They hung the Unregistereds in the old warehouse district; it was a public execution, so everyone went to see.
I stood at the back, a nameless face in the crowd, too close to the gallows for comfort but unable to look away. There were three of them this time, two boys and a girl. The oldest was about my age, seventeen and skinny, with huge frightened eyes and greasy dark hair that hung to his shoulders. The other two were even younger, fourteen and fifteen if I had to guess, and siblings, since they both had the same stringy yellow hair. I didn't know them; they weren't part of my crowd. Still, they had the same look of all Unregistereds; thin and ragged, their eyes darting about like trapped animals. I crossed my arms tightly, feeling their desperation. It was over. The trap had closed; the hunters had caught them, and there was no place for them to run.
The pet stood on the edge of the platform, puffed up and swaggering, as if he had caught the kids himself. He was walking back and forth, pointing to the condemned and rattling off a list of crimes, his pale eyes gleaming with triumph.
assaulting a citizen of the Inner City, robbery, trespassing and resisting arrest. These criminals attempted to steal Class One foodstuffs from the private warehouse of the Inner City. This is a crime against you, and more important, a crime against our benevolent Masters."
I snorted. Fancy words and legal mumbo jumbo didn't erase the fact that these "criminals" were just doing what all Unregistereds did to survive. For whatever reasons, fate, pride or stubbornness, we nonregistered humans didn't have the mark of our vampire masters etched into our skin, the brands that told you who you were, where you lived and who you belonged to. Of course, the vampires said it was to keep us safe, to keep track of everyone within the city, to know how much food they had to allow for. It was for our own good. Yeah, right. Call it what you wanted, it was just another way to keep their human cattle enslaved. You might as well be wearing a collar around your neck.
There were several good things about being Unregistered. You didn't exist. You were off their records, a ghost in the system. Because your name wasn't on the lists, you didn't have to show up for the monthly bloodletting, where human pets in crisp white coats stuck a tube in your vein and siphoned your blood into clear bags that were placed into coolers and taken to the Masters. Miss a couple lettings and the guards came for you, forcing you to pony up the late blood, even if it left you empty as a limp sack. The vamps got their blood, one way or another.
Being Unregistered let you slip through the cracks. There was no leash for the bloodsuckers to yank on. And since it wasn't exactly a crime, you'd think everyone would do it. Unfortunately, being free came with a hefty price. Registered humans got meal tickets. Unregistereds didn't. And since the vamps controlled all the food in the city, this made getting enough to eat a real problem.
So we did what anyone in our situation would do. We begged. We stole. We scraped up food wherever we could, did anything to survive. In the Fringe, the outermost circle of the vampire city, food was scarce even if you weren't Unregistered. The ration trucks came twice a month and were heavily guarded. I'd seen Registered citizens beaten just for getting out of line. So while it wasn't exactly a crime to be Unregistered, if you got caught stealing from the bloodsuckers and you didn't have the Prince's cursed brand gracing your skin, you could expect no mercy whatsoever.
It was a lesson I'd learned well. Too bad these three never did.
eight ounces of soy, two potatoes, and a quarter loaf of bread." The pet was still going on, and his audience had their eyes glued to the gallows now, morbidly fascinated. I slipped into the crowd, moving away from the platform. The smug voice rang out behind me, and I clenched my hands, wishing I could drive a fist through his smiling teeth. Damn pets. In some ways, they were even worse than the bloodsuckers. They'd chosen to serve the vamps, selling out their fellow humans for the safety and luxury it brought. Everyone hated them, but at the same time everyone was jealous of them, as well.
"The rules regarding Unregistered citizens are clear." The pet was wrapping up, stretching out his words for the greatest effect. "According to clause twenty-two, line forty-six of New Covington law, any human found stealing within city limits, who does not have the mark of protection from the Prince, shall be hanged by the neck until they are dead. Do the accused have any last words?"
I heard muffled voices, the oldest thief swearing at the pet, telling him to do something anatomically impossible. I shook my head. Brave words wouldn't help him. Nothing would now. It was fine and good to be defiant to the end, but it was better not to get caught in the first place. That was his first mistake and, ultimately, his last. Always leave yourself an out; that was the first rule of the Unregistereds. Do whatever you wanthate the vamps, curse the petsbut never get caught. I picked up my pace, hurrying past the edge of the crowd, and broke into a jog.
The clunk of the trapdoors releasing echoed very loudly in my ears, even over the gasp of the watching crowd. The silence that followed was almost a living thing, urging me to turn, to glance over my shoulder. Ignoring the knot in my stomach, I slipped around a corner, putting the wall between myself and the gallows so I wouldn't be tempted to look back.
Life in the Fringe is a simple thing, like the people who live here. They don't have to work, though there are a couple "trading posts" set up around the Fringe, where people collect what they find and exchange it for other things. They don't have to read; there are no jobs that require it, and besides, owning books is highly illegalso why risk it? All they have to worry about is feeding themselves, keeping their clothes mended, and patching up whatever hole or box or gutted out building they call home well enough to keep the rain off them.
The secret goal of almost every Fringer is to someday make it into the Inner City, past the Wall that separates the civilized world from the human trash, into the glittering city that looms over us with its great starry towers that had somehow resisted crumbling into dust. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who was taken into the city, a brilliant mind or a great beauty, someone too unique or special to be left here with us animals. There are rumors that the vampires "breed" the humans on the inside, raising the children to be their thralls, completely devoted to their Masters. But since none who are Taken into the city ever come out againexcept the pets and their guards, and they aren't talkingno one knows what it's really like.
Of course, this only feeds the stories.
