Home > Wings (Black City #3)(16)

Wings (Black City #3)(16)
Author: Elizabeth Richards

Natalie half smiles, a cheeky twinkle in her eye. “Since when has that ever stopped me?”

“That’s true,” I say. “It’s one of the many reasons I love you.”

Her fingers play with my belt loop. “Yeah? What are the others?”

I hold her closer to me. “Mmm, let me see. You’re kind, and brave, and smart, and you hate being told what to do.” She blushes slightly. “But most of all, I love this teeny-tiny freckle right here,” I say, pointing to the freckle on the side of her throat.

She giggles as I dip my head and lightly kiss her neck. Her pulse flutters under my lips and my poison sacs flood with venom. She sighs as I gently nip her skin, careful not to break the surface. Day coughs dramatically behind us, and we pull apart. Natalie’s cheeks are flushed; I’m sure mine are too. I turn to look at the others. Beetle and Day are standing nearby, the small spotlights in the ceiling casting polka dots of white light on their skin. They tuck their newly cleaned guns into their hip holsters. Behind them, Elijah is tying up his bootlace, while Acelot blows his nose on his monogrammed handkerchief. Destiny is still in the cockpit, her hand on her weapon as she peers out of the windscreen for any signs of trouble.

“If any of you want to back out, now’s the time to do it,” I say.

Beetle chuckles. “Someone needs to watch your back, mate.”

“And someone has to watch his,” Day says. He gives her a lopsided grin.

Elijah stands up. “I’m not staying here when my mom’s in the Tenth. She needs me.”

I look at Acelot. “I always like an adventure,” he says.

“Thanks, guys.” It’s risky having all of us going, but I’m grateful for their support.

We gather our weapons and sling on our hooded jackets. Natalie slips her heart medication and black syringe case into one of her pockets. I watch her admiringly. Despite being sick, she still wants to fight. When we’re ready, Destiny opens the hatch and we step off the Transporter. The night air is cool and stars shimmer overhead. Natalie takes my hand and nervously looks up at me. I kiss her cheek.

“Let’s go,” I say.

• • •

The station is eerily silent as we creep through the terminal, which is lit only by the pale moonlight streaming through the arched windows. I lead the way as we sneak down the iron stairwell that goes to platform six.

The platform is dark, apart from a few pools of amber light cast by the oil lanterns hanging from a wire overhead. The shadows offer plenty of cover. A train is parked on the rails farther down the platform, the boxcars packed with prisoners instead of livestock. Their hands poke out of the slats in the wood as they beg for water. Toward the far end of the train, a group of Sentry guards load dozens of white bags onto one of the carriages. Printed on the bags is GRAY WOLF LAUNDERETTES. We quickly duck under the stairwell, before the guards see us.

“We need to get onto that laundry carriage,” I whisper.

“How are we going to get on there without being spotted?” Natalie replies.

It’ll be hard to sneak onto the train now without being seen, since the train is too far away from us and there are no people on the platform to blend in with.

“We’ll have to jump on when it passes by us,” I say.

Day looks worriedly at Beetle, but he just squeezes her hand.

We linger in the shadows, waiting for our moment. When the guards have loaded all the laundry bags onto the train, they trudge up the stairwell at the other end of the platform. Only the stationmaster is left behind. He blows his whistle and the train starts up. Steam billows out of the chimney spout and I expect the stationmaster to leave, but instead he takes out a packet of smokes and sparks up. The train jerks forward and the prisoners all begin to scream.

“He’s not going,” Natalie says under her breath.

I stare at the guard. Leave! I urge.

He takes a long drag of his cigarette, wisps of white smoke spiraling into the air. The train starts to trundle down the tracks toward us, picking up speed.

“What do we do?” Natalie says.

Just go! I scream inside my head.

The carriages start whooshing by us, stirring my hair. The prisoners’ cries become a blur of noise as the train gets faster, faster. The laundry carriage is almost upon us.

Finally, the stationmaster heads into his office.

“Now,” I say.

