Welcome to BLIGHT, a world run by AgraStar, the only corporation you need to keep your food fresh, your people alive, and your home safe. That is, of course, if you work for them, and live within the perimeter of one of their farms. Outside are the scavengers, the criminals and the thieves. But when Tempest Torres is chosen for a special work force, she discovers that the threats aren’t just outside AgraStar borders. People within are breaking the highly enforced rules, and while she works to discover the truth, the blight is spreading, killing everything—and everyone—in its path.
This action-packed story by Alexandra Duncan hits shelves on August 1st, but you can start reading below! Keep scrolling for the trailer and first two chapters of BLIGHT!
I brace the rifle against my shoulder and press my eye to the sight. The night pulses with cricket chirps and the deep, throaty calls of frogs somewhere in the neighboring forest. The moon has long gone down.
“Two scavengers outside the south perimeter,” I mutter into my coms. “Engage?”
“Hold.” Crake’s voice crackles back to me. “Scanning.”
The wind stirs, lifting my hair and carrying the scent of new corn over the company fields, up to the guard nest where I stand. I pull back my rifle’s bolt and chamber a round in preparation, then follow the scavengers with my scope. There are two of them this time, thin things in drab clothes, about thirty yards out. One male, one female. They run forward at a crouch.
“Approaching the fence,” I tell Crake.
Metal glints in the moonlight. I refocus my scope. One of them—the man—clutches a pair of wire cutters. The other one will have the sacks, then. She scuttles through the brush, two hanks of long, matted blond hair escaping her hood.
“Permission to engage.” Crake’s voice flares in my headset.
“Looks like we have some repeat offenders out tonight. Fire when ready.”
I steady the rifle and find the man’s forehead in my sights. He kneels beside the fence, already making fast work of the chain links beneath the first run of razor wire.
“Gotcha.” I move my finger to the trigger.
Just then, he whips his head up to say something to his accomplice, and the moonlight catches his face. He’s young. My age, maybe a little older. His dark hair sticks up as though it’s been cut with a blunt knife. The girl grips his hand and strokes the back of his palm with her thumb. My throat closes.
“Tempest.” Crake’s voice cuts in. “What are you waiting for? Take them out.”
I swallow and refit my eye to the scope. The boy has cut two of the links already. Any second, they’ll have a hole big enough to wriggle through.
Old enough to know better. I try to talk myself up to it. Old enough to have made his choice.
He’s stealing the company’s lifeblood, stealing the food straight from my mouth. He’s a shirk, a parasite, living off hardworking people. But for some reason, I can’t shoot.
“Tempest!” Crake shouts. “You deaf, girl? Fire.”
His voice jolts me into action. On instinct, I drop my sight from the boy’s head to his hand and fire. The cutters fly from his fingers exactly as the rifle’s recoil jostles my shoulder, ruining my view. A smothered yelp echoes through the night.
“Did you get them?” Crake is in my ear again. “Are they down?”
I swing my scope over the dense brush, trying to find them. There, the fence. A four-link section partially pried up
from the dust. I scan the no-man’s-land between the fence and the woods. A flash of white flits through the weeds. The girl’s hair in the moonlight. They’re doubling back to the forest.
A burst of static crosses my coms. “Tempest—”
“Negative.” I trail the rifle’s sight across the field, closer to the tree line. “They’ve gone rabbit.” A stir of movement. Found them.
“Shit,” I mutter. Now all I can do is make this look good enough to keep a reprimand off my file. “I’m on it, Crake. Just let me do my job.”
I snap off my coms and focus on the pair running full tilt for the trees. The boy cradles his right hand against his chest as the girl pulls him along through the dark. I aim low and fire into the dust at their feet. Clods of dirt kick up as the rifle cracks again and again. The scavengers burst forward, hands locked.
I fire a final shot, high this time. It sinks into one of the trees, spraying bark as they finally cross beneath the arms of the oaks bordering the wood. And like that, they’re gone.
I shoulder my rifle. The gunshots fade, and the night holds its breath. I close my eyes, inhaling the mix of fresh burned powder and sweet corn.
“Tempest?” Crake’s voice spills out of the guard nest’s loudspeakers, ruining the quiet. “You care to tell me what in the great bleeding hell that was?”
I flip on my coms again. “I’m here, Crake. You don’t have to yell.”
“The hell I don’t,” he says over the loudspeaker. Then back in my ear again. “They got away.”
“Sorry, my ass.” Crake’s tone softens to a grumble. “I’m sending Seth to relieve you. You’re shift’s almost up anyway. Get down here and write your incident report before you clock out, you hear me?”
“Loud and clear.” I switch off my coms and drop my head against my knees. What was I thinking, getting all sappy over a pair of shirks? I’ve shot my efficiency stats to hell and made myself look disastrously incompetent in the process. But what’s done is done. I can’t stay curled up in the guard nest all night.
I check my rifle to be sure the chamber’s empty before swinging it onto my back. I stand looking at the forest, a dense pool of black at my feet, blacker even than the sky. Somewhere in the darkness, a lone cricket trills, and as if it’s called all clear, the whole night resumes its song. I climb down from the guard nest and make my way to the bunker.
A gust of stuffy heat hits me as soon as I key myself past the blast doors with my data band. Our condensers have been down all week, but the maintenance teams have been slammed, probably upgrading equipment at the research and development lab at the center of the compound or one of the other facilities that take precedence over our satellite bunker. I pass Seth on the way in, decked out in a spotless gray company sweater and regulation black knit cap that would match my own if I weren’t so rumpled and sweaty from standing watch since 2300.
“Way to go, Eagle Eye.” He sights me along his fingers and pretends to shoot.
