpacks and lit the way down a small country road called Mores Lane.

“Where are we?” Serena asked as they exceeded a church on their left. They all slowed to a walk. The air was fresher here. It must have rained at some point because the grass was slippery and her shoes sunk into thick trails of mud.

“The perimeter,” Justice said. It was the first time she’d responded to Serena directly. “Through these trees are a number of security protocols that no one other than sentries and leaders are supposed to know about.”

“Security for what?”

“I don’t know. My brother won’t tell me.”

There was a small opening into the forest: a broken fence half trampled into the dirt. Justice took the lead, sweeping her torch over fallen branches and puddles as Titan took the rear, lighting the way for Serena and Jet.

They wove between plants, and trees acted as a maze trying to lead them astray. The impending storm Serena had suspected earlier loomed as thick black clouds stretched in the sky. The moon was waxing and branches cobwebbed the night like skeletal fingers.

The forest was quiet aside from the crunching of footsteps and the hooting of a lone owl. Sometimes Serena would hear what sounded like distant coughing and shiver, unsure whether to be worried about the existence of sentries on the Walls. She wondered why they were there, what purpose they served. It was possible they were simply there to stop residents from trying to venture out, but they wouldn’t when it was defiance of the rules.

She slammed into Jet’s back. He knocked into Justice who stifled a giggle but glared at Serena. They’d reached a ditch, or what looked like an ordinary ditch in the shadows. When Titan stepped forward and shone his torch on the ten foot gap encircling the Class they all recoiled. Mounds of barbed wire had been tossed inside, partially covered by the shedding of leaves. The small spikes glittered like stars in a galaxy.

Jet and Serena stared at Justice. “Don’t look at me,” she exclaimed. “I have no idea what it’s there for.”

“Well how are we supposed to get across?” Jet asked, eyeing the crevice with apprehension.

“We climb.” She pointed to a large oak tree on the right. There was a thick branch that stretched half across.

Justice went first under Titan’s instruction. She wasn’t pleased about it, especially when Titan gave Serena’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze.

Justice scaled the tree quickly. She ran at it fast; one foot dug into the bark and the other propelled her to the lowest branch. Stood on the first limb, she reached up, jumped, and pulled herself onto the next. It was wide and looked as though it could give a lot of grip, but where it was wet, its shine was misleading.

Justice took leisurely steps like she was walking a catwalk. Titan shook his head, but she reached the end unscathed and studied her position: the hanging of trees, the distance between the ditch and solid land. Serena could practically see the cogs turning in her mind, calculating the correct girth. Then she leapt.

Time seemed to still. Justice soared through the air as gravity worked its magic. It didn’t look like she was going to make it. Titan shone the torch on her. Justice narrowed her eyes. Her body tilted sideways, her legs angled to the side; she kicked off a trunk, rebounded into another and landed on the grass with a gentle thud. When she noticed Serena staring she smirked.

“Your turn next, boo,” said Titan, gesturing Serena forward with a wave. “Take it easy.”

He rested the beam on the first tree. Serena swallowed her fear as she stepped forward. Her knees were weak, she could feel them quivering. The dark wood stood before her. She recalled Justice’s movements, the fluency of her limbs. She was a jungle cat. Serena tried to channel that same litheness, but when her right foot connected with the bark, she bounced right off. Small branches shook in hushed laughter as she regained composure.

She looked at the barbed ditch. It didn’t look too wide really, just a coil of twisted metal with some free space on either side. It was just a matter of avoiding the spikes. Something told her that she could make the jump.

The tree was too much of a risk. Justice and Titan both wore shoes suitable for climbing, whereas Serena’s soles had been worn completely.

She turned to Titan. “I’m going to try a different way. Keep the light on me, please.”

In line with a branch hanging over the ditch and far enough away to make a clear run, Serena shook her limbs. All that running had made her legs feel limber. She recalled the chandelier she used to swing from at home. She’d run across the back of the sofa, grab the brass, swing, release, and land in the kitchen.