I dash across the platform and leap at the moving train, grabbing hold of the wooden slats. My body slams against the side of the train, and I grunt with pain as I heave myself onto the roof of the carriage. Cold air buffets against me, but I manage to keep my balance. Natalie sprints toward the train and I lean over, grasp her hand and haul her up. She falls into my arms. The carriage rocks wildly and we slide across the roof, but I manage to seize the handle of the escape hatch before we fall over the side and get dragged under the train. I pull us upright just as Acelot and Elijah gracefully leap onto the roof. They don’t seem to have any trouble keeping their balance, but their tails must help with that, and they quickly help Day and Beetle up onto the roof.

I open up the escape hatch and we drop inside the laundry carriage, our falls broken by the soft mounds of material. Elijah’s the last into the carriage, and he shuts the hatch after him. I rummage around the laundry bags, pulling out the clothes. A lot of them are red-and-white-striped overalls, which must be for the new prisoners. I tear open another bag and let out a triumphant cry. The bag is filled with Sentry guard uniforms. I toss five uniforms at the others.

“Put these on,” I say.

The girls go to the other end of the carriage and hide behind a wall of laundry bags as they get undressed. The guys strip down without any embarrassment, although Beetle struggles to put on his pants on the rocking train, hopping comically about on one leg. I change as quickly as possible, ignoring Acelot as he stares at the burns on my upper body. The girls return a minute later, wearing their black uniforms. The disguises aren’t foolproof, but it’ll still be night when we arrive at the camp, so people shouldn’t get a good look at our faces. We settle down among the bags of laundry, and I wrap my arms around Natalie while Day snuggles against Beetle.

Elijah looks warily up at the hatch. “There aren’t any Wraths around here, are there?”

The last time we were on a train together, traveling through the Barren Lands, three Wraths—Darklings turned feral because of the deadly C18 Wrath virus—entered the carriage through the escape hatch in the roof and started attacking everyone.

“Only me,” Natalie says, smiling slightly.

Elijah winces. “Sorry.”

“I thought I heard a crow, though,” I tease, remembering he has a morbid fear of birds, recalling how freaked out he was during that same train ride, when something flashed past the window and he thought it was a condor.

“What? Where?” Elijah says, eyes wide with panic.

I smirk.

He frowns. “That’s not funny.”

Acelot chuckles. “It’s a little funny, brother.”

The laughter quickly dies down as our nerves mount. The only sound is the cold wind whipping through the ventilation slats in the carriage walls. Natalie nudges in closer to me, shivering slightly. I tighten my arms around her.

I don’t know how long we’re on the train—it feels like hours, but probably wasn’t more than forty minutes—before there’s a screech of brakes and the train decelerates. I get up and peer through the slats in the wall. All I can see is a long concrete wall, similar to the one in Black City, but this one seems to stretch on for eternity. Written on the wall in big black letters are the words HIS MIGHTY SEES ALL SINNERS. There’s a chorus of screams from the other carriages as the train grinds to a halt.

We’re here.

Outside the train is a cacophony of noise: the bark of dogs, the pounding of feet, the chaotic sound of Sentry guards shouting orders at each other. Floodlights from nearby watchtowers illuminate the train, but everywhere else is pitch black. If we can get away from the train without being caught, we should be able to walk around undetected.

The guards yank open the train doors and the prisoners literally spill out, the carts are so crammed. Hundreds of Darklings, humans and Bastets all topple to the dirt floor while others stumble over them, not wanting to get shot for lingering in the carriage too long. Everyone looks confused and terrified as they cling to each other.

A young woman with auburn hair falls heavily to the ground. She’s dressed in a yellow folk dress, and in her arms is a small boy with curly black hair. He can’t be more than two years old. They remind me a lot of Giselle and Lucas, the two Dacians we met in Thrace. Guilt rips through me at the memory of Giselle, the girl I accidentally shot when trying to kill a Lupine named Jared. Based on their appearance, the woman and her son must be Dacians too. I’m not surprised to see them here: the Dacian people are on Purian Rose’s list of Impurities, along with the Darklings, Bastets and any other human deemed a race traitor.

“Get up!” a female Sentry guard with black hair shouts, pointing her gun at the young Dacian woman cradling the boy.