Seth’s parents are only sharecroppers, but his family has been with the company since this compound was founded. They’re legacy. Early on in our training, he figured out I was a charity case, the daughter of a shirk who died right outside the compound gates, and made it his mission to remind me of his staggering superiority every chance he gets. He’s one of those people who fit in effortlessly wherever they go. He never stands awkwardly on the edge of a briefing room or digs his nails into his palms while he’s waiting for monthly deterrence and accuracy stats to post. He doesn’t need to worry about proving his loyalty to AgraStar, because no one would ever think to question it, least of all him.
I roll my eyes, pull off my cap, and keep walking. Track lights run the length of the bunker’s broad, windowless corridor, angling subtly down into the earth. For some reason, the sight of those lights makes me more tired than being out in the dark. I check my data band . . . 0428. I should have enough time to finish my report and hit the mess hall before the morning rush. I might even get in an hour of sleep before daybreak.
I shoulder open the door to the Eye, our security monitoring center. I scan my rifle in and stow it back in the specialty weapons rack beside the other company firearms. One of the cheery AgraStar Conglomerate posters that line our halls and dormitories looks back at me from behind the guns—a determined-looking young man caught in midjog, with a golden field of ripe corn and a bluebonnet sky stretching behind him. food is fuel read the bold white letters overlapping his feet.
“Tempest?” Crake calls from the feed room, his head silhouetted against the sickly green-blue glow of the monitor bank.
“Here.” I tug off my sweater over my head, accidentally pulling my hair free of its high pony tail. The night’s humidity has turned my curls into an unruly mass of frizz, and the bunker’s heat is already getting to me. My undershirt is soaked through.
Crake leans back in his chair so he can see me through the doorway. His red hair sticks up in wisps above his frogbelly-white face. “What the hell happened out there? You think I don’t have enough to worry about with the moles and anarchists trying to hack us all the time?”
I concentrate on folding my sweater. What am I supposed to say? That I can still see their hands intertwined? That no one has ever touched me with such tenderness?
“He moved at the last second,” I say. “I would’ve got him otherwise.”
Crake grunts. “You know what I tell you. The majority of system failures—”
“Are the result of human error,” I finish for him. I give up trying to fold the sweater and chuck it into the rolling laundry bin parked in the corner. “I had a bad night, okay? And maybe I could shoot better if I didn’t have someone buzzing in my ear every second.”
“Hmmph.” Crake looks at the bank of displays. Over the feeds, the grainy figures of guards change places. The view flips between the guard nests and known weak spots in the compound’s acres-long fence, the grain elevators, and the sharecroppers’ homesteads in an endless loop. What was I thinking? I owe my whole life to AgraStar. Without it, I’d be one of those sorry wretches skulking the perimeter, stealing food out of other people’s mouths. They took me in when I was a kid, begging at the gates. They gave me food and shelter, all free, until I was old enough to start learning a trade, giving back. And this is how I’ve repaid them.
“I nicked him, at least. Scared them both off.” I say in a quieter voice, as much to myself as to Crake. “It’s not like they got anything,”
“Yeah, and now we’ve got a hole in the fence big enough for any scavenger to waltz through.” Crake still sounds mad, but I can tell he’s winding down. “Who’s going to fix that, huh?”
“I will.” I sigh. “Okay? If it’ll get you off my back, I’ll go as soon as it’s light.” So much for getting any sleep before dawn.
“Fine.” He turns back to his feeds. “Don’t forget your report.”
I knock out the incident report—0506 now—and head down to the mess for my morning rations. On the way, I pass the women’s quarters, still dark except for small rectangles of predawn blue creeping in through the high windows. I stare past the sleeping shapes to my own bunk by the far wall, directly beneath the fire escape, and for a moment, I let myself imagine falling face-first on my mattress, pulling the blackout curtains closed, and passing out until lights-on at 0600.
But no, I have a fence to fix.
Hardly anyone is up as I fill my tray with a bowl of plain cornmeal grits and a shrink-wrapped green apple from our sister farm facility, several hundred miles northeast in the Appalachian Mountains. That’s one of the benefits of being a company employee, getting in on the shipments of food from other facilities. The bulk of our crop is destined for ethanol production, but we eat the excess. Everyone gets sick of corn after a while, but at least with AgraStar’s model, you get some variety. I don’t know how those monoculturalists up at Bloom—one of our competitors—cope with growing only soybeans. Eat a lot of tofu, I guess. Poor bastards.
I drop my tray at a table, peel off the apple’s wrapper—AgraStar Conglomerate: Leading the Way to a Healthy Planet—and bite into it. It’s dry and underripe, but at least it’s not corn. Might be the Appalachian facility is having trouble with white rot again; maybe that’s why they’re harvesting their crop so early this year. Last year, we lost nearly half our apple harvest to blight. We would have lost all of it if our scientists didn’t have a fail-safe built into the company model. We always distribute two variants per harvest, each genetically engineered to resist all known pests and diseases. If one fails or turns out not to be as rot resistant as we thought, we have the other variant to fall back on. Production might drop, and we might go a little hungry some years, but we never starve.
I gnaw the apple down to its core and am about to start on the pool of congealed grits when a pack of boys from security forces strolls in, led by Ellison Long.
I freeze, spoon halfway into my bowl. Ellison is the best shot on the whole security force. At nineteen, he’s already good enough to lead his own hand-selected team on special enforcement missions, and he’s in charge of sniper training for new sharpshooters. He’s the one who taught me to load and fire a rifle, to spot movement in the dark and determine if it’s an animal or a scavenger.
