Read A Hero Rising Online

Authors: Aubrie Dionne

Tags: #new adult, #Sci-fi, #space, #haven 6, #space opera, #tundra 37, #Romance, #Science Fiction, #scifi, #paradise 21, #apocalypse, #aubrie dionne, #a new dawn

A Hero Rising (6 page)

BOOK: A Hero Rising
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Chapter Eight

Promise

Skye felt like a credit thief caught with their fake card inserted in the Automatic Transfer Module. She knew Thadious Legacy had flown away, never to come back again. So who was in on their little plan?

“Carly,” she whispered to get her attention. “Hide in the bushes. Someone’s coming.”

Each beep increased her adrenaline by exponential increments, shaking her limbs down to the tips of her fingers. She picked up the potato from the ground and held it in her fist, ready to aim.

Level Two-hundred and forty-one.

Two-hundred and forty-two.

Her fingernails dug into her palm. Maybe they’d keep going, right on up to the roof. The final beep rocked her very core as the doors parted.

A man hobbled out like an anticlimactic end to a scene in
Beach Party Rules
. His shoulders slumped forward and grimy brown hair fell in front of his eyes. One hand jerked in a twitching motion, while the other waved as if he painted circles in the air.

“Daddy!” Before Skye could react, Carly dashed out from the bushes and scurried toward the elevator.

Skye stood up in utter shock, hope and disbelief tingling through her like she’d awoken from a beautiful dream. The potato slipped from her fingers.

“Grease?”

He didn’t answer her. Carly stopped two feet in front of him and paused, as if she sensed there was something wrong. Her voice still held hope. “I knew you’d come back.”

“I promised ya, didn’t I?” His voice was scratchy, as if he hadn’t used it in a long time. “Too bad Skye didn’t believe me.”

He held up her note in his shuddery hand. “I followed you all the way here, tracking your footsteps through the sewers.” His head jerked, and she saw a line of black snaking down his chin. “I can smell a lot of things now: the sweat of fear, the reek of a drop of blood, the tracks of a betrayer.”

Skye threw her arms up, palms outstretched. “Grease, I can explain. I watched the footage of the attack so many times. I thought you were dead.”

His shoulders squiggled as if scorpions were running up his back. “So you ran off with another man, a do-gooder leprechaun, the enemy of the Razornecks.” Bitterness dripped from his words.

Skye crashed inside. It hurt to have him see her like this. He believed she’d abandoned what they’d had. “I waited for you for hours until we had no food left and a crazy old woman ransacked our apartment.”

“Looks like you hightailed it outta there first chance you got, first man you met.”

Grease’s twitching increased in speed until he shuffled from foot to foot. Everything about him was wrong; the way he stood with his back bent forward, the hatred in his voice, the strange movement of his hands. All those hours she’d wished for him to come back, and now his presence twisted her stomach. She pitied him, missed him, and feared him all at the same time.

Maybe some promises are better left unfinished.

Grease reached out and grabbed Carly in the twitch of a finger. He held her close, like a rag doll he’d reclaimed from a stolen loot pile.

Carly shrieked, tears running down her cheeks. Jennifer fell to the floor, the doll’s eyes lolling.

Grease’s hands tightened around her. “I’m not going to let you take my family away from me.”

James held up his hand, gripping the laser in the other. “Let her go, Grease, and we’ll work this all out.”

“There’s nothing…” Grease paused as if he’d lost his train of thought and shook his head. “To work out.”

Grease moved from side to side like a predator deciding how and when to strike. He raised his head and his hair fell back, revealing a charred streak of flesh running down his cheek to his neck. His weasel-like black eyes shifted. As Skye looked into them, the darkness spread to the corners. They looked too big and slanted in a strange, alien way.

“You’ve got to do something,” Skye whispered through trembling lips. “He’s different than he used to be. He’s
changed
.”

James shook his head. “I can’t hurt Carly’s father. No matter what he’s become.”

