Authors: Lindsay Leggett
Flight Copyright © 2013
This book was produced using
Thank you to everyone who has been a part of this project along the way.
Thanks to my early readers: Meredyth Wood and the crew at Inkpop. Love
goes out to Loretta MK, my partner-in-crime; Emily, who’s known me longer
than anyone else, and Natasha, for years of boyfriends and fanfiction. I’m
grateful to have two amazing mothers in Rhonda and Marie, and of course,
none of this would be possible without the love and support of you, Matty.
Copyright © 2013 Lindsay Leggett
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author
This is a creative work from the imagination of the author. Any resemblance to Names, Places, Businesses, or Organizations are not intended and are entirely coincidental.
Published 2013 by Lindsay Leggett
It burns. Wisps of smoke fill my mouth as I inhale, grasping the edges of my lungs until I cough violently. I grope around the charred floor, blind, until my fingers brush his warm skin. Asher. I force my eyes open through the thick smoke, see him sprawled across the crackling wood floors, his eyes clouding over until they’re black. His body pulses as his teeth grind against each other. He groans as ebony wings rupture from his back and scatter ashen debris. Reaching my hand farther, I grip his arm forcefully.
The flames around us lick up the walls to quell their hunger as he backs away from me, eyes glazing over. He doesn’t recognize me, which means the drugs have started working and that I’m going to forget him, too. Wiping thick sweat from my face, I crawl toward him and grip his shirt so tightly that if he moves I’ll move with him.
“Asher! It’s me!” I shout, “It’s Piper. Please. You have to remember me.” I ignore the threat of his razor-sharp claws and wrap my arms around his wiry body. His scent, a mix of crisp cedar and musk fills my brain, burning me with memories of him: his hands on my body, his lips caressing mine, our bodies flying high above ground, staring at the stars and talking about the universe. I can’t forget these things.
“Please,” I whisper fiercely, “please remember me.” His body tenses, but he doesn’t toss me aside. Momentarily his eyes fade back to their natural light blue, and he grabs me forcefully. Burying his face into my neck, it’s like he’s breathing me in for the last time. We embrace each other as the beams of the building crackle and come apart, sending showers of sparks raining around us.
“Piper,” he whispers. He pushes me back to arm’s length, fighting to stay with me.
“Yes?” I reply, gripping his arms so tight I might leave bruises. God, I can’t lose him here. This can’t be the end.
“I’ll find you again, when this is all over,” he says.
“But how will you know me? They’re willing to do anything to keep us apart,” I murmur.
“I would know you anywhere, any time of my life. They can try to force you away from me but I’m fighting back. For the first time in my life I’m fighting for something. I
find you, Piper,” he says. We’re rocked backward as the walls explode from pressure. He holds me tight and keeps me balanced, using his wings for leverage. Gunshots ring out and I know it’s only a matter of time before they infiltrate and retrieve us. All those I thought were my friends and my family are all but killing me now just to keep me away from him.
Finally, the drug pulls me into its shallow haze, tearing my memories just out of my reach. Asher grunts and falls away from me, grasping his head with his hands, and his wings begin to tremor like when he’s about to kill.
“Asher!” I shout again, trying to bring him back to me for a little while longer. He pants heavily, willing himself to stand and remain conscious. I know the end is coming, and all of my memories will soon fade away, so I step up and hold him, holding onto this for as long as I can. This is our place, and soon it will be gone, too. I bite my lip, willing myself not to cry. I’m stronger than this.
“Promise me you’ll find me,” I whisper into Asher’s chest. Even though he’s in agony he strokes my hair, again and again.
“I promise,” he whispers, over and over, like a mantra. Paranoia grips me. Everything that’s happened over the past year will disappear, and without that, parts of me will die. They’re killing me and don’t even realize it. I look at Asher, the man I love, my enemy and my solace altogether and I close my eyes, willing myself to remember.
I need to remember him. I
to remember. I need to start back at the beginning, but where the hell can I start? Even the basics of my life are becoming hazy.
“I will remember,” I chant aloud.
“I will remember.”
