Read Enclave Online

Authors: Ann Aguirre

Enclave (4 page)

We had heard stories about other enclaves; they’d died out because they didn’t enforce the rules. They overbred and starved, or they didn’t follow hygiene procedures and they perished of the dirty disease. Here, the rules existed for a purpose. They saved our lives.

So I agreed with Thimble, shaking my head at Stone. “If you’re going to be like that, I don’t want you hanging around us.”

His good-natured face fell. “I didn’t mean it.”

“I know you didn’t,” Thimble said gently. “But other people might not understand.”

Likely not. They didn’t know Stone like we did. He sometimes spoke before he thought, but there was no harm in him. He’d never do anything to hurt the rest of the enclave. You only had to see him with a brat in each arm to understand that, but Whitewall and the Wordkeeper had to err on the side of cruelty, if it came down to the greater good. I didn’t want my friend sent on the long walk.

“I’ll be more careful.” He looked truly chastened.

Shortly thereafter, we split, going our separate ways for work. Part of me knew our friendship couldn’t hold its close ties. Over time, Thimble would bond with other Builders; they had more in common, things to talk about. Stone would stay with the Breeders, and I’d find myself more at home with the Hunters. I didn’t like thinking about the inevitable because it reminded me how soon our lives would change forever.

I arrived in the staging ground just as Silk began to speak. She cut me a sharp look, but she didn’t dress me down in front of the others. I sent a silent thanks. Hopefully she knew I wouldn’t make a habit of being late; any other day I would be among the first to assemble. I was so proud to wear the Hunter marks on my arms.

Silk ran down the day’s priorities. “I don’t know where their numbers are coming from, but even after stepping up patrols, we have more Freaks in the area.”

I didn’t know all of the Hunters’ names yet, but a short boy said, “Maybe one of the nearby settlements has turned.”

A rumble went through the group and Silk fixed a fierce glare on the worst offenders. Rumors had long circulated that Freaks could be made, not just born, and if something happened—the
wrong
something—we could all end up like that. I tended to think that was superstitious junk. We’d had Hunters bitten before, and if the bites didn’t go septic, they went back out into the tunnels with no problems. They didn’t change into slavering fiends.

“Enough,” Silk snapped. “If you’re going to turn into scared little brats, why don’t you go join the Breeders?”

“They don’t want his ugly face,” one girl joked.

We all laughed nervously, while the short Hunter flushed bright red. He wasn’t ugly, but he didn’t have the qualities the elders sought in Breeders, either. They chose attractive or intelligent citizens, no exceptions. So far, their schedule seemed to work well enough. I had no complaints anyway.

Silk stared until everyone quieted. Satisfied she’d cowed us, she went on. “Find the source of the Freak incursion. Something in the tunnels is driving them our way.” She turned to Fade and me. “I’m taking the two of you off meat duty. Someone else will take care of your route. Instead, I want you to check out the back ways.”

And there it was, my punishment for being late. Silk didn’t like Fade much at the best of times—then again, nobody did. He kept to himself. He’d never fully become part of the enclave, even after being named and marked.

“Is everyone clear on their jobs today?”

I nodded miserably. It was impossible for me to judge this as anything but a reprimand. The back ways were filthy, some flooded, and others defied description. I’d never seen them myself, but as a brat, I’d made a habit of sitting within earshot of the Hunters. I’d lived through their stories, tried to imagine things they’d seen and done.

“Then good hunting.” Silk hopped off the crate she carried with her for the briefings. She didn’t like looking up to people.

Fade found me as the meeting broke up. “You had something more important to do today?”

So he was blaming me for our new assignment—and maybe he was right. “I couldn’t ignore a summons from the Wordkeeper.”

That would earn me worse than a day’s patrol in the back ways. We could survive it, right? Other Hunters had. They came back filthy and disheartened, but it wasn’t a death sentence.

“I guess not. Let’s get this over with.”

“So we’re looking for signs of what’s sending the Freaks our way?”

“Hunger,” he said. “We’re not going to find any other answers out there. But I’m a good boy and I do as I’m told.” His tone sounded mocking, like he thought that was a
bad
thing.

I started to explain, and then stopped myself. Instead I followed him in silence. There was no point in trying to make him understand, if he didn’t already. He’d never belong with us with that attitude. He only cared about himself and his own selfish will.

Before I went over the barricade, I checked my weapons. We kept guards posted here at all times in case enemies slipped past our traps; they were Hunters who had committed some minor infraction, and so were punished with such a boring assignment. Freak incursion hadn’t occurred since I’d been born, but people told stories about how in the old days, they used to raid regularly.

Fade’s crazy,
I thought, scowling at his back. The rules worked to protect us all, and people following orders made life better and safer for everyone.

Instead of following our usual patrol route, which I’d committed to memory, he broke left and went down a half-flooded tunnel. Like the one where we found the Freaks, it had cracked up top and water cascaded in a dirty stream. He skirted the edge of it, so I stepped where he did. There was a stone lip along the edges raised higher than the rest of the tunnel. If I stayed on it, I could avoid stepping in muck up to my waist.

It smelled disgusting and I averted my eyes from the stuff floating in it—even worse, the stuff
swimming
in it. As the tunnel sloped up, the water levels decreased until it was merely damp. The light was dim here, but it wasn’t as dark as some of the other tunnels. A faded sign on the block wall read,
AC ESS T MAI T ANCE S AFF ONLY
. Since reading wasn’t my strong point, I didn’t know what the missing letters might be.

Ahead of me, Fade paused, listening. I didn’t hear anything. But I didn’t speak. A good Huntress respected her partner’s instincts, even if he was socially ignorant.