She ran, but this run wasn’t the same, this run was like her legs worked separate of her body, like something had switched in her mind and now she could move as fast as the wind. She kicked up fallen leaves, stomped down twigs. The branch approached, she kept eyes on it even as Titan and Jet began to shout stop.

When she was close to the ditch, she didn’t even think about it. She shot into the air like a rocket, her legs propelling her forward. She reached out, hands ready . . . then bang!

Her palms slapped the bark and her aching arms pulled her up. She scraped her knees as she positioned a crouch, but ignored the sting as she continued. The trees on the other side of the ditch bent over, she stared at them to determine best use. Five stood out, highlighted by moonlight. She swung from them to safety.

Justice was speechless when she landed by her side.

“How . . . ?” she asked.

But even Serena didn’t have an answer. Her ability was just as much of a surprise.

Titan and Jet followed Justice’s approach. Jet went first, and aside from a few slips and slides he nearly did as well as Titan. They chastised Serena’s stupidity, but it was clear by their pensive eyes that they were suspicious of her accomplishment. Jet kept staring at her like she was an imposter.

They resumed walking, but it wasn’t long before they came to an obstacle they couldn’t overcome: an electric fence. There were signs plastered everywhere warning about high voltage and the possibility of death. Next to her, Serena felt Jet tense. He chewed nervously on the cuff of his jumper.

“It might not be activated.” Justice picked up a stick and chucked it at the fence, it hummed with power on impact. There was no way around it.

“What are we going to do?” asked Jet.

Titan brought his hands to his mouth and tested his lips against his thumbs. Serena watched him with the interest of a child. When he blew into his hands, he wiggled his fingers, lifting them in quick rhythm. A whistle broke the silent woods, he stopped, waited, and seconds later a mirrored reply echoed back. Titan smiled.

“Bird call to my cousin,” he explained. “He told me to do it when we got here.”

Justice was impressed. “Nice going.”

They waited for their guide to arrive. Serena tried not to focus on their venture. She knew that if she gave in and thought about the severity of their actions she’d snap and go home. But Jet was right when he’d said it would be a history lesson. It would be like walking into the past, travelling in the footsteps of a lost generation. That was what kept her present: the unknown.

“Bro, you made it.” Crius was Titan’s cousin. He had a mouth wide as a cave, a thick nose and cleft chin.  He held a rifle with calloused fingers and thick hair gave the impression of a mane.  In his camouflage he blended into the landscape effortlessly.

“This all of you?” he asked, greeting Titan with a slap on the back.

“Yep.” Titan made introductions and Crius bowed his head in welcome. “Thanks for doing this, man.”

“No problem. Just don’t tell anyone. If word gets back to Rome about this he’ll caution us all.”

“Rome?” Serena asked. “As in Rome Devlin?”

“Yeah, why?”

“He’s my godfather,” said Serena pensively. “I didn’t realise he was in charge of protocols.”

Crius lowered his rifle and adjusted his hat, he stood tall and proud. “He’s our leader.”

“Oh,” Serena said. “I didn’t realise.”

“But he’s your godfather,” Justice said. “How could you not know that?” She’d folded her arms as she leant against a tree; her posture suggested she had a million better places to be.

“My parents don’t see him anymore. I only met him once when I was a baby.”

“Ooh, some godfather.”

Crius frowned and ushered them forward, clearly not a man for immaturity. “Come on,” he growled. “Let’s get you out of here.”

A deactivated gate stood hidden in the fence, Crius led them through it and down a trail which led to the Wall. It was a giant monstrosity painted in dirty beige with glassless windows every ten metres at ground level. Searchlights were planted along its heights; fiery eyes in a city of shadows.

At one of the openings stood a guy with mussed black locks, a cigarette hung from his mouth and he studied the forest with narrow eyes.