Grease retreated toward the elevator. “I’m taking Carly with me. You can stay with your new boyfriend. I don’t need ya.”

James tightened his grip on the trigger. “I can’t let you do that.”

He fired and Skye screamed. The white light flashed by Grease and Carly, hitting the elevator panel. The wires short-circuited, and the doors sealed shut.

James held the laser steady. “Now let’s have a friendly talk—”

But before he could finish, Grease tossed Carly aside. She sprawled through the air and hit the glass wall with a
thunk
, sliding down to the ground with her face in the soil. Grease bolted at James. His head crashed into James’s stomach, and the laser careened across the greenhouse, landing in a bush.

Skye sprinted to Carly, feeling every nightmare she’d ever had springing to life. She turned Carly’s head over and felt her neck for a pulse. A raised welt appeared on her forehead, but her heartbeat was steady. Holding the little girl in her arms, Skye watched James and Grease tumble into the pumpkin patch.

James was an excellent fighter. She’d witnessed his skills firsthand when he punched the guard in the face, but the moonshine in Grease’s veins gave him extraordinary speed. He punched James in the cheek before James could bring up his arm to defend himself, and then buried his head in James’s shoulder. James screamed in pain.

Skye placed Carly down and dived in the bushes for the laser. If she didn’t stop Grease, he’d kill James and come after her and Carly next. Thorns cut her arms as she dug through the brambles.

It’s got to be here somewhere
. She’d seen it fly into the bush as she ran after Carly.

The moonlight trickled down through the weaving branches, illuminating a black sheen that had to be the barrel. Skye thrust her hand into the soil and yanked the laser out of the bush. She’d never held a real one before, and it felt heavy and cold in her hands. The photon stimulator vibrated underneath her fingertips. The gun was charged and ready to go.

When she turned around, Grease was hovering over James, digging through the pockets of his torn coat with blood dripping from his chin. He pulled out a switchblade and flipped it open, the silver blade catching the moon’s rays.

“No!” Skye shouted, pointing the laser in his direction. “Grease, stop.”

Grease turned to face her, the skin on his face dark as night. She wondered if the fire had caused the discoloring, or if the moonshine had traveled all the way up his arm. His eyes were cold and empty as if he struggled to remember his own name. He turned on James and raised the blade.

Skye pulled the trigger and the barrel exploded into light. The shaft hit Grease in the chest, and he fell back from the force. She ran to James, still holding the laser. Blood covered his arm from his shoulder to his chest. He shouted, his voice filled with pain. “Keep firing!”

No normal human could have survived that laser wound. Grease rose, the flames produced by the laser licking up the clothes on his chest. His skin burned black where she’d hit him, making Skye’s heart cringe. Could she really fire at him again? He scrambled toward her, barring his teeth. If she didn’t fire, he’d topple her over and bite her next. Carly needed her, and she had to get back to the little girl. Steeling her nerves, Skye fired multiple rounds, each shot like a dagger in her gut, softening her resolve but barely slowing him down.

Think of Carly. You have to protect her.

Fingers shaking, she raised the laser and aimed for his head. A thousand memories flew through her mind: Grease’s quirky smile when he first saw her in the alleyway, his protective hand on Carly’s shoulder, the way he slouched on the couch while watching the holoscreen. This shot would end it all. Part of her doubted she could pull the trigger, but the orphan-survivor inside her had no hesitations.

Skye fired, and it was like shooting at her own head. The streak of light seized Grease like a lightning bolt and he fell to the soil, unmoving. Time stopped, her breath ripped out of her chest. The finality of the moment smacked her in the face. Her hands trembled as she brought down the laser and it fell to the ground. Her body turned to grains of sand, and she collapsed on her knees, crawling toward Carly.

The little girl lay sideways in the soil with one eye covered in sand. Skye turned her on her back, brushed off her face, and felt her breath. Small puffs of air blew on Skye’s hand, and relief turned her whole body into mush. She fell on her back beside Carly and started to cry, watching the stars glitter like diamonds of hope in the sky.

