In a future divided into Secular and Non-Secular Quadrants, a crime punishable by death is to cross Quandrants and become a Dedounced.
Pod Fifteen has escaped Ilse’s cruel regime only to fall intothe hands of a strange Nomadic Tribe. Their charismatic leader, Omar, begins to fill Ned’s mind with ideas about his destiny. A possible future that puts the Pod’s hard-fought friendships to the test, cuts loyalties to the bone and further exposes character flaws. Nobody is sure who they can trust and what they should do next, but Ned is convinced he must travel home if he has any chance of fulfilling his truth and changing the course of history.
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Two things are happening to me at the same time, neither of which I like or I'm used to.
One is a sense of relief.
The other is the claustrophobic grip of chaos.
Combined they leave me rooted to the spot, giving me a detached sense that I'm more alive than I've ever been in my sixteen years on this planet. I've lived in Urban Worlds with digital credits and corrupt Systems, where embracing hope often costs you your life.
It's been one Community Home after another, before I ended up in the Holding Centre, kidnapped to Ilse's Dome. I wish it were different, but since my parents died, standing somewhere that is not surrounded by institutional walls has become a place of my imagination.
Somebody shouts my name.
But I don't really hear it.
It's more a distant echo, like an aftershock that I don't have to pay attention to if I don't want to.
And I don't want to as I'm more interested in the warmth from the sun, which heats my skin in a way I had completely forgotten.
I glance left, Spencer is dragging a large smooth boulder across the top of the Hatch, which is being forced hard from underneath by the guards that chased us. He's straining with the weight of the rock as blood leaks across his forearm and runs onto the sand faster than he seems worried about. Diego is struggling to walk the soft sides of the sand dune, whichencases us from all sides. His weight and short legs aren't built for this doughy, moving terrain. Kuro and Chantal have made it to the top and are looking down, pleading for me to move, so I guess it's them who are echoing my name, but really they are only adding to this strange emotional charge that is pumping through my veins.
Rasa tugs at my arm, while she shouts some kind of instruction at Spencer.
I want to tell her that I never thought we'd make it out.
So my plan is both a victory but also a defeat.
I'm flat out of ideas and I just want to stand here and enjoy the tangerine sun and warm breeze, which continues to tickle my face.
'NED,' she screams. 'WE HAVE TO MOVE. MOVE!'
Even through her pained face, she looks as beautiful as she did the day I first saw her sitting on the steel bench waiting in line to be hung. She's different from the rest of us. There's a mental strength I recognise and admire, but she's tougher than me in many ways.
And I'm tough.
I've had to be.
I know that much about myself.
'WHAT'S WRONG? COME ON!'
'There's nothing's wrong with me,' I say.
It comes out calm and contained, and it zaps the panic straight out of her.
She nods and I can see she is thinking again.
I look towards Diego and she knows immediately what to do. She ploughs up the side of the sand dune and grabs his arm and begins to drag him forward. I step across to Spencer and help him position the boulder, inspecting his arm before I guide him to the top of the dune.
At first, I think he's been shot, but it looks more that he's ripped open the skin as he careered down the alloy conduit pipe from heart of the Dome into the industrial core below.
Once at the top, I have to count that we're all present.
Six, which includes myself.
It's stupid, I know, and I'm pointing at each of us as I'm doing it, taking in the new surroundings at the same time.
Rocks and sand dunes in every direction, all under the deepest tangerine glow of the like I've never seen before.
Dangerous, because it's open ground and we have nowhere to hide.
Kuro hears it first, but I'm reading his mind as he cocks his head and looks straight ahead.
'Assault Buggies,' he shouts. 'Lots of them,' he adds.
'Ned,' Chantal says, pointing behind me.
I turn to see the start of a mountain range, which I'd somehow missed through the heat haze of what I think is the dying light. I'm not sure what skills I really possess for this life, especially compared to the others in our Pod, but I do have a knack for calculating distances.
We are two and a quarter kilometres from being out of the open.
Diego has already started to run towards the cover of the rocks, and it triggers us all into a sprint for freedom.
Chantal and Kuro soon overtake him, powering on.
Rasa and Spencer pass him next and although I'm at the rear, I suddenly digest Diego's fear at being last.
Picked off, as the weakling of the pack – another Denounced caught running away; to be hung at the next session.
Nothing could be further from the truth, but struggling to climb out of the sand dune has taken its toll on his strength and he was never built for running. I wasn't either, but Ilse's Military Camp has taught me some new skills and honed all our fitnesses to a different level.
'Concentrate on yourself and don't think about the others or what's behind you,' I say.
'They're close ... I can hear them,' Diego pants out.
'Close is still not caught.'
I could run faster, but I match his stride, then up the pace after a couple of seconds.
Chantal and Kuro are pulling further and further away, but we're now matching Spencer and Rasa's pace.
I have another worry suddenly hit me.