The woman is too scared to move, tears streaming down her pale cheeks. “Please, there’s been a mistake. He’s just a boy, a baby. He shouldn’t be here.”

The guard pulls the trigger once, twice, killing them. I slam my back against the carriage wall, briefly shutting my eyes as the scent of their blood stings my nostrils.

“Everyone grab a laundry bag,” I say.

They each pick up a white bag while I peer between the slats in the carriage door. The prisoners are being arranged into two rows: the young and healthy are being put into the first row, and the sick, injured and old are being put into the second row. I can only presume half of them will be going to Primus-Two to work in the factories and the rest will be sent to Primus-Three, where they will be experimented on and exterminated. Now is our best chance to get out before the guards start unloading the laundry carriage and find us.

I quietly slide our carriage door open, then pick up a bag of laundry, lifting it onto my shoulder so that it hides part of my face. I step out of the carriage, my pulse racing, and the others follow. We casually head toward the main gates, passing the black-haired female guard.

“Hey, you,” she says.

Ice floods my veins. “Yeah?” I grunt behind the laundry bag.

“Bring those bags into the warehouse, okay?” she says. “Don’t just dump them outside in the mud like last time.”

“Sure,” I say gruffly and keep on walking. I risk a look over my shoulder and Natalie catches my eye. She looks petrified. Close behind her is Beetle, Day, Elijah, then Acelot. There’s a pop of gunfire to my right, making me flinch. Another prisoner hits the earth.

We cling to the shadows as we approach the entrance to the Tenth. The concrete wall is about thirty feet high and topped with barbed wire. At fifty-foot intervals along the wall are watchtowers, each one populated with two guards armed with machine guns pointed at the prisoners who have just gotten off the train. Every minute or so the night sky lights up with a flash of bullets, like shooting stars raining down on the prisoners, killing anybody attempting to run away as they’re rounded up to be brought into the camp. I don’t look back, not wanting to see the devastation, but the air is thick with the scent of their blood.

A Sentry guard with a German shepherd patrols the wall near the main entrance—an enormous set of wrought-iron gates with thorny metal roses twisting around the bars. It’s not what I was expecting at all; they look like the type of gates you’d see at a cemetery. The dog snarls and snaps at Elijah and Acelot as we approach the entrance. Elijah’s hand subtly reaches down for the gun on his belt. I reach for mine. The guard yanks on the dog’s leash.

“What’s gotten into you, Max?” the guard says to the dog, dragging it away.

The gates swing open and we step through. A long cobbled avenue, wide enough for trucks to drive down, leads to a town several hundred feet away. Running down both sides of the avenue are rows of wooden crosses, each ten feet high, just like the one I was pinned to during my failed execution. Bound to the crosses are the rotting corpses of Darklings and humans, their tattered clothes fluttering on the night breeze. The smell is horrific. I can only assume they’re here as a warning to the prisoners not to cause any trouble.

“Oh God,” Natalie gasps.

I tear my eyes away from the crucifixes as the six of us walk down the avenue toward the town. A painted sign reads PRIMUS-ONE. A month ago, Garrick showed us a satellite map of the Tenth, and if memory serves, the camp comprises three towns: Primus-One, Primus-Two and Primus-Three. Primus-One is the base camp, where all the new arrivals are taken to be registered and evaluated. Those deemed eligible to work are sent to Primus-Two, in the south of the camp. The rest are sent to Primus-Three to be experimented on or exterminated.

Occasionally I risk a look at the watchtowers by the wall, but the guards are focusing on the prisoners by the train, not us. Even though it’s nighttime, I can make out the shape of Mount Alba, aka “the Claw,” in the distance, silhouetted against the stars. The volcano is easily eight thousand feet high and several miles wide, and its once talon-shaped peak is now a deep horseshoe-shaped crater, thanks to the eruption a few decades ago.

We arrive at a large plaza. In the center of the town square is the peak of a church steeple, the needlepoint poking out of the earth like a modern sculpture. A landslide from the eruption must have buried most of the original town. Surrounding the plaza are several ugly office blocks. A few guards patrol the streets, but otherwise the compound is quiet since the other wardens are asleep and the inmates are in Primus-Two or Three.

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