And he was a charity case, like me. A patrol found him next to his dead mother when he was only a few months old, and now he’s shooting up through the security ranks. Leticia from dispatch told me she heard corporate is interested in him for a position at AgraStar’s facility in Charlotte, or maybe even at their headquarters in Atlanta. I don’t usually get caught up in things like this, but no one would deny Ellison is nice to look at, too, with his close-cropped hair, his big, blacklashed eyes, and his dark brown skin. I would have a crush on him if it weren’t impossible to think he might remember I exist, much less like me back.
Please, please, please, I say silently. Don’t let him have heard about this morning.
But no such luck.
Ellison breaks from his group and meanders over to my table. “Hey, Torres.” He’s always called me by my last name, as if we’re both still in training. “Heard you had a bad morning.”
“Yeah.” I turn my spoon over in the glop that’s become my breakfast and sincerely wish I’d thought to shower before coming to the mess. One minute under Ellison’s gaze and I’m thirteen again, his hand on mine, guiding me as I pull back the bolt on my rifle. I blush. “Guy moved at the last second.”
Ellison shakes his head. “Happens to the best of us.” He pulls out the chair next to me and sits down. “This one time I took a shot at this scavenger. I thought I had the back of his head, but instead I ended up hitting the bag he had slung over his shoulder.”
I manage a weak smile. “Yeah?” He’s sitting with me. Ellison Long is sitting with me.
“I’m talking corn everywhere.” Ellison spreads his arms out over his head, miming an explosion. “Crake was pissed, but I told him, hey, at least the shirks didn’t get it.”
I laugh, but it comes out high-pitched and childish. What’s wrong with me? Ellison says something to me and all of a sudden I turn into one of those idiot girls who can only giggle when a boy’s nearby? I clear my throat. “Thanks, that—”
“Hey, El,” one of his friends shouts across the mess hall. “You eating with us, or what?”
“Hold up a sec,” Ellison yells back. And then, to me, “What you’ve gotta do is get back on the horse, you know what I’m saying?”
I nod. “The horse. Right.”
“You on duty this afternoon?” Ellison asks.
“Duty?” My mind goes suddenly, horribly blank. It’s been too long since I’ve slept, and Ellison Long is talking to me. Apparently, his presence has the same effect on me as a frontal lobotomy. I force my mind back on target. “No. I’m on night shift all this week.”
“Good.” He smiles. “I’m going up to mile marker two-twenty-six this afternoon, and I need another pair of boots. You game?”
For a moment, I can’t wrap my mind around what he’s asking, and then it hits me like a thunderclap. “You want me
for your team?” Everyone wants to be chosen for Ellison’s enforcement missions. It’s not just me. No matter who you are, there’s something about him that makes you want to please him, to make him proud, to make him notice you.
“Yeah,” Ellison says. “You’re serious about your job, Torres. I like that. I need that in my ranks.”
My chest goes as hot as my face. Is he giving me a pity mission because of what happened this morning? Or showing me some preference because I grew up like him? But no, Ellison never treated me any different than the other trainees when I was learning to shoot. That’s one of the things I’ve always respected about him. He judges people on their abilities, not where they came from.
“What do you say?” Ellison asks.
I don’t deserve it, I want to blurt out. I let that scavenger go. But I don’t. I say the only thing there is to say. “Of course.”
“Great.” Ellison smiles again and pushes his chair back from the table. “Meet me at the motor-pool yard at sixteen hundred, and make sure you bring your M4.”
“My M4?” I’d expect to bring a handgun, maybe, but an M4? That’s an assault rifle. Mile marker 226 is square in the middle of sharecropper territory. What kind of trouble is Ellison expecting on our own land?
Ellison must see the look on my face. “I don’t think you’ll need it, but you never know what you’ll run into. Can’t hurt to be prepared.”
“Right.” I make myself smile.
Ellison backs away. “Don’t forget, sixteen hundred.”
“Sixteen hundred,” I echo as he rejoins his friends.
I stare down at my bowl. Ellison Long wants to try me out for his team. If I do well on a mission with him, everyone will forget my sloppy shooting this morning. Maybe he’ll even ask me to join him on a regular basis. That would shut Seth up. No more midnight guard duties, only special assignments and intensive training and sitting with Ellison’s team at meals. Sitting with Ellison.
Whoa. I bring myself back down to earth. First things first, Torres. Do your job. No more screwing up. No more softheaded mercy for scavengers. Ellison wants only the best.
I shovel down my breakfast and swing by the women’s showers to splash cold water on my face. As I stand hunched over the sink, the door creaks open behind me, and a parade of bleary-eyed girls from the children’s quarters stumble in to brush their teeth.
Their minder, a bear of a woman with pale skin and heavy brown bangs, shrugs apologetically. “Sorry. Water’s out in kid land again.”
“No problem.” I smile at the girls in what I hope is a kind way. These are kids like I was, charity cases and the children of AgraStar employees who’ve died in the line of duty—mostly transport drivers and security forces on duty rotations outside the compound. The oldest one is probably eight, the youngest five. They stare at me with big, nervous eyes.
“It’s all right, girls,” their minder says. “Security forces are our friends. They keep us safe, right?”
The girls all nod solemnly.
The minder sighs and gives me an apologetic eye roll over the tops of their heads. Kids, you know?
I keep the smile plastered on my face, but something heavy settles in my gut. I back out the door and take the stairs to Requisitions for the spare parts I’ll need to fix the fence. Metal corrugate, welding mask and torch, gloves.
The sun has broken the horizon by the time I make it outside, and the world is heating up. Soon the bunker with its vents hissing lukewarm air will be the coolest place for miles. I tramp past the grain elevators and down a red-dirt service road cut through the acres of corn. La milpa, my brain tries to say, but I swat the word away. English only. That’s the official language of AgraStar. I learned that lesson my first year on the compound. I sigh, annoyed with myself. If I want to be the perfect AgraStar recruit—good enough for Ellison’s team—I have to get rid of these last vestiges of the things my father tried to program into me before he died.