Cool wind runs through my hair as I stand in the ruins of what was once a large and prosperous city. The buildings that used to tower so ominously are now rusted and broken, torn down by war and radiation. The crunch of shattered glass clinks beneath my feet, the sky above a faded, burnt tangerine orange. I move soundlessly through the city, crouched low among the rubble, my face covered by a slender anti-radiation mask.
The mutated stink of hundred-year-old garbage, waste, and decay infects my nostrils all the same, putrid waves of burning flesh singing my perception. Still, I stalk my target, striding through the silent, abandoned streets. I keep my eyes on the sky, searching for any sign of flight. Often the survivors of Harpy attacks claim they’ve seen an angel, those majestic wings deceiving them until sharp teeth and talons tear them apart. I know better.
Finally I spot my target, a lone female Harpy circling the sky above me like a hawk. I aim my crossbow to kill, but she’s too quick. As I set loose a bolt, she drops to the ground, landing with a sickening thud. The Harpy hunches before me, her wide, white irises piercing. Long and slender, her body is shaking, shivering, two huge tawny wings flayed out behind her. Blood stains her hands and claws and lips. I brace myself, smirking confidently. My arms are ripped with lean muscle, and my new gloves are tipped with small metal spears. I’m ready.
Without warning, the Harpy springs toward me, sharp talons bared to tear me apart. As she soars downward I roll to the side, catching her thigh with my own makeshift talons. The Harpy squeals, drops to the ground, and quickly rebounds back to her feet with a snarl. She tries to lunge at me again, but the gouge torn out of her leg is hindering, giving me just enough time to unhitch the small crossbow from my back. I leap backwards, nock a bolt with a tinge of red liquid covering the tip and let it loose.
It hits the Harpy square in the chest. Her eyes widen and she wails so loud I need to cover my ears while the tissue surrounding the arrow begins to dry up and crack. Steadily the wound expands, corroding her entire body until nothing remains but ash. The sky begins to fade away, and I pull off my oversized virtual reality helmet.
As my vision fades from black and splotches of light appear, so do the dingy walls of Sandy’s apartment. Sparsely furnished with only a ratty beige couch and a coffee table cluttered with empty pop cans and water bottles, the rest of the humble bachelor is dwarfed with equipment. A huge computer monitor covered in unreadable scrawl, multiple back-up servers and hundreds of wires hang like the vines of the old trees you still see in old books. It looks like a bunch of junk to me, but to Sandy it’s a personal nirvana. Shaking out my long hair, just dyed a bright red, I pull off the electrodes stuck onto my skin and turn to face my operator.
“What do you think?” he asks, unable to quench the excitement of his voice. I can only smile. Sandy Atwood, a goddamned computer genius and he wastes his talent designing training modules for Elder Corp. He doesn’t even realize how much more he could be doing.
“Of the program? It’s fair,” I tease. And yet, here I am testing them for him like I’m still a Hunter, still employed by the Corp instead of scrounging through my days in desperation.
“You know that it’s fantastic,” Sandy jests. He turns off the program, releasing the air-lock on the rest of the cords attached to me. I rip them off my leather VR suit and plop onto his old couch. It might even be comfortable if there weren’t holes torn in the corners releasing bits of yellow-stained cotton fluff.
“It’s good, but you’re missing some important details,” I say seriously. Sandy whirls his computer chair to face me and bows his head, mocking me as if I were a spoiled princess.
“And what might those be, oh wonder Huntress?” he asks. I scoff and roll my eyes. He knows better than anyone that I’m not a Hunter anymore, won’t be a Hunter again, and generally gag at the mention of Elder Corp if there isn’t a fistful of cash involved. But I let him slide, because he’s good to me, even though he knows my past.
“Harpies aren’t feral monsters,” I explain, “They have gender. They have personality, and they speak and act just like us. In battle with a Harpy they’ll do everything in their power to distract you to get an edge. Verbal attacks, taunting, sexual innuendoes: you name it, they’ll do it, and they’re good at it.”
Sandy nods, absorbing every word.
“And I love these gloves,” I add, peeling them back from my chapped knuckles.
“You can take the Hunter out of the Corp, but you can’t take away the hunt,” Sandy replies.