“Mercy!” Justice leapt forward with an excited squeal. He laughed when she refused to release him from her embrace.

“Nice to see you too, sis,” he said, stubbing his ciggy against the Wall. “How have you been?”

“Bored without you. It’s not been the same.”

His grin widened. “I knew you’d miss me.”

“Shut up!”

Serena watched in amazement. For the first time Justice was being genuinely nice and not to smite another person. She watched her older brother with pure admiration. Serena wondered how long it had been since the siblings had last seen each other, why Justice hadn’t mentioned about seeing her brother before. Did she think showing these feelings would make her weak?

Crius strapped a walkie-talkie to his trousers and checked the gadgets on his belt. “Are we ready to go?” he asked. “We’ve got an hour until our shift ends so we’ll have to be quick out there.”

Justice stepped away from Mercy. “Come with us,” she said. “You can show us around. It’ll be fun.”

“Sorry, Doll, I can’t. I have to stay here in case any officers show up. Don’t want to get rumbled.”

“Then why don’t you and Crius switch?”

“Because he knows the Outlands better and’s handier with a gun. You’re safer with him.”

“Then I’ll stay with you.”

Mercy shook his head. “You know you can’t do that, we’ll all get caught.”

“But—”

“No, Justice. No excuses. It’s different out here.” His eyes softened when her smile faded and he pulled her to his side with a heavy exhale. “Just wait a couple more weeks and we’ll see if we can work in the same zone. Then you can see me whenever you want.”

The Outlands were a scene of mass destruction. Everywhere Serena’s eyes touched was a hazardous jungle of twisted metal and vines suffocating building remnants. A fallen kingdom smothered by rubble and abandoned live, the warped structures were covered in sheets of debris. The Wall lamps lit the destruction like a museum floor tricked in shattered glass.

They began north but with all routes hidden it was hard to tell which way to go. Climbing over crushed telephone boxes and burnt-out cars, Serena began to wonder what Armageddon had been like. She could almost imagine black plumes of smoke, flakes of softly tumbling paper, and the country crumbling like a house of cards.

“Most of the wreckage surrounding the Network was cleared years ago,” Crius explained as they began the journey across the cracked land. “The real mess is a mile or so out. Only the paramount sentries are permitted access that far.”

They walked past dilapidated buildings, once homes and shops, banks and schools, now crumbling and covered in moss. The devastation went on for miles and yet, somewhere out there, was other Networks with different communities.

They stopped in front of an old detached house. Part of the roof was gone and one of the walls was damaged by a protruding car. Number 138 stood alone among the vast lands, one piece of scenery among a horizon of nothingness. The door was hanging off, its green paint faded. Most windows were smashed but a couple on the upper floor remained intact. There must have been a chimney once because there was a stub projected from the roof.

Crius ascended the stairs, nudged the door open with his foot. A light flicked on from his rifle and he shone it across the hallway where a torn loveseat sat next to a dead plant.

“Expecting company?” Justice asked. Even though she put on a brave face, the slump in her shoulders showed she was upset about Mercy. It was even more of a surprise to Serena that Titan didn’t inquire on her welfare.

“No,” he replied, “just doing regular inspections—job protocol and all.”

The strips of cream wallpaper were peeling like rotten skin. The carpet in the hall was covered in mould and questionable stains. On the left a dual door led through to the living room. Here the floors had been wooden but were now as charred as the furniture. The left led to the dining room and kitchen, a mess of broken glass, but otherwise undamaged. It was furnished with a fireplace that opposed a piano. Serena pressed a few of the remaining keys. An off-note pitch shattered the decades of silence.

“Stay here while I go check upstairs,” Crius instructed. “I’ll be right back.”

The stairs groaned as he made his way up. The banisters on either side had fallen away long ago. Dust rained down as his footsteps resonated with hefty echoes upstairs. Serena cleared the grime from a window with the remnants of chintzy curtains.