Spencer's trailing blood.
His gash must be deeper than both of us realised and you wouldn't need dogs or special equipment to track us. Anyone could follow this trail, and it wouldn't matter if it were pitch black with a storm howling around them. For some reason it makes me ignore my own advice and I glance back, wishing I hadn't.
Three guards are stood at the top of the sand dune from which we've just run from.
The guard at the front takes aim, but even I know he can't hit us from there with his handgun.
He fires anyway, more out of frustration than hope.
A blue electric arc webs out and dies within seconds, far behind me. What worries me more is they don't appear concerned about making chase. Then I see why. The Assault Buggies we heard have appeared on the horizon.
Six of them in total.
They are the same as the ones that transported us around the Dome, but different, too. Instead of the grey and white camouflage, these are two- toned sand colour with splashes of black. They are bigger, too, and no doubt quicker, and they seem to merge into the background, disappearing at times into the heat haze.
These ones are built for war and that's what Pod Fifteen has just become.
Ilse's Number One enemy.
The frontline of resistance.
We've escaped the City of Hope. We weren't supposed to, but we did. We beat them. And the guards who came out of the Hatch aren't chasing, because they know they don't have to. They've worked it out, like I have, that although we are in this vast open space, our chances of making the next kilometres before the Buggies catch us are next to ... well ...
'NED!' Rasa screams.
I realise I've stopped running.
But it's okay, because Diego doesn't know he's just given me an idea.
'GO RIGHT!' I scream at the top of my voice. 'GO RIGHT!'
I start running diagonal to the mountain range. It looks suicidal. Like I've made the Assault Team's job half as easy again. Diego trusts me enough to do the same. Kuro and Chantal have almost reached the start of the mountainous section so they keep going straight, but Rasa pulls Spencer right, and the four of us are running into what looks a certain disaster when it happens.
The drivers of the six Buggies had veered right to cut us off and are now slowed by the soft sand that I recognised from the dune by the silky glow it gives off in this dying light. Their vehicles are designed for this topography, but the soft terrain has taken the sting out of their speed and their wheels are spinning on every third turn.
I don't have to tell the others to turn left and head the way we had originally intended.
It's done in an unconscious synchronised movement.
The temporary flood of hope gives Diego another gear and we gain on Spencer and Rasa. Chantal begins to frantically wave at me. She must have spotted another danger, I think. Another Assault Crew on our tail. Maybe an Airborne Crew, as I search the sky around me.
But I'm sure I've just glimpsed a smile on her fear stricken face.
I run on, wondering.
Spencer's dripping blood marking our way.
Diego and I reach the edge of the change in terrain. It's gone from medium soft to hard sand to treacherously sharp rocks in less than four strides. I pause to catch my breath and my bearings. Rasa is pulling Spencer through a rocked path and I can now see what Chantal was pointing at. There's an entrance to a cave. Or more a man-made entrance to what looks like a Mine. Attached to the outside wall is a sign with a giant wave, like we're at a beach and the seaside is close.
It doesn't make sense and Rasa clocks it too and gives me a look to say: what now?
The six pursuit Buggies have one driver and four armed soldiers each.
That's five per Buggy.
Thirty highly trained and armed men against six of us.
I glance hard up.
The rocks get bigger and sharper and steeper as my eyes search for a path to the summit. The Buggies can't be driven up a mountain. It means we'd all be on foot, so maybe we'd have a chance, but beyond another half- kilometre it's like we'd need ropes and special shoes and those hooks that professional climbers use. It maybe wouldn't matter even if we had all that equipment, because none of us are trained that way, and Diego is never going to make a sheer rock face with or without special tools.
I won't either.
The Assault Buggies slow and the Teams leap from their seats and fan out in a hard-drilled formation, assault rifles held high across their chests.
We've fallen within shooting range, but they haven't raised their guns.
We have nowhere to go and are cornered. But it's more than that, I think. Ilse wants us alive. She knows how we escaped, but she wants to know how we came to the conclusions we did, or more to the point – how I did.
If I can deny her that pleasure for a fraction longer then I'll take whatever the Mine has to offer.
I nod on that we should enter, and we scramble up.
Chantal and Kuro duck inside first.
I'm expecting pitch black beyond the first few metres, but instead a flickering grey light seeps from deep inside.
I help Diego over the last of the rocks and watch Spencer and Rasa duck into the entrance.
I'm about to step inside when I deliberately turn and snatch a glimpse at the setting sun.
I've spent far too much of my short life in grey empty worlds and I'm about to enter another.
I wonder if this one will be my final destination.CHAPTER 2
The temperature changes immediately from hot and sticky to cold and damp.
Kuro and Chantal forge ahead, leading the way.
Rasa lets Diego step in front of her and I'm behind Spencer at the back.
I see that he's losing even more blood and he's starting to struggle with his footing as his energy and focus drain from him. The adrenaline he had is no longer enough.