James.
He’d saved them both from Grease and may have lost him own life in return. Skye jolted up and stumbled toward him. James sat, holding a piece of his shirt over his shoulder to stop the bleeding.

Worry filled his eyes. “Is Carly okay?”

Skye nodded. “She’s breathing, but she’s knocked out cold.”

“Thank goodness, she’s okay.” His shoulders slumped in relief. “It might be better this way. I don’t want her seeing her dad like this.”

Skye knelt beside him and put pressure on the wound. The feel of hot blood under her fingers made her stomach twist with worry.
How bad is it?
Did she have the courage to even ask?

James gave her an incredulous look. “Skye, you saved my life.”

“Grease would have killed us all.”

“I know. I’m just so impressed.” He touched her cheek with his good arm. “You were really brave.”

Skye waved his comment off. She felt like a murderer. “Grease bit you, didn’t he?” she said in resignation as she wound the piece of shirt around her arm and tied a knot.

“Several times.”

She could barely speak. “Will you be all right?”

He winced, unable to hide the truth from his face. “I’m not sure.”

Skye covered her face with her hands. Her world was tumbling down on top of her, and she had no way to hold it up. She’d just lost Grease all over again, James was wounded—possibly infected—and Carly had been knocked unconscious.

James put a hand on her arm. “The Morpheus in his blood could have infected me, but I’m not sure it’s enough to have any lasting effect. I’m alive, thanks to you, and that’s what matters now.”

He sat up and gently pulled her hands off her eyes. “You did the right thing, Skye. Never think any differently.”

Her stomach sickened with the fresh memory of Grease dying from her own hand. She hadn’t been able to keep him from leaving, but she didn’t think twice about stopping him now. Was she more fit to kill than to love?

James brought her out of her brooding thoughts. “We have to get Carly and find a hovercraft before the city falls.”

She helped him up, and they jogged to the soil where Carly lay. The girl looked like a fallen angel, an innocent being brought into a hellish world.

James lifted Carly in his arms. “Come on, we’ve made enough noise to attract all the moonshiners in the city. Let’s get out of here.”

Skye nodded, refusing to think he hurried because
he
may not have much time left.

Chapter Nine

Courage of Love

Holding Carly in his arms, guilt spread through James like an infection. He shouldn’t have allowed the situation to get out of hand. Compassion was his greatest weakness, and he’d paused when Carly called out to her father. He should have relied on his instincts and shot the man dead on the spot. But that’s what separated the Radioactive Hand of Justice from the Razornecks—placing others above your own needs. Besides, Skye seemed to hold out hope from the initial expression on her face.

His shoulder ached and the skin was rubbed raw underneath his shirt where Grease’s teeth had punctured the flesh. Instead of feeling dizzy from loss of blood, energy flowed through him, making him hyperaware of every smell and every motion. He hoped the rush was adrenaline, but a little voice in his head whispered his newfound sensitivity resulted from something more.

“How are you feeling?” Skye asked between huffs as they climbed another flight of stairs to the roof.

“Doing fine.” He didn’t want to upset her, and he had no evidence to say otherwise. People exposed themselves to Morpheus for months before showing any moonshiner symptoms, yet blood-to-blood transfusion may be different altogether. His anxiety rose when he considered it, so he pushed his worries far from his mind. He had to focus on the mission and get them out of the city to Project Exodus.

They reached another platform, and Skye pushed open the emergency exit door enough to peer in.

“Looks like offices. Just a lot of desks and leather chairs.”

James shifted Carly in his arms and stifled his disappointment. “Let’s keep climbing. Doesn’t sound worth the time to look.”

The higher they climbed, the more he wondered how self-sufficient Thadious Legacy’s Tower was. Maybe he didn’t need hovercrafts at all. If so, James had trapped them in the middle of a fallen city at the end of the world. Chances were he could get them back to the bunker, but what then? Wait in a cement box for the rest of his life?

James pushed ahead, taking advantage of his new well of energy. With him carrying Carly, Skye could keep up with his pace. They checked every floor, and it took them an hour to reach the roof.

They stood in front of the emergency exit like souls waiting at the gates of heaven, unsure of their own salvation.

“This is it.” James glanced at Skye for her permission to reveal what lay beyond the door.

Skye’s harried nudge of her chin told him she was tired of anticipation. He wondered how long she’d been waiting in her life to do something about her situation before finally hanging off that balcony. Well, she was acting now.

“Push it open. I’m ready.”

James leaned his weight against the door, and they stepped out, the night sky twinkling above them. Their feet sunk into white sand trailing down to water.

“What? A lake? On top of a building?”

“It’s a swimming pool,” James said in disgust, wondering why someone would waste sun space that could be used for growing food.

“You mean for fun?” Skye circled the pool, looking down into the placid water.

“Guess so.”

“Wait a second. I know this place.” Skye’s eyes widened. “This is where they shot
Beach Party Rules
.”
It wasn’t an actual beach. It was all a lie.

James shrugged, not caring about Thadious Legacy’s pastime hobbies. In a few hours, the World Coalition was going to reduce the whole city to dust. His eyes scanned the length of the building and rested on two duel twin engines the size of subway tunnels. Above them, a sight panel stretched out in the shape of a visor. The metal glinted in the moonlight like a polished prize.

It was the largest, and most thoroughly decked out hovercraft he’d ever seen.

“That what you’re looking for?” Skye glanced back at him with a pleased smirk on her face.

“I’ll settle for that, yes.” James handed Carly to Skye and hurried around the pool to see if he could make sense of the controls. He pulled his miniscreen from his backpack, and plugged it into the panel in the driver’s side. With a few pats of his finger, the hatch opened, revealing a cockpit full of buttons and blinking lights. An alarm beeped, and James waved to Skye to get on board. The guards were long gone, but such a noise would draw moonshiners like moths to a light stick.

“Can you fly it?” Skye climbed up beside him, holding Carly close.

“Yeah, of course.” Such a vehicle was the product of his dreams. In his mind, he’d been flying it all his life. The hatch closed, and he settled into the pilot’s seat. Using his miniscreen, he downloaded the system controls and input the coordinates Dal had given him. While waiting for his processor to analyze the data, he sent a message to Dal.

Hovercraft acquired. En route to Project Exodus
.

He could picture the old man smiling three hundreds levels down.

The miniscreen beeped and a map appeared along with a bright yellow line leading to the coordinates in the Barrens. James pulled back a lever, and the engines rumbled below them like awakened giants, sending fake beach sand into the air. The ship tilted slightly as it rose up and hovered over the pool, creating ripples in the water below them.

James took the controls, and they sped off the roof of the building, shooting up into the night sky. The streets below scurried with motion. James shone a honing light down between the buildings. Moonshiners piled on top of one another, reaching to the sky. He shrugged off a shiver and pulled up, glad to leave the city.

The high-rises grew small underneath them, some buildings lit up like fireflies, and others black as death. He passed over the charred remains of the State Building, thinking of Grease and pitying him.

Skye came in and slipped into the seat next to him, securing her belt. “Carly woke up, but went right back to sleep, so I belted her in lying down.”

He turned toward her, taking his eyes off the sky to give her an encouraging smile. “Don’t worry, Skye; she’ll be okay.”

Skye’s shoulders rose and fell as if the weight of all the levels she’d lived under pressed on top of her. “It’s my fault.”

To have Skye feel even a little bit at fault for anything that had happened made James angry with himself. She was a victim of poor circumstances, nothing more. He was a trained gang member who took an oath to defend the helpless.

“Nothing is your fault. I should have acted faster. I could have shot him before he got to Carly.”

“No. You did the right thing.” Skye held his eyes in a firm lock with her own. “I, on the other hand, started this whole mess and dragged Carly into it.”

“You did what you had to do to keep her safe. Grease made his own choices, none of them wise.”