 After a few moments Crius called down. “You’ve got twenty minutes.”

They split into two groups: Serena with Titan, and Justice with Jet. Because the living room was a danger zone, Titan and Serena took the upstairs first. The carpets on the second floor were rotten too. Large chunks of the ceiling were missing, leaving the house exposed to the years of weather. Pipes were ripped in two, rusted and useless. Doors were off their hinges.

The first room they stepped into was blue and covered in discoloured posters. Serena found an old shirt and wiped the window here, too. The owner of the room had had a view of the back garden, now a tangled mess of weeds and dead grass. There was a shed missing a wall and a rusted bike inside.

Bedroom two was elaborate and inhabited a large bed with tables on either side. Serena opened the wardrobe heavy with clothes.

As she followed the hall to the bathroom she almost wondered how outraged the owners would be when they returned to find their home broken into. But that wouldn’t happen: they and their world were long gone.

The bathroom was a mix of sabotaged plumbing and stale water. The bath was smashed, the toilet dismembered. Serena had to cover her mouth to breathe, and she and Titan rushed into the hall when a rat scurried through the light. There was one last door on the right but it was locked.

 “It’s our turn up here now,” Justice declared when she stepped onto the landing. “Switch.”

The kitchen floor was buried under glass that crunched like stones. The interior differed greatly from those in the Network. Everything here took up space whereas at home, furniture and appliances were fitted in the structures.

“Did you see Crius upstairs?” Titan asked suddenly. His face was lost but his eyes alert. He filled the doorway like a giant.

Serena turned from where she scanned a shelf of cookbooks. “No. Why?”

“I didn’t either.”

“We could go look for him,” she suggested.

Titan shook his head. “No, I’ll go. Here.” He pressed the torch into her hand. “You’ll be okay for a minute, right?”

“Of course.”

Serena didn’t recognise any of the foods in the cupboards. A tin labelled Heinz was a mystery, and a jar marked Nescafe was foreign. She found it unsettling to think a whole era of life was gone in the blink of an eye. She’d hate for someone to know nothing of her generation. In the microwave a meal was imprisoned for its stench, its remains black and very unappetising. Serena wound the light over the room. The clock above the sink was stuck in time, the dining table in eternal wait for its diners. Something outside the window glittered when the torch passed over it, but when Serena moved cast it back, there was nothing there. She squinted. There was definitely something there. As she leaned in, she struggled to determine the glowing shape.

She jumped from her skin when an explosion detonated upstairs. Justice and Jet hovered on the landing.

“Guys, help!” Titan was in the previously locked room. It was near pitch black inside despite the lack of blinds. It must have been a home-office because the only furniture was a toppled chair and broken desk. The light was nearly consumed in the thick darkness. Serena and Justice shone their beams to every corner.

“Titan?” Justice called. She took tentative steps into the room, the floorboards creaked in protest.  “Where are you?”

Jet and Serena followed suit, the door creaked shut behind them. When Serena turned to take inventory she found a large figure slumped against the wall, barely conscious. Jet gasped.

“My God, Crius,” Serena said. She fell to her knees beside him, lifted his chin and felt his pulse, it was weak but there. His eyes fluttered open, irises void of colour. “Are you okay?”

Crius tried to move his head, but was too weak to manage anything more than a groan. His rifle was on the other side of the room. Justice stayed alert.

“What happened?”

“Titan,” he mumbled, “stopped the creature. In there.” He lifted his limp hand to point at a door concealed by shadows.

Justice’s eyes went wide at ‘creature’. She grabbed the rifle from the floor, checked the ammo and began for the entrance at the same time Titan came flying out. He slammed against the window; the door ricocheted and fell away. A man with rotting flesh pounced on him, his claw-like fingers piercing Titan’s shoulders.

Titan tried to wrestle free but the act was useless, his feet only sliced air as the monster pinned him down. Thick green goo oozed from his mouth as he cackled. His gaunt skin pronounced black veins, and needle-thin teeth extended to Titan’s neck.