The crickets keep up their calls from the shade—they don’t know it’s day yet—and the thin whist of the sharecroppers spraying pesticide somewhere in the tall green rows floats over their voices. Harvest is almost here, and then the rumble of combines will overtake this quiet morning song. Near the perimeter, I come upon a sharecropper refilling his backpack tank from a drum parked along the side of the road.
He’s old enough to be my father, but he tips his hat at me. “Ma’am.” The sun has baked his skin the deep red of the dirt.
I smile and return his salute. Not all sharecroppers are so polite. Some of them, the young ones mostly, resent those of us on security forces, call us pigs and cogs. But they could have chosen to go out for the forces, the same as I could have chosen to start sharecropping.
When I turned twelve, the recruitment officers took me aside, just like everyone else. I had been living, eating, learning to read and write, all at AgraStar’s expense, since the company found me outside the gates of our compound, SCP-52, when I was five. I could start working in the fields immediately, they said, paying back my debt, and either be free to leave the compound or begin working toward a homestead of my own by the time I was nineteen. One year of work for every year I’d been under the company’s wing. Or I could continue my training and education. I could study and become a scientist for them, or a teacher, or a member of the security force. My years of debt service would be longer, but I’d have more variety in my work. I’d learn special skills. The company would value me. I could grow up to be somebody.
I finished my training and earned my first security post the year I turned fifteen. Eight more years, and my debt will be paid back. I can start contracting with the company on my own by the time I’m twenty-five. Not bad for someone who could have ended up a shirk.
I reach the perimeter. The sun is out in full force now, no clouds, no wind, only a white-hot sky cut by a twenty-foot tall chain-link fence festooned in stripes of razor wire. Our compound covers a few hundred square miles, most of that land devoted to growing corn. Four security substations are positioned north, south, east, and west, with an R&D facility and ethanol production plant at the heart of the territory. The security fence encircles it all, keeping out the shirks and road gangs and anarchists. A breach puts nearly six thousand loyal AgraStar contractors and sharecroppers at risk.
I drop the corrugate against the links, fit the welding mask over my head, and tug on my gloves. The sooner I get this done, the sooner I can go back and grab some sleep.
I kneel in the dirt and let the torch’s blue flame kiss metal. Embers spark and fall around me, cooling from white to red by the time they hit the ground. Slowly I fuse the arm-long square of corrugate to the links, then stand back and inspect my work as it cools. It’s a simple job, but a good weld. I pull off my mask. Sweat rolls down my back and my hair is soaked through. I shade my eyes and look down the line of fence to where it disappears into the curve of cornstalks. Reinforced squares like mine dot the length of it as far as I can see. Someday the entire lower third of this fence is going to be nothing but overlapping metal patchwork.
Something glints in the scrub grass beside the fence some ten paces down the line. I walk over and squat in the dirt. What . . . ?
I lie down and work my hand through the bottommost link. There. The metal is hot from lying in the sun, but I pull it through anyway. I sit up and examine my find. The cutters, the ones the scavenger boy was using last night. A scoop of metal is missing from the outer edge of the business end, where my bullet must have hit it after clipping the boy’s hand.
The still air pulses with heat. I stare out at the forest, insects trilling in my ears. What happened to that boy? Is he lying in the heat somewhere, sweating out a fever from the wound? Is that girl with him, laying her cool palm over his forehead? Are they waiting for darkness to fall so they can try again? The image of their hands laced together surges in my mind again, but this time, all I feel is hate. No one has ever held my hand that way. No one has ever led me through the dark. I do fine on my own, thanks. I’m no shirk who needs to live off other people. I should have done everyone a favor and put them both out of their misery.
I stand and brush the dust from my shirt. No use beating myself up. I know what to do next time. I stuff the cutters in my pocket, gather my welding torch and mask, and start walking back through the shimmering heat to the bunker. If I don’t stop thinking about it, I’m never going to get to sleep. I need to be rested for my first mission with Ellison.
I stand outside the motor pool with my rifle over my shoulder. I’ve traded my sniping gear for a short-sleeved day uniform with the company’s signature starburst emblazoned over my heart. My hair is pulled back in a braid, still damp from the shower. I caught a few hours’ sleep in the women’s dormitory, but I could have used more. The day has that unreal feeling it takes on when you wake up in midafternoon, like you’re out of step with the rest of the world.
I shift from one foot to the other. It’s 1559. No sign of Ellison yet. My chest tightens. Should I have come earlier? Are they already gone? Or was this some cruel joke all along? Ellison’s never seemed like the type to play pranks, but maybe I’ve had him wrong. After all, who am I to think I deserve a shot like this? Tempest with the dead shirk dad, capable enough not to be singled out for hatred, but not vibrant or legacy or enough of anything to be welcomed in, either. I should stick to spending my time shadowing Crake in the Eye or, better yet, at the firing range, convincing everyone I really did miss and I’m trying to make up for it.
The readout on my data band flips over to 1600. On cue, an open-topped truck swings into the motor yard, spitting a cloud of dust in its wake and filling the air with the smell of burning corn oil. Two boys and a girl, all sporting bare, tanned arms and mirrored sunglasses, fill the backseat. I know them by sight. The girl is Danica Hwang, and the boys are Will Betts and Marco Etowah. Ellison’s handpicked team. The tightness in my chest releases.
“Torres!” Ellison waves to me from the driver’s seat.