I stilled my other senses—and then I picked up on it too, a faint sound in the distance, like something drumming on metal. Fade loped off in that direction, weapons in hand. I drew my daggers and followed, slip-sliding in the muck.

“What is it?”

He flashed a look over his shoulder. “A distress call.”

Now that he’d mentioned it, I heard a pattern in the repetition. Noise carried in a deceptive manner down here, so it took us longer than I would’ve believed to reach it, even going at a full run. Good thing I had been training or I would’ve fallen behind. As it was, I kept up with him. The pace he set carried us a long distance, out of the back ways and into a wider tunnel. I’d lost my sense of how far we were from the settlement, because of the way we’d looped.

We rounded a bend and saw one of those giant metal boxes, flipped on its side. The sound came from there. Fade waved me around to the far end. We would come in from different angles, so if this was a trap, it shouldn’t catch us both.

I scrambled up over crashed metal and broken glass, being careful where I set my hands and feet. When we were both in position, we dropped down into the darkness of the compartment. It smelled of old blood and feces. My eyes adjusted to the dark, a valuable trait in a Hunter; I had been practicing since our last patrol, doing more visual deprivation, and it paid off.

I scanned the interior. I’d never been inside one of these emergency shelters. They were braced with metal poles and had seating bolted to the floor. No monsters here, only one small, emaciated human boy. A brat like this would never be allowed outside the enclave; I couldn’t imagine what he was doing here. He couldn’t possibly know how to hunt yet. In one hand, he held a length of metal, both a potential weapon and a signaling device. With what was obviously his last strength, he lay on one side, tapping it against the floor in a repeating pattern. At first he didn’t even seem aware of us.

I knelt on his other side, away from the jagged shard he held. He reacted then, lashing out wildly.

His aim was so poor I didn’t even need to dodge. “We’re not going to hurt you. We’ve come to help.”

He turned his face toward my voice. Even in the dark I could see his eyes shone an eerie white. This brat was completely blind. A shudder went through me. In our enclave, he wouldn’t have survived infancy. The elders didn’t waste resources on those who couldn’t someday pull their own weight.

“You’re human,” he breathed.

“Yes. You’re not far from College, that’s our enclave.”

The brat put his head down in relief and dropped his weapon. “I have to talk to your elders.”

I wasn’t sure they’d like us disobeying orders, leaving the back ways, and bringing in a stray, especially one like him. But I couldn’t leave him here to die either. Fade watched me in silence, as if testing me somehow. I made my decision, knowing I’d probably face worse than a day patrolling the back ways over it.

“Can you carry him? I don’t think he can walk.”

“He won’t weigh much. I can, but if we run into trouble you’ll have to take up the slack. Can you do that, new blood?”

I enjoyed the hint of nerves in his voice. “I guess we’ll find out.”

In answer, Fade slung the brat over his shoulders and climbed out of the container. I sheathed one knife and clenched the other in my teeth to follow. Thankfully, I’d been watching our turns and counting; I passed him and set the pace at one he could keep, bearing the brat.

“We’re likely to see trouble,” he said softly, beneath the splash of our feet in the stagnant water.

“Freaks can smell weakness,” I agreed.

And if Fade was right, and starvation drove them toward our enclave, then that made us meat on the move. In sufficient numbers, they could take a hunting pair. Hunters died—it was part of the job—but never without a fight.

At the four-way, they hit us from all sides.

Ambush

 

They lunged for Fade and the boy he was trying to protect with one arm and one knife. I whipped my club from out of its sling. This time, there were four, so that called for a bigger weapon. Winding up, I swung hard and cracked one’s skull wide-open.

The other three spun, correctly judging me the greater threat. I braced for the lunge, and at the last moment, rolled away. Filth smeared the back of my shirt, and I came up behind them. I took one across the back of the knees at the same time I launched a sideways kick.

Close up, I could see these Freaks were starving to death; Fade had been right. In comparison, I was fast, strong, and well fed. There was no contest. They didn’t fight as a unit. They lunged and snarled and lashed. I met each advance with a kick or a well-placed slam of the weighty end of my club. Blood spattered into the dirty water and bone crunched. In the end, we had a pile of corpses that the other Freaks would eat.

Best not to think about it.

The brat on Fade’s shoulder wept. I guess if I was forced to listen to that while hanging upside down, I’d cry too. Fade patted the boy on the back until he quieted. I’m not sure it qualified as comfort so much as warning.
Shut up, shut up already.

“Did you notice how they hit us?” he asked.

“Yeah. From all sides.”

Judging by his troubled look, he shared my concern. If the Freaks were getting smarter, we were in real trouble. Right now, they lacked the ability to plan or strategize. If they evolved, became more like us in their thinking, well—we were barely hanging on as it was. Any shift in the delicate balance could wipe us out.

Still, we had to get back to the enclave before they missed us. If Silk heard from one of the other Hunters that we weren’t investigating the back ways, as she’d asked, there would be hell to pay. The only way to handle this mess was to get there first.

Vaulting the bodies, I led the way back to the barricades without a single misstep. Pride swelled. I’d only seen the route once, and I remembered all the turns. I glanced over my shoulder at Fade, but he didn’t recognize the accomplishment.

Instead he’d shifted the brat from his shoulder to the crook of his arms. The guard stopped us, not surprisingly, when we came back in. “You’re not supposed to be off duty. And what’ve you got there?”

“I have to talk to your elders,” the brat wheezed.

In the better light here, he didn’t look good. His small face was sunken with hunger and dehydration. Dirt crusted his skin and he had sores at the corners of his mouth, where his lips had cracked. The white of his eyes gleamed even more unholy and disturbing. When the guards got a good look at him, they recoiled and blocked our path, weapons drawn.

I just knew this wasn’t going to go well.

“What’s going on here?” Silk demanded.

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