Justice fired; bullets shot through an old cloak and missed Titan by inches.

Then there was a click, a whoosh, and the creature went careening. An electric rope took it captive.

Four people stepped into the room: two boys and two girls, the former of whom Serena had already seen this evening. They all wore white now. Crystals were embedded in their clothes and worn as jewellery—their weapons were encrusted, too. The black haired girl shot an arrow at the creature’s head with a swift pull of her crossbow.

The monster roared as layer by layer its skin dissolved, disappearing into the floorboards in a murky haze.

Titan fell to the floor, dirt shot into the air. Justice rushed forward to slap his cheeks but he was unresponsive. She slammed the rifle against his crotch.

“Bitch!” he growled.

Justice exhaled. At least he was alive.

“What the hell was that thing?” Serena demanded. Her hair was a tangle of weeds, grazes covered her hands; the sore sensation was a reminder that she was awake and what happened was real.

“It was a demon,” the guy from the Nexus said, “or a fallen angel depending on your preference.”

Serena stared at him. She was at a loss. She wondered why he wasn’t shocked at the monster, how he could explain the matter away as though it were nothing out of the ordinary.

“A demon,” Serena repeated. “You mean like one of Satan’s minions?”

“The very kind.”

She shook her head, whatever the creature had been it certainly wasn’t a demon . . . or a fallen angel . . . whatever.

Titan made his way over to Crius with Justice’s help; neither boy could stand on their own two feet.

Jet approached Serena, sweat and dirt covered his clothes. Maybe it was force of will but something was keeping him from falling apart. 

 “Demons don’t exist,” Serena said. “If anything it was a mutated result of warfare from the Old World, nothing more, nothing less.”

“I wish I could say that were true.”

Justice stepped forward, rifle at the ready. She eyed the strangers venomously.  “Where did you come from?”

Titan had managed to prop himself against the wall, he rubbed his neck with pale white fingers. “Good question,” he said when no one replied, “they might be responsible for this mess.”

“Hey!” A girl with a braid pushed into the room. She wore white trousers and a matching top. Lace boots climbed her legs and her face appeared to shimmer with scales. Serena squinted to discern the abnormality, but she turned away too soon. “In case you hadn’t noticed but we just saved your sorry arses. I suggest you shut up and get the hell out of here.”

“For all we know you could have just put us in more danger,” Justice said. “How do you know there aren’t more of those things lurking out there?”

“There probably are, so remind me not to help you next time.”

“Only if you don’t accidently shoot yourself first.”

Titan hobbled closer, Jet caught him under the arms before he fell flat on his face. He shot Justice a cautionary glance, obviously not happy she’d lost focus so fast.

“What’s your name?” he asked the guy from the Nexus.

“Kit,” he held out his hand. “Kit Denefrio.”

In this weather, Kit should be freezing, but he showed no sign of a chill. Serena studied his form: the wide scope of muscle that melted to chest, the curve of strong shoulders and pronounced hips. In this light his eyes shone silver and his hair brass, almost as though it were twined with the finest gold. The left side of his mouth tilted slightly higher when he smiled, making his lips an intriguing feature to watch. There was a second where Serena thought she saw the same scale-like markings on his face, but if she did, they were absorbed in shadow before she could be certain.

Kit watched her from the doorway, looking curious and slightly wild. “Why couldn’t anyone else see you earlier?” she asked, unable to forget his presence outside school.
                His smile disappeared. “Who says they couldn’t?”

“I pointed you out to Jet this morning but he couldn’t see you.”
                “That’s because he’s human.”
                Serena winced. “And I’m not?”
                “It’s a bit of a sensitive subject.”

Before she knew what was happening, he was inches away, tucking her hair behind her ears and studying her face. His touch was measured, his closeness unsettling. Serena felt her heart jump as his fingers dropped to her collarbone and edged her shirt aside. She wanted to pull away, instinct told her to, but something about Kit kept her rooted in place.