“David would have loved them,” I say, almost a whisper.
I don’t want to think about him right now, or ever, so I reach over the couch end for my bag and toss it over to Sandy. “Three hundred,” I say. He takes his keys and unlocks the bottom drawer of his desk, grabbing a few plastic bags filled with tiny green capsules.
“Your price is getting steeper,” he says dryly. I can only chuckle. In our world no one has just one job, even Corp employees. Behind the equipment and a secret wall, there’s a small laboratory where Sandy manufactures the valuable little tabs he’s placing in my bag. In the underground Ten is just as good as money, maybe even better. He tosses the bag back to me and I haul myself from the couch and head toward the door past the stale, unused kitchen and rotting bathroom.
“Till next time then?” I say before I reach the door.
“Three days and I’ll have something ready for you,” he calls. I weave my way from his apartment through the dilapidated low-rise building and out into the underground, patting my bag as I whirl out the door and into the streets with enough Ten to feed me for a week.
The streets of Ichton are usually bustling, but this early in the morning only the occasional straggler wanders them. The Holo-sky mirrors a morning sunrise, the deep violet of night blending with soft pinks and oranges. The cities used to be dark all the time, the ceiling that protects us from the radiation above the surface made of pipes and steel beams. But the citizens of the underground couldn’t handle it, too many taxpayers falling into the hole of depression, so they made us a sun. There are no plants or animals down here, just dirty cobblestone streets and tall buildings plastered with ads and graffiti.
Ichton is even worse. Anyone this far west of Central has a secret, be it a criminal record or membership in a gang or the Valhalla resistance. My secret? That’s a pretty long story, and my reason for living in Ichton is because this is the only place I can stay hidden from the Corp. Rupert Elder wouldn’t just let one of his ace Hunters out of the Corp. I know they’re looking for me, and I know they’ll eventually find me. My goal is to keep that eventuality as far away as possible.
I hop on a streetcar, gripping the metal bar as the train lurches forward. Ads are plastered above the seats:
Elder Corp keeps you safe from the Harpy invasion. Only underground can you escape the threat of radiation; Elder Corp makes this possible
. It goes on. Every facet of my life is filled with reminders that I’ll never be free. The train unloads at each stop, adds more, and every block I share with a new group of residents. Most are loudly painted with colorful hair, uneven cuts, tattoos on hands and faces, and piercings of every variety. The rest are low key: swathed in dark, neutral fabrics, faces hidden and eyes on the sticky floor. My stop is still a few blocks away. I dip my face into my bag and quickly swallow a Ten. I’m not usually a user, but today seems as good a day as any to just let it all go. Ten minutes and the outside world fades away. Ten minutes and my life is no longer filled with stress and repressed emotion. There’s nothing but the present, nothing but now, and I can’t deny how good it feels.
The streetcar reaches my stop and I stand by the back doors until they swing open. Seeing my chance, I rush across the street, avoiding the odd hover car speeding along. My head is foggy as I trudge toward my building, my mind filling with the tunes of old songs and the voices of ghosts I wish would stay dead. My past as a Hunter, that rare blood type that had me recruited as a child to serve as a soldier, and David, always David. People on the street stare at me as I hobble by, and I can’t help but wonder if they know who I am and what I’ve done. What is it that they whisper under their breath or scroll through in their minds? Ex-Corp waster? Murderer?
It wasn’t your fault
, my inner self growls, but even I can’t convince myself of this. It
my fault. My fault that David’s dead. My fault that my family’s torn apart. I killed him. I can still see his body withering away, his eyes pleading, whispering unheard words.
! I scream inwardly. I take a deep breath and try to force the image away, but when I close my eyes it’s like he’s standing before me. I can smell his deep cologne, feel his hand as he brushes my hair from my face in that way only brothers can.
I open my eyes and we’re in our place in the mountains, lying flat on our backs and staring at the stars. The cool breeze wafts the tang of fresh grass and clean air into my nostrils. This was where David always took me when things were rough or we’d just done a big job and still had blood staining our hands. It was a place to let go of everything in the real world, but I never would have guessed that this place, our place, would be where he’d eventually die.