I jog after them and stow my rifle alongside the others in the gun rack bolted to the back of the truck. Ellison’s teammates watch me like foxes. They’re all a few years older than I am, close to Ellison’s age. I swallow and try to smile, but I think I might come off more nervous and crazed than friendly and competent. Don’t screw this up, Tempest.
Ellison pats the seat beside him in the front. “C’mon, Torres. Saddle up.”
I boost myself into the cab and clip the seat belt across my chest. The wire cutters press against my lower back. I don’t know why I’ve kept them. As a reminder, maybe, to do my job, not to be soft when duty calls.
Ellison twists around in his seat. He’s left his uniform unbuttoned in the heat, so the white of his undershirt shows. “Torres, this is Hwang, Betts, and Etowah. Y’all, this is Torres. She’s filling in for Max today. She’s a solid shot.”
“Usually,” I add, and am relieved to see Danica crack a smile. So they’ve heard.
Ellison shifts the truck into drive and swings us around. As we pull out of the motor-pool yard, we pass Seth trudging back to the bunker. His eyes catch mine, and for one brief second I have the satisfaction of seeing them go wide. Then we’re gone, past our outpost’s thick concrete walls and onto one of the long streaks of dirt road that radiate out from the heart of the compound.
A thrill runs through my stomach as the truck jounces over the uneven road. I’m on a mission with Ellison Long. Soon my poor marksmanship will be nothing more than a funny story I tell new recruits to cheer them up.
Fields and fields of head-high corn go by, broken only by secondary roads and the occasional glimpse of sharecroppers bent among the bright green rows.
Marco leans forward. “Where we off to, boss?” I can barely hear him over the engine and the wind whipping past my ears.
“Mile marker two-two-six.” Ellison squints at the road and fishes up the pair of sunglasses hooked to his shirt.
“The Kingfisher share again?” Danica asks.
Ellison nods. “One of the pest eradication patrols up in the northeast sector found some nonstandard seed varieties floating around. They want us to look in, see what we can see. It could simply be an invasive species drifting in on the wind—”
“Or it could be Harry Kingfisher.” Marco finishes for him.
I crane my neck to look back at Marco. “You think he’s growing an invasive species on purpose?”
“Not just growing,” Marco says. “Distributing.”
Even Will, who’s been staring out the window through his black mirrored sunglasses this whole time, nods.
“But. . .” I frown. I can’t think of a good reason why anyone would jeopardize our harvest by planting invasive, nonstandard seeds. Our R&D teams pour so much work into calibrating and tweaking AgraStar seeds to produce the most disease-resistant, high-yield crops possible. “Why? Who’d want them?”
Ellison shakes his head. “Not everyone’s an upstanding citizen like you, Torres. If you ride with us, you’re going to see the ugly side of things.” He spares a glance at me. “You up for that?”
“Of course.” I wish I could see his eyes, but all I can see is the reflection of myself, sitting ramrod straight in the passenger seat, tendrils of dark brown hair escaping my braid in the wind. I tuck the wayward strands behind my ears. “Whatever you’ve got, I’m up for it.”
“That’s my girl.” Ellison holds out one hand and locks our wrists together in a quick, tight grip.
We bump over the unpaved roads at top speed. Mile 224. 225. 226. Abruptly, the corn drops away to reveal a standard sharecropper homestead—red tin roof, cinder-block walls, a simple vinyl awning stretched over a porch along the front of the house. A small boy dressed only in a pair of old canvas pants sits under the awning, scratching a greasy-looking beagle behind the ears. His head snaps up at the sound of our engine. He takes one look at us, overturns his chair, and lights out across the small patch of unplanted dirt in front of the house. He crashes into the corn and disappears before Ellison can even kill the engine.
“See,” Marco says. “What’d I tell you?”
“Bad sign,” Ellison agrees.
We step out of the truck. The dog rises to its feet and lets loose an uneasy half bark, half growl.
“Rifles,” Ellison reminds us. “Safety on.”
I wait my turn and unload my gun from the rack. This is what everyone loves about Ellison. He’s tough-minded, but fair. He looks out for people like Harry Kingfisher, even when those people flout the company rules and put us all at risk with their own stupidity. He was that same way with us trainees when I was younger—he’d call us out for being careless with our weapons or talking shit about the company, but he wouldn’t report us if we shaped up. And wanting him to like us was enough reason to shape up. I shoulder my rifle and approach the house alongside Will, Ellison, and Danica. Marco stays posted, standing in the back of the truck.
The Kingfishers don’t grow pleasant runs of company-issued chrysanthemums and black-eyed Susans in front of their house, like most sharecroppers. Instead, they’ve filled the ground around their porch with untamed bushes of flowering chamomile and great, shaggy tomato plants bearing purple-red fruit. A run of white honeysuckle engulfs one end of the porch and spills up onto the roof, a blatant violation. I can see why Ellison and his crew suspect Harry Kingfisher. As invasive species go, honeysuckle comes in second only to the kudzu that creeps up from the forest surrounding the compound.
A tall, stocky man with a full head of gray hair pulled back in a ponytail appears in the shadow behind the screen door. His face is brown and lined.
“Harry Kingfisher?” Ellison calls.
The dog sounds a warning bark and takes a step forward.
“Easy, girl.” The man pushes open the door. “What d’ you want this time?” The dog backs behind his legs with a snarl.
“You want to tell me what this is about?” Ellison waves at the honeysuckle.
“I told you before, the stuff just grows.” Kingfisher crosses his arms. “Nothing for it.”
Danica tosses a look over her shoulder and rolls her eyes at me.