“I never loved him, not like I should have.” She blurted it out and James looked away, not knowing how to respond.

From the corner of his eye, he could see her gazing into the distance, where the city ended and the Barrens began. “He found me scavenging in an alley. I’d grown too old for the orphanage, so I took to the streets, scrounging to stay alive. I was starving, and he offered me shelter and a hot meal. I thought I’d stay for a night, nothing more. Then, I met Carly and learned her mother had left before she could remember. I was the only woman she’d ever met. I’d always wanted to be a mother. I couldn’t leave her.”

Skye shifted uncomfortably. “I grew to care for Grease as well, but I never truly loved him the way I loved Carly. I feel so awful saying it.”

“You can’t choose who you love,” James said, thinking of his instant connection to Mestasis, his tragic love story. “Your heart chooses for you.”

“Well, my heart must have been on vacation, because if I loved him enough, I would have found the courage to stop him. I wouldn’t have let him go.”

“You can’t keep people locked up. You can’t prevent them from fulfilling their own destinies, their own dreams.” He loved Mestasis so much he’d wanted her to go, and she couldn’t have kept him from his own inclinations to save more people in the crumbling world.

James continued. “People have to make their own choices in life. It doesn’t mean you don’t love him, or he you.”

She jerked up, looking at James as if she saw him for the first time. Her eyebrows rose. “The
Expedition
.”

He could see her thinking, see in her glittering eyes as she connected fragments of who she knew he was. “A woman you loved took off on that colony ship, didn’t she?”

James focused on the sky ahead, wondering how his heart could be so transparent. Confirming the truth would only reopen the sore, yet he couldn’t deny her. She’d saved his life and helped him find the hovercraft. She had a right to know. “Yes.”

“What is her name?”

“Mestasis.”

It felt so good to say it out loud, as if he could conjure her next to him with only the sound of those syllables he’d uttered in moments of ecstasy and pain.

“A beautiful name.” Skye sat back against her seat.

James fell silent, hoping she’d drop the conversation, but apparently she was only gathering her courage to ask the next question.

“Why didn’t you go with her?”

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. How could he put his experience into words she’d understand? “They did extensive DNA testing to ensure healthy future generations on the ship. I didn’t make the cut.”

“You seem very capable to me.”

His lips curved up at the compliment, but his smile didn’t last. “I have a heart arrhythmia, and they didn’t think I’d survive the pressures of living in a low-gravity environment. Besides, my genes had latent diseases that were sure to manifest in future generations.”

“Bad genes, my ass.” Skye sniffed haughtily. “If I loved the person, I wouldn’t care what DNA he had.”

“Unfortunately, that’s not how Thadious Legacy views the world.”

Skye’s eyes were fierce, like she could never forgive this woman she hadn’t even met. “Why didn’t she stay?”

“She’d signed a contract with Thadious Legacy himself. She and her sister were to pilot the ship in exchange for tickets for three hundred of my people.”

“Wow. And if she didn’t go?”

“He’d call off the bargain. Three hundred people would go back to the sewers. Her sister would have to drive the ship without her.”

“How awful.”

“You’re telling me.” James shifted in his seat. As much as the topic pained him, it helped to get it out in the open, as if sharing his hurt with Skye would share the burden as well.

“James, I’m so sorry.”

He appreciated her sympathy, but it wasn’t necessary—she had enough to worry about. He waved it off. “It couldn’t have happened any other way. I realized if I
had
taken off on that ship, I couldn’t have ever forgiven myself. Yes, I’d be overseeing three hundred of my own people, but what about all the others I’d leave behind? No, I was meant to be here, Skye, to pilot that colony ship and save the people left in the city. I accept my destiny. I embrace it.”

She spoke softly, as if she was afraid of the question and his answer. “Yes, but will you ever be able to let Mestasis go?”

James shrugged, looking down at his hands on the controls. Why did it matter so much to her?

“Only time will tell.”

BOOK: A Hero Rising
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