She swallowed. “Um, what are you doing?”

“Dismissing all the possibilities.”

“Of?”

Kit didn’t reply.

Unlike her, he wasn’t hesitant of their proximity. She wondered how many girls he pulled this trick on . . . if it was a trick, and shivered when he traced the skin under her eyes.

She could see Jet stiffen from the corner of her eye. She didn’t know why she was accepting Kit’s behaviour; he’d definitely crossed the line of ‘stranger on stranger’ conduct, but assumed it had something to do with the numbness she felt from the evening’s events.

His rough fingers dropped to her cheeks, her neck, grazed her collarbone. She was in need of reassurance, and on some bizarre level, Kit was the answer.

When he frowned, the lines around his eyes tightened like he wanted to see something that wasn’t there. “You don’t have the Angel’s Crest . . . or the Mark of the Fallen.”

“The what and what?”

“The Fallen are demons.” He dropped his hands and moved back to the doorway. “They have a sort of birthmark trailing their faces which indicates how much time they have before they die—it’s an indication of age, the ending of mortality. Most don’t like it to be on show as it can be a weakness, so they wear make-up to keep it hidden.

“An Angel’s Crest is similar but for Guardians. Ours is solely for verity.” When he turned to read her expression, she recognised that same spread of scales she’d seen before. Like an arrangement of metallic shells, they flashed with iridescence before fading to skin again.

“Surely you’re not serious?” she asked, not ready to accept this fable so easily.

“I’m as serious as you are about remaining in M-C-One.”
                “How do you know about that?”

Again, he ignored her, and her patience was starting to wear thin. She was about to demand some answers, call bluff on this joke, when the dark haired girl spoke up.

“Demons feed from the energy of humans, it’s how they survive. The act causes havoc depending on the quantity taken—that’s what just happened to your friend. After the apocalypse, most of the demons in Britain relocated, what with the decline of the human race there was no reason for them to stay. But there are some still around, a Faction out here,” she pointed to where to monster had vapored into the floor. “This demon was probably warned about you. You’re very dangerous in their eyes right now.”

“Her?” exclaimed Justice. “You have got to be kidding me. She wouldn’t even swat a fleck of dust.”

There was curiosity in Kit’s expression which made him seem less intimidating for a moment. “You really believe you’re human like any other person,” he said to Serena. “Why?”

She didn’t have an answer but the blonde did. “She’s lying. She’s just trying to pull the wool over our eyes.”

“Soleil, shut up,” the other girl demanded.

“But, Luna—”

“No.”

 “But you’re human,” Serena said.

“No. We’re not. And neither are you.”

Kit dragged a hand down his face. “On the outside you’re human, a normal person just like your friends here. Ordinarily they wouldn’t be able to see us because we glamour ourselves—like demons can—but normally we’re invisible to the human eye, which is why your friend couldn’t see me earlier . . . and you could.”

Jet stepped forward. Serena was glad. She didn’t know how much more she could take. “So why have you been following her all day?”

“Because the Faction leader believes she’s a threat. Shego runs a Faction on the outskirts of the Network. She thinks Serena used to be one of us, but left to live among the Network. She sends out demons to capture ex-Guardians to find out about future attacks.”

“Well I’m not just going to sit back and get kidnapped,” Serena exclaimed. “The Network won’t allow it; the sentries won’t let her in.”

“You’re not listening to me.” Kit ran a hand over the fine scruff of his jaw. “The sentries won’t know any different because the demons will be invisible to them, like they usually are. It’s how we get out here, too, they don’t see us.”

“I can’t believe you expect us to believe this bull,” Justice chimed in. “I’ve never heard such idiocy in all my life.”

“Don’t believe what we say. It doesn’t matter to us. What you’ve seen tonight should be enough to persuade anyone, though.”