"Did you hear?" Stick asked as I met him at the chain-link fence that marked the edge of our territory. Beyond the fence, across a grassy, glass-strewn lot, stood a squat old building that my gang and I called home. Lucas, the de facto leader of our gang, said it used to be a "school," a place where kids like us gathered every day in huge numbers to learn. That was before the vamps had it gutted and burned, destroying everything on the inside, but it was still a refuge for a gang of skinny street rats. Three stories high, the brick walls were beginning to crumble, the top floor had fallen in, and the halls were filled with mold, rubble and little else. The charred halls and empty rooms were cold, damp and dark, and every year a little more of the walls fell away, but it was our place, our safe haven, and we were fiercely protective of it.
"Hear what?" I asked as we ducked through the gap in the rusty fence, striding through weeds and grass and broken bottles to where home beckoned invitingly.
"Gracie was Taken last night. Into the city. They say some vampire was looking to expand his harem, so he took her."
I looked at him sharply. "What? Who told you that?"
"Kyle and Travis."
I rolled my eyes in disgust. Kyle and Travis belonged to a rival gang of Unregistereds. We didn't bother each other, usually, but this sounded like something our competitors would concoct just to scare us off the streets. "You believe anything those two say? They're screwing with you, Stick. They want to scare you."
He trailed me across the lot like a shadow, watery blue gaze darting about. Stick's real name was Stephen, but no one called him that anymore. He was taller than me by several inches, but my five-foot nothing didn't make this feat all that impressive. Stick was built like a scarecrow, with straw-colored hair and timid eyes. He managed to survive on the streets, but just barely. "They're not the only ones talking about it," he insisted. "Cooper said he heard her scream a few blocks away. What does that tell you?"
"If it's true? That she was stupid enough to go wandering around the city at night and probably got herself eaten."
"What?" We ducked through the broken door frame into the dank halls of the school. Rusty metal lockers were scattered along one wall, a few still standing, most dented and broken. I headed toward an upright one and yanked the door open with a squeak. "The vamps don't stay in their precious towers all the time. Sometimes they go hunting for live bodies. Everyone knows that." I grabbed the brush that I kept here to go with the mirror that was stuck to the back, the only useable one in the building. My reflection stared at me, a dirty-faced girl with straight black hair and "squinty eyes," as Rat put it. At least I didn't have teeth like a rodent.
I ran the brush through my hair, wincing at the snags. Stick was still watching me, disapproving and horrified, and I rolled my eyes. "Don't give me that look, Stephen," I said, frowning. "If you're out past sundown and get tagged by a bloodsucker, that's your fault for not staying put or not paying attention." I replaced the brush and shut the locker with a bang. "Gracie thought that just because she's Registered and her brother guards the Wall, she was safe from vampires. They always come for you when you think you're safe."
"Marc is pretty torn up about it," Stick said almost sullenly. "Gracie was his only family since their parents died."
"Not our problem." I felt bad for saying it, but it was true. In the Fringe, you looked out for yourself and your immediate family, no one else. My concern didn't extend beyond myself, Stick and the rest of our small gang. This was my family, screwed up as it was. I couldn't worry about the trials of everyone in the Fringe. I had plenty of my own, thanks.
" Stick began, and hesitated. "Maybe she's
happier now," he continued. "Maybe being Taken into the Inner City is a good thing. The vampires will take better care of her, don't you think?"
I resisted the urge to snort. Stick, they're vampires, I wanted to say. Monsters. They only see us as two things: slaves and food. Nothing good comes from a bloodsucker, you know that.
But telling Stick that would only upset him more, so I pretended not to hear. "Where are the others?" I asked as we walked down the hall, picking our way over rubble and broken glass. Stick trailed morosely, dragging his feet, kicking bits of rock and plaster with every step. I resisted the urge to smack him. Marc was a decent guy; even though he was Registered, he didn't treat us Unregistereds like vermin, and even spoke to us on occasion when he was making his rounds at the Wall. I also knew Stick had feelings for Gracie, though he would never act on them. But I was the one who shared most of my food with him, since he was usually too scared to go scavenging by himself. Ungrateful little snot. I couldn't watch out for everyone; he knew that.
"Lucas isn't back yet," Stick finally mumbled as we came to my room, one of the many empty spaces along the hall. In the years I had been here, I'd fixed it up the best I could. Plastic bags covered the shattered windows, keeping out the rain and damp. An old mattress lay in one corner with my blanket and pillow. I'd even managed to find a folding table, a couple chairs and a plastic shelf for various clutter, little things I wanted to keep. I'd built a nice little lair for myself, and the best part was my door still locked from the inside, so I could get some privacy if I wanted.
"What about Rat?" I asked, pushing on my door.
As the door squeaked open, a wiry boy with lank brown hair jerked around, beady eyes widening. He was older than me and Stick, with sharp features and a front tooth that stuck out like a fang, giving him a permanent sneer.
Rat swore when he saw me, and my blood boiled. This was my space, my territory. He had no right to be here. "Rat," I snarled, bursting through the doorway. "Why are you snooping around my room? Looking for things to steal?"
Rat held up his arm, and my stomach went cold. In one grubby hand, he held an old, faded book, the cover falling off, the pages crumpled. I recognized it instantly. It was a made-up story, a fantasy, the tale of four kids who went through a magic wardrobe and found themselves in a strange new world. I'd read it more times than I could remember, and although I sneered at the thought of a magical land with friendly, talking animals, there were times when I wished, in my most secret moments, that I could find a hidden door that would take us all out of this place.
"What the hell is this?" Rat said, holding up the book. Having been caught red-handed, he quickly switched to the offensive. "Books? Why are you collecting garbage like that? As if you even know how to read." He snorted and tossed the book to the floor. "Do you know what the vamps would do, if they found out? Does Lucas know about your little trash collection?"