“What about the tomatoes?” Ellison nods at the plants. “You got a permit for them?” Since the company considers sharecroppers independent contractors leasing company land, rather than company employees like us, they don’t get a share of produce from other facilities, except when their land becomes part of the Fallows once every six years. Instead, they’re allowed to grow a certain number of subsistence crops—tomatoes or green beans, maybe—to supplement their diet. So long as they meet their corn quota, anyway.
“Course I got a permit.” Kingfisher steps out into the yard and lets the screen door slam behind him. “What, do I look stupid? Growing contraband in my own front yard?”
“Let’s see it, then,” Ellison says.
The man’s eyes tighten. “I showed it to you last month when you were out here.”
“If you’ll just oblige us, sir.”
Kingfisher curses and reaches into his back pocket. “One day a bunch of self-important kids are going to show up on your doorstep and harass you about some meaningless bullshit, you know.” He pulls out a well-creased paper and shakes it at Ellison. “Here.”
“Thank you,” Ellison says.
“You know, people like us used to stick together.” Kingfisher shakes his head. “Life’s hard enough without some suits picking apart everything we do.”
Ellison raises an eyebrow. “People like us?”
“You know what I mean.” Kingfisher nods at Ellison’s bare forearms, and I realize he’s talking about his skin. Kingfisher looks at me. “You too, miss. You ought to be looking out for us, not grinding us down.”
A bone-deep discomfort rears up in me. I scowl and adjust my grip on my rifle. That’s the old way of thinking, from before the company came in and made everything fair and equal. No wonder Harry Kingfisher’s always getting himself in trouble.
“You know it’s not like that anymore,” Ellison says without looking up, and from the tired way he says it, I can tell they’ve had this conversation before. “If somebody hears you talking that way, corporate’s going to hit you with a libel citation.”
“You keep telling yourself that,” Kingfisher says. “Someday you’re going to learn who’s really looking out for you and who’s using you. I just hope it’s not too late.”
Will backs up next to me and stares at the homestead’s roof, careful not to look my way. “Boss man and I can keep him dancing. Walk the perimeter. See if you spot anything.”
I nod and start around the house in a wide circle as Ellison unfolds the permit and inspects it. A peeling black oil tank hunches along the building’s side, surrounded by weeds. The dirt under my feet is hard packed as concrete.
“Hey,” Kingfisher calls out behind me. “Where’s she going?”
“Hey, girl! There’s nothing you need over there.”
“Mr. Kingfisher.” Ellison’s voice rings out, loud and commanding. “You don’t need to concern yourself with her. You only need to worry about our conversation, right here.”
I refocus, keep walking. Nothing unusual at the back of the house. Faded bedsheets and a woman’s blue denim dress flap on the laundry lines strung between two T-shaped poles. A rusty generator against the house. A plywood chicken coop. In fact, nothing is strange about the Kingfisher homestead at all, except how quiet it is. No sounds carry over the corn, not voices, not even the gentle hiss of pesticide raining down on crops. All the other homesteads I’ve visited have been lousy with kids scampering across the lawn or busy at some chore or another, their parents shouting for them to hurry up with this or fetch that. It’s far too quiet.
I make for the wall of corn. Kingfisher’s voice comes back into range behind me, angry and unintelligible, followed by the murmur of Ellison trying to keep him calm. The cornstalks crackle as I push them aside. The leaves are tough as ribbed canvas beneath my hands. I unsling my rifle and use its muzzle to push my way through. The quiet grows thicker the deeper I go. No wind, no insects, only sun and corn.
“Ow.” A muffled yelp. I freeze.
“Watch it,” a kid whispers.
“No, you watch it,” another kid rasps back.
“Boys.” A woman. “Hush.”
I advance slowly, careful not to step on the dry husks that have fallen to the dirt and give myself away. Maybe I’m going crazy—the sharecroppers all tell stories about sound traveling funny in the corn—but I swear the voices are coming from ahead of me and under my feet.
“He started it,” one of the boys whines.
“I don’t care who started it.” The woman again. “We ain’t got time for this. You want your daddy to get taken away by those security cogs?”
I push forward through another row, and the corn drops away. A small, empty square of land, about the size of the monitoring room in the Eye, lies in the center of the corn. Sets of tall wooden tripods fashioned out of stakes and twine dot the space, all heavy with full-grown runner beans. I count quickly. Fourteen, maybe fifteen plants in total, all definitely contraband. I whistle low to myself. Ellison should see this.
“Listen,” one of the boys says, closer than ever. “Did you hear that?”
I drop into a crouch and scan the ground. There’s more here than a contraband bean plot. Then I spot it. A clear space in the corner, covered only by dirt and husks. I approach softly, heel-toe, heel-toe. There, a mud-caked metal handle. I kneel and gently scrape away the soil around it. Not so much as a loud breath. A trapdoor comes into view, cut from a piece of roofing tin.
I smile. Got you. I grab the handle and heave up. The trapdoor flies open, scattering dust and debris through the air. I flip my rifle’s selector from safety to single shot and aim down into the gap that’s suddenly appeared in the earth. A woman screams, and someone else shrieks behind her.
“Everybody drop what you’re doing.” I squint into the darkness. “Don’t move.”
I descend the stairs slowly, rifle at the ready, giving my eyes time to adjust to the shadows. A middle-aged woman with tanned skin and long salt-and-pepper hair stands beside a weathered wooden sideboard, a jar of golden corn seeds uncapped in her hand. Two small boys peek out from behind her, and a girl of maybe twelve sits on a low stool on the other side of the narrow room, cutting out squares of plastic with a paring knife. Makeshift plywood and cinder-block shelves line the earthen walls behind them, each cluttered with grimy jars holding seeds. A clutch of radio equipment—transmitter, headphones, receiver—has been shoved in beside them.