Serena analysed the scene once more. She felt the sting when she pinched her arm, smell the stench of decay in the house; like Kit said, it was enough, even if she didn’t want to believe it. “So what am I supposed to do? I can’t exactly hide in the Network, everyone knows everywhere.” Serena caught the uncertain grimace on Kit’s face and frowned. “You’re not planning to let me go back, are you?”

“Not tonight. Not until we can come up with a plan.”

“She’s not going anywhere with you,” Jet said firmly. “You can’t just take her away.”

“That’s not really your choice.”

“And who’s Cornelia, anyway?”

“Our Regent, our adviser, she looks after us.”

“So how do we know you’re not demons?”

“If we were, you’d be dead by now,” Luna said. “You can be sure of that.”

Jet turned to face the window. The pink streaks of sunset had faded away and the night was consumed by thick, dark clouds. Luna seemed to notice the hour at the same time and ushered Soleil downstairs to safeguard. They both had similar features: the same button noses and pointed chins. Serena guessed they were twins.

“We need to get back to the Network,” Luna said, making her way to Crius. Justice jumped in the way. “He needs medical attention. You won’t be able to carry him,” Luna explained.

Justice lifted her chin, defiant.

“Please?”

“Why should I trust you?”

“We saved your lives once already. Don’t make us regret it.”

She stepped aside. Luna threw Crius over her shoulder in one easy move. It was somewhat ironic to see a girl half his size carry him without problem. Kit assisted Serena with Titan and followed the others into the Outlands.

“Xav,” Luna said, “Phone Cornelia to send transport.”

Outside there was an intense light show. The air was thick with humidity causing Serena’s top to cling to her chest. If it weren’t for the hair spray she’d look like a mad scientist. The smell of electricity was heavy; the damp earth shrouded her as she stood among the deserted lands. Titan insisted on leaning against the house but Kit stood near him regardless, ready to help if needed.

“So this is great,” Soleil said to Luna. “Now three too many people know about us. What are we going to do?”

“There’s not much we can do but ask them not to speak of tonight.”

“I think we should wipe their memories.”

“The Damnatio Memoriae crystal hasn’t been tested yet. Human minds are delicate, we can’t risk it yet.”

“A technicality,” she mumbled. “You can’t be certain that they won’t blab to anyone.”

“Even if they did, there’s no physical evidence of us, and besides, they wouldn’t want to risk upsetting their community—they won’t talk.”

The Network was apparent in the distance by the lamps on top of each division but the rain made it seem a mirage. Jet lingered by a dented bin, kicking up dirt and rubbing his neck. Serena decided to leave him to his own devices for now; even she didn’t know what to make of the evening.

A sleek black jeep emerged from the darkness. A sliding door moved aside as a staircase descended down. Serena was amazed at its engineering. Like vehicles in the Network, the jeep hovered, but it didn’t work by magnets. It had a double exhaust and a smooth aerodynamic structure. It remained ten foot above wreckage level, floating steadily. There were blue lights shining from the chassis; they seemed to have crystalized bulbs. Serena was surprised that the Network hadn’t thought to create something similar. The possibilities vehicles like it could give would be incredible. Expansion would be possible. Studies on the Old World could be undertaken. One day even tours could be arranged.

The jeep was furnished in black leather. Serena collapsed into a seat between the door and Jet. The Guardians opposed them in an uncomfortable silence.

The vessel shuddered forward with a kick. Jet found Serena’s hand and rubbed it with his thumb. She rolled her head across the seat to study him and caught Kit’s curious expression. He was quick to find interest in his boots.

Luna began to talk secrecy, but Serena was too tired to listen and was pretty sure she was excluded after becoming a target in a world she could never imagine real. She closed her eyes as they drew closer to the Network.

The vehicle didn’t rattle the way cars did; the journey was a ride through the clouds, effortless, easy, a travel to dreams and further away.

She welcomed it with open arms. Sleep could take her for ever.

 

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