I don't know what to do or say.
We run on.
The uneven ceiling dips in places with pointed, lethal edges, and myself and Spencer are taller enough for it to be deadly if we're not careful. Thankfully, the floor is even but it's covered in a light silvery dust that is leaving a tell-tale footprint.
We come to another fork in what I'm sensing is a mature Mine with a labyrinth of interconnected tunnels. We'd be lost if it wasn't for the strange light that continually reflects off the right side of the wall face. It's both glossy and wet, and I can't work out where it's coming from, or if it's just a luminous glow within the make-up of the rock itself. It's like nature's perpetual torch and it's guiding our way, which means it is guiding the Assault Guards, too.
And I'm sure they are gaining.
Their footsteps were light and distant only moments ago, but they're becoming heavier and faster. It sounds like all thirty of them have entered the Mine, and I know from experience it's easier and faster to chase than it is to lead.
Plus our footprints are mini ghosts ultimately leading them to us.
I think we should take the risk at the next fork and not follow the rock's natural light when Kuro skids to a sudden halt, Chantal snatching out her hand and pulling him back by the arm, like she's stopped him falling.
Diego slows to a stop and takes a worried look in my direction. I can't see what it is that's stopped them, but the expression on their faces is enough to let me know it's not in our favour.
I sprint past Spencer and catch up with Rasa, crouching under a lower part of the roof and then skidding to a stop next to Kuro in an oval shaped space that is much wider than the tunnel we've run through.
'We're trapped,' Kuro pants out.
He's trying not to sound worried.
But he is and he should be.
The tunnel floor has vanished, collapsed in on itself.
I'm staring into blackness and I can't make out the bottom other than I can hear the heavy gush of rushing water.
The sign outside now makes sense.
So do the damp walls.
I check the jump to the other side. It's five metres, dead. Over sixteen feet in one long leap. Chantal and Kuro could probably make it with a good run, fuelled by the fear and adrenaline which is screaming through their veins. Rasa has that ability to make herself light. So I can see her scissoring through the air and gracefully landing on the other side with space to spare – no sweat.
I've no chance.
Neither has Diego.
We'll fall like bags of stones.
Spencer is close to passing out, but he might give it a go – or then again, he might not. He's been in the System for long enough to believe he can perhaps play the odds. Hope that his charm and good looks get him by. Maybe they will, maybe they won't – his luck, like ours, all dried up.
'What shall we do?' Chantal says, all breathy and scared.
Five pairs of eyes stare back at me.
Wild and glaring.
Expectant and worried.
I wish I had the answer, but what I'm really thinking is have we reached that point when it's each of us for ourselves. I can see Rasa is debating the same thought. She knows we have come to a defining moment when we are all on our own once more. It's like being in Court when you're fending for yourself, but without your Lawyer. Not that the System Lawyers were any good. I almost smile, because this is better than being in Court, because in Court you don't really have a choice, but here we do.
You can jump.
Or you can wait to see what Ilse has in store for you.
The choice is down to us as individuals when I'm hit with a new thought.
I'm no longer Head of Pod Fifteen.
I've retired my post.
I'm Ned 5-7-9-0-1-2-3.
Alone to make my own decisions.
First and foremost – someone who has to look after himself.
'I'm sorry, Chantal,' I say.
'It's not your fault the floor has vanished,' she says, all innocent.
I don't have the heart to tell her that's not what I meant as five of the Assault Team come to a stop, guns raised in our direction.
It the first time I see Rasa still has her handgun.
I recall Spencer dropping his when he ran out of electronic bullets and scampered up the ladder to the open Hatch that led into the sand dune. Kuro did the same. I dropped mine after I emptied all my bullets into Marcellus and killed him. I don't recall Chantal dropping her gun or even having one, but she must have lost it at some point because she doesn't have one now.
Rasa raises her hand and points the handgun between the Assault Soldiers who have fanned out into the oval space.
They don't look too concerned by her weapon, more interested in how close we are to the edge of the drop. I step across to Rasa and pull her hand down. I'm not sure how many bullets she has left. Half a magazine at most, but being antagonistic in this tight space isn't going to help anyone – especially us.
And there's a dark side to me which thinks she may want to keep one of those bullets for herself.
Or even me.
It's another choice, if I think about it.
Not a great one, but it's still a choice.
Suddenly, the soldiers at the front part and Ilse steps through the middle. She's smiling and looking calm, and she always has that way of appearing immaculate and unhurried no matter where she is. It's probably her skill, like I can judge distances. She's dressed all in black, but she's wearing a desert camouflaged jacket, unzipped, her hands in the pockets. I notice she is wearing a green armband as are the other soldiers.
I'm sure it means something, but I don't know what.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Denounced: Book 2 Shifting Horizons"
Copyright © 2019 SJ Sherwood.
Excerpted by permission of Blue Ned Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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