My eyes widen. There’s too much here for simple contraband, too much for a farmer who might want to organize a little behind-the-barn trade in exchange for extra fructose rations or a favor down the line. And the radio equipment . . . Marco’s right. The Kingfishers must be distributors. The woman—Kingfisher’s wife?—places the seed jar carefully on the sideboard.
I set my jaw. I’ve got to take charge while they’re still stunned enough not to run. “Okay, everybody up and out.” I gesture at the daylight with my rifle.
The woman lets her fingers linger on the jar’s lid, as if she’s caressing something precious. “Come on, little ones.” She speaks quietly, even though there’s no reason to hide now. “Do what the lady says.”
The girl and boys file up the steps. Pity strikes me. Unless Harry Kingfisher does some fast talking, these kids aren’t going to be seeing their parents again. They’re probably going to be stuck in a dormitory on sharecropping detail, at least until they’re old enough to strike their own deal with the company. And with a history of illegal seed hoarding and distribution on their files, it’ll be hard for them to ever score a good assignment like security forces or research and development.
The woman moves to follow her children. My pity turns to anger.
“You.” I turn my rifle on her. What kind of mother makes her kids into criminals, saddles them with that label for the rest of their lives? “Hand me that container.”
The woman places a trembling hand over the jar of corn seeds. “What, this?”
“Yes.” I let acid drip into my words. “That. Hand it over, now.”
Her gaze flicks to the rifle, and then back to me. She holds it out.
I snatch it from her. “Now up the stairs. We’re going to take a little walk and see what your husband has to say about this operation you’ve got going here.”
“He doesn’t know anything.” Her voice warbles. “This was all my idea. He doesn’t know a thing.”
“Uh-huh.” I follow her up the steps, my rifle trained on her back the whole way.
The girl and one of the boys are waiting next to the trapdoor. The youngest kid is gone.
“Dammit.” I scan the corn, careful to keep my rifle on Mrs. Kingfisher. “Where’d he go?”
The girl and her brother stare at me.
I turn to them. “Which way did he go?”
The boy whimpers and moves closer to his sister. She clutches him, eyes on my rifle.
Good, let them be afraid. Not that I would shoot a bunch of kids—that would be unprofessional—but they don’t need to know that.
“I’m going to ask one more time.” I narrow my eyes at the girl. “Where did he go?”
“I . . . I don’t know.” She doesn’t blink. “He got scared and ran. I . . . I think he was headed for the house.”
I heave a sigh. What else am I going to do? The kid won’t get far once we’ve called in our findings, anyway. He’ll probably turn himself in once he figures out his family is gone.
“C’mon,” I grunt, and march them back in the direction of the house.
“Please.” Mrs. Kingfisher turns to me. Tears streak her face. “Just let our kids go. They ain’t to blame for this.”
“You should have thought of that before.” I poke her in the chest with my rifle’s muzzle. “Move.”
By the time we break through the corn, the woman is stumbling through hiccupping sobs, and the boy has caught her hysteria. Only the older girl stays silent, eyes straight ahead, as we step into the homestead’s side yard. Mr. Kingfisher and my teammates are more or less arrayed as before, Ellison at Kingfisher’s side, Marco atop the vehicle, Will and Danica spread out on guard.
“Hey, guys.” I hold the jar of corn seeds aloft with my free hand and shake it. “Look what I found.”
Kingfisher catches sight of us. I see him counting and coming up one shy. “What—” His voice rises. “Marie? Where’s Micah?”
“Harry!” Mrs. Kingfisher goes hoarse. “The kids, Harry—”
Kingfisher locks eyes with me. “What did you do to them? What did you do with Micah?” He steps onto the grass.
“Mr. Kingfisher.” Ellison plants a warning hand on his chest.
“No.” Kingfisher shoves Ellison aside and strides full bore at me. His eyes have gone black and dilated. “Where’s my son? What the hell did you do with him?” He’s charging now, all two hundred pounds of him barreling down on me with a fury that makes me take a step back.
“Harry, no!” Mrs. Kingfisher screams. “Stop!”
A surge of adrenaline hits me. My training clicks in. I drop to one knee, brace my rifle, and aim for Kingfisher’s shin. A wounding shot. I don’t want these kids to see me kill their old man, even if he is a criminal. “Mr. Kingfisher, stop.”
He keeps coming. The world slows and sharpens. I tighten my finger on the trigger. Last warning. “Mr. Kingfisher—”
A sickening thud smacks the air, the sound of meat on meat. It happens too fast for me to see, but somehow Kingfisher is down in a flail of arms and legs, wrestling with someone in the dirt. I blink and lower my rifle. Will’s head surfaces in the fray.
“Stay down, you sonovabi—”
Kingfisher gets in a solid hit across Will’s jaw. I hear the bones crunch from where I’m standing. Danica flies in from the right, brandishing her rifle like a bat. She swings the butt in a downward arc and cracks Kingfisher across the face. He screams and then there’s blood, and Danica and Will won’t stop hitting him and, no, his kids shouldn’t be seeing this, no matter what their father did, and all of a sudden I’m remembering what I don’t want to remember—my own father on his back in the leaves, a single snowflake falling to rest on his still, unseeing eye—
A gunshot rings out. “That’s enough.” Ellison steps forward.
For a moment, all I can hear is my own quick breath and a high ringing. Danica and Will let Kingfisher drop. His head thumps against the ground. An animal moan rises from him.
“I think he’s sufficiently subdued.” Ellison’s face has gone a sick shade of gray, but he doesn’t drop the command in his voice. He looks at me. “What’s this about? Who’s Micah?”
I lower my rifle and swallow. “The littlest kid, I’m guessing.” I climb to my feet. “The one we saw make a run for it earlier. I was subduing the mother, and he went rabbit. Slipped me.”
Ellison grunts and nods. “He’ll turn up.” He tilts his chin at the jar of corn. “Is that all you found?”
I shake my head. “There’s a whole underground room out in the field, about sixty paces in. I left the door open. Shouldn’t be hard to spot.”
Ellison casts a disgusted look at Kingfisher and his wife. “Torres and Etowah, load ’em up in the truck. We’ll let the administrators figure out what to do with them. Betts, call in the eradication team and report the kid’s data band number to admin for an APB. Hwang, with me.”
“Sir.” The rest of them salute, so I copy and follow up with my own belated “Sir.”
Ellison and Danica disappear into the corn, while Will climbs into the truck’s cab to call in what we’ve found. Marco hops down and helps me lift Kingfisher so we can fasten his hands behind his back with a zip tie and haul him to the truck. His wife and kids follow sullenly.
Harry Kingfisher slumps in the bed of the truck. His breathing sounds wet and strained. Mrs. Kingfisher sits with her head in her hands, trying to hide the fact that she’s still crying. The boy whimpers, but the girl is strangely silent.
“Right,” Will says into the truck’s coms. “See you in a few.”
I shake out my hands to cover their trembling and make a close circuit around the vehicle.
You’ve still got to do your job, Tempest, I tell myself. You knew this might happen. What would Ellison do?
Gather intelligence, I think. Take advantage of your opponent’s disorientation. Right. I take a deep breath. Only the girl looks up as I approach, but no matter. She’s the one I want to talk to anyway.
I sit down next to her on the truck’s bumper. “What’s your name?”
“Juna.” She looks at me warily.
“It’s all right.” I try to smile kindly. “How old are you, Juna?”
“Eleven and a half,” she whispers.
“Almost old enough to make your own contract.” I flood my voice with cheer. “Have you thought about what you’d like to do when you’re older?”
She shrugs. “I guess I’ll help my dad run the share.”
Pity wells up in me again. No way are the Kingfishers keeping their share after what’s gone down today. Contraband, distribution, and resisting arrest? Maybe even proselytizing, depending on what they have to say for themselves.
I clear the rifle’s breach and click the safety back on. “You know this isn’t how most people live, right?” I turn to look at her. “Selling contraband? There are other ways to live. Honest ways.”
Juna narrows her eyes. “Like what?”
“Well.” I clear my throat. “You could become a scientist, come up with new disease-resistant strains of plants. Or you could be an instructor or work in laundry services or transport or pest eradication.”
Juna stares at the dirt.
“Or you could be like me,” I say.
Juna looks up sharply. “Like you?”
I nod. “I’m not so different from you. I would have ended up a scavenger if it weren’t for AgraStar taking me in when I was your littlest brother’s age.” I smile. “You wouldn’t know that to look at me now, would you?”
Juna shakes her head. “I guess not.”
“Juna,” I say gently. “You know where your brother’s gone, don’t you?”
Her eyes dart to mine.
“It’s okay to tell me. I only want to keep him safe, is all.”
She opens her mouth, but hesitates.
“I could put in a good word for you,” I say. “If you help us, I can make sure you get the assignment you want when you make your contract.”
“I . . .” She shoots a glance at her parents, caked in dust and bound with zip ties, then up at me.
Right then, an engine backfires on the road behind us. A high-sided pickup rumbles into the yard. Two figures in white jumpsuits and filtration masks climb out of the truck and begin unloading tanks of chemicals.
I look back to Juna, but her eyes have gone hard again.
Ellison and Danica reappear at the edge of the field.
“Oh, good.” Ellison waves to the eradication team. “It’s this way. Danica’ll show you.”
The white jumpsuited team lugs their chemicals across the yard and follow Danica back into the corn.
“Load up,” Ellison calls to us. “We’ve got to clear out of here so Eradication can do their work.”
My head snaps up. “What about the kid?”
“Admin says he’s not registering in this quadrant.” Will cranes his head around to look at me. “Wherever he is, he’s well clear.”
“Oh.” Of course he is. Eradication would never go ahead with their work if the kid was anywhere close. Way to show you’re green, Torres.
I help the Kingfisher kids into the front seat and make sure their parents are securely bound in the cargo area. I slam the tailgate closed and come face-to-face with Ellison.
He leans a hand against the spare tire bolted to the truck. “You did good out there, Torres. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone perform that well on their first day of a new assignment. You’re a real professional.” There’s something in his eyes. Respect? Admiration? But no, it’s something more than that. He’s not looking at me like a student anymore. I’m his equal in the field.
Ellison touches my upper arm, and my breath catches in my throat. “Tempest. Can I call you that?”
My mouth gapes open like a fish. I manage to nod.
“Maybe you can ride with me again soon.” He squeezes lightly and grins. “We make a good team, huh?”
My face goes hot. “Yeah.” I duck my head and look down at the truck’s tire treads. “We do.”
Danica jogs back across the yard. “They’re ready. We can move out.”
We pile into the jeep, Danica, Will, and Marco in the backseat, and Juna and her brother crammed between me and Ellison in the front. Ellison guns the engine, and we pull away from the Kingfisher homestead. As the house shrinks from view, a dull thud shakes the earth, followed by a louder, crackling boom. Everyone but Ellison looks back. A thick black cloud billows up from the Kingfishers’ field.
“I’ll never be like you,” Juna whispers, so soft I almost can’t hear. “Not ever.”
Okay… there’s definitely something more to this AgraStar thing. Are you as excited as we are to unravel this twisting thriller? Let us know in the comments!
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