The writings on the wall…

Untitled 2018 – Chapter 1

8 Years Later

Andriana adjusted her mask, tightening the ties in the back and sliding it up slightly. She stared at her reflection in the mirror for a long moment.

“It’ll do.” Swiftly, she untied the the ribbon and caught the mask as it slid off her face.

Ioseppa clucked her tongue as the proprietress of the shop they were in smiled a bit more widely than was seemly and took the mask to the counter to wrap up Andriana’s new purchase. 

“I think I’ll swing by The Toastillery and pick up the makings of a picnic. Doesn’t a picnic sound grand? The weather has been so splendid lately. I don’t want to waste a minute of it!”

The shopkeeper froze as Ioseppa sighed deeply. Wandering off as an unchaperoned, unmarried woman was highly frowned upon. Wandering off as an unchaperoned, unmarried woman to not-so-subtly meet your lover? Well, frowning wasn’t quite the reaction most people had.

But Andriana had shed society’s expectations of her years ago. Though this wasn’t the life she expected and, quite honestly, if she could go back in time and change things, she certainly would, this wasn’t a life she hated. If anything, she relished in the newfound freedoms she had. Uncle Dom had afforded her the ability, and even encouraged her, to stop living up to the ideals and expectations of society and forge her own path. 

She turned toward the door to make her way to her favorite restaurant – really they had the most delicious paninos! – and froze as a great white wolf trotted through the front door.

Though magic had worked its way into humans lives a hundred or so years ago, it was always a shock to see one of magic’s creatures in person. It happened quite often in certain social circles – circles Andriana had avoided for nearly ten years now – after all, vampires, werewolves, witches and wizards, all of them were highly regarded in society. Rumor had it that the Mixologist, one of the strongest wizards to come into power in centuries, could snap his fingers and get anything he wanted. Not magically, of course, but he had that much sway over the wealthy and powerful. No one knew much about him, but he must be old because his mixes of alcohol and magic had been all the rage since before Andriana was born. No one under 20 was supposed to drink them, because of their high magic content. If you were born a halfling, part human and part magical, or if you were born a witch or wizard, you typically came into your power in your late teens. The Mixologist’s cocktails were so powerful, they could alter your or even strip your potential magic. It was the same with newly bitten weres or vampires. Now at 26, Andriana hadn’t had a sip of one of the Mixologist’s cocktails since that fateful night. She’d sworn off all magic, even charms for the perfect hair, steaming her dress, or other harmless things that most people used in their day to day life. She’d forbid Ioseppa or any of the other household staff from using magic in her vicinity or on her belongings. Magic made her weepy. And mad. 

Even seeing that wolf started to make Andriana’s blood boil. She narrowed her eyes at the wolf as her lips curled in disgust. While much of society was okay or even partial to magic, Andriana was not. The Italian Committee Against Magic, ICAM, was fighting a war against the supernatural. Andriana had been delighted to obtain an invite to one of their exclusive meetings tonight. Considering how much money she had been donating to their cause, she felt it was long overdue. 

The shopkeeper, Andriana couldn’t remember her name, finally spoke. “Ah, Agustin, I presume you’re also in need of a mask for the masquerade?”

At that, Andriana whirled around towards the shopkeeper, though she was loathe to leave the wolf at her back. 

“I wasn’t aware your,” Andriana paused with a significant look over her shoulder, “customers included animals.” 

The wolf growled lowly, a warning. 

Andriana ignored it. After all, she had no fear of being attacked in daylight in public. She almost hoped she would be – that could be used to turn society against the monsters. 

The shopkeeper looked stunned.

“Not to worry, I’ll take my business elsewhere. Ioseppa – do find another mask. I’m late for my picnic.” Andriana marched out the door, her head held high, her cloak swirling behind her. 

#

Andriana rolled over, her eyes closed as she took deep breaths, relishing in the feel of the warm sun playing over her skin. 

“Well, that was certainly more fun than another day studying finances,” her companion murmured, pleased with himself. 

“I certainly hope so,” Andriana laughed, stretching her limbs out. 

“That is most indecent, my fair lady,” he said, his voice tainted with hunger.

“Already, Galeazzo?” She cracked one eye open, turning to look at him. 

“Always, Andi.”

At the mention of the childhood nickname given to her by her brother, she flinched, the ice she felt constantly around her heart thickening another millimeter. 

“Another time, I’m late.”

“Andi, wait-”

“Don’t call me that. You have no right!” She interrupted him as she struggled back into her clothing. 

“That’s what I’ve known you as since we were children. You can’t change your name overnight and-”

“My family died overnight, so yes, I can do what I damn well please over night.”

Gale sighed, running a hand through his hair as he sat up with one hand propped behind him as he surveyed the field they were in. It was one of his father’s land, destined one day to become his. Completely deserted, it was their favorite getaway place. A place she had once come to seek solace and quiet from her grief, but now she only came to drown her grief in lust. 

“It’s been almost eight years,” he said quietly. 

“And until those responsible are brought to justice, it will always feel like it was just yesterday!”

“By ‘brought to justice,’ do you mean dead?” Gale asked resignedly. 

She froze, unwilling to answer his question. Perhaps she hadn’t even admitted the answer to herself yet. 

“Where are you going?” He asked, trying in vain to change the subject.

“Nowhere. A Meeting.” She answered shortly as she laced up her boots. 

“A meeting?” He asked quizzically. 

Her eyes remained steadfast on her shoes, doing up the laces as quickly as possible. 

“ICAM?” Gale shot to his feet. 

She glanced around, as though afraid someone might overhear. Although that was ridiculous, the field they were in was deserted, as it always was, and bordered on nearly 50 acres. 

“It’s none of your business,” she said as she got to her feet and dusted herself off. She turned toward him, her arms on her hips – painting a beautifully pertinacious picture. 

 “It is, you are. You are my business,” he repeated slowly, his hands out in front of him as though he were trying to calm a particularly finicky weremonkey.

“I am not,” she said, her voice tight. 

“I love y-”

“Stop!” She interrupted him. “Please, just stop. You don’t know what you’re saying.”

“I’m saying the same thing I’ve been saying for years. I love you and I want to be with you. I want to create a life together, out here,” he pleaded his arms sweeping out to indicate the abundant land they were standing on, “or in the city. I don’t care, Andi.” She flinched again. “I just want you. I want to spend every day trying to make you happy, trying to ease some of your burden. Marry me, Andi.” 

At that she jerked as though she’d been slapped and the tears she’d been holding back finally came flooding down her face.

Maybe once upon a time she had loved him. Maybe once, when he’d been her refuge. When he brought her peace when the rest of her world was on fire, grief burning everything she loved to ashes. Once, when the lies the constable had told her and the lies in the papers had been her truth. But now she knew the truth. Now, she knew her family – her parents, her siblings, even her uncle and aunt and their unborn child, hadn’t died in a tragic steamer accident, but rather had been murdered at the hands of a wizard. 

“I can’t. I don’t,” her voice cracked. “I don’t love you,” she finally whispered in a ragged voice as she turned away towards her steam pod. 

#

Andriana slipped on her mask and drew her cloak tighter. The mask, a gold wire design that covered her brows to her cheekbone was lovely, though out of season. Peppered with crystals that shone and distorted, she supposed it didn’t matter how out of season it was. Her mother had gotten it for her, intended for her to wear to her first masquerade. But that was nearly ten years ago and she’d never worn it. It was fitting, she’d wear it tonight. 

As her steam pod jounced down the cobblestone road, Andriana read and re-read her invitation to tonight’s meeting. 

Andriana,

Join us tonight to see what you’ve bestowed upon us with your gifts, what delights you have afforded us. We are so very forward to meeting your acquaintance and welcoming you with open arms our cause. 

Please come attired in a mask of your choosing. Though I cannot wait to introduce myself personally, some of our associates prefer anonymity. It is ritual that we all arrive in masks and imperative that we all leave in masks, lest one of those infernal creatures is watching. 

Eagerly yours, 

Sergio” 

She stroked her fingers across raised letters, gold on gold, hard to read without just the right light. Sergio had been the one who reached out to her initially. The one who had told her the truth about her family’s demise. When she hadn’t believed him, he had been the one to tell here where to be and when to overhear the constable’s conversation with her Uncle Dom. They had lied to her. To protect her, certainly. But thanks to Sergio, she knew the truth now. 

She had never met him in person as their communication had always been through notes and letters, but finally tonight they would meet. 

She bit her lip as she re-read the words on the golden paper. Tonight, she would meet her future. 

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Emilia laughed, carefree yet elegant, as her mother whispered something to her behind a red fan, embossed with dragons on it, their heads pressed together conspiratorially. From behind, only their dresses distinguished them from one another. Dressed in splendent blues that brought out her cerulean eyes and contrasted with her pale gold hair, Emilia’s dress was designed to catch a man’s eye – accentuating her willowy figure and offering a more generous silhouette where her hips were concerned than the reality. By contrast, her mother’s dress was a far more conservative style favored by married women. They were the two most beautiful women at the opera that evening. At least, that’s that Andriana thought. She sighed, ruminating once again on their differences and wondering if she’d ever be as beautiful. Trailing a few steps behind Emilia and their mother, she wished she knew what they were whispering about, but she was too young – at least that’s what they always said. Emilia was older, old enough to be married and only her indecision, matched by her ambition to marry a man who was powerful and rich enough to give her the life she desired, had prevented her from moving on. The eldest of five children, she had the benefit of knowing all the best gossip first and delighted in holding that knowledge over her siblings’ heads. 

Andriana scanned the crowd, most of whom were well past happy having partaken in perhaps a bit too much of this season’s newest elixir, Ambrosia, during the intermission of the opera. Emilia and her mother were both sipping the emerald green cocktail of alcohol and magic that had just recently been announced by the Mixologist and it’s debut was tonight’s opera. Of course, Andriana was too young, so she trailed behind the her mother and sister, sipping a glass of red wine slowly as she looked for her father and brothers. A wealthy aristocrat, her father was no doubt off discussing politics, money, or some other boring affair with equally boring men. Her eldest brother, Marco, was likely with him. Though learning the ropes to take over the family business one day wasn’t of great interest to him, he did feel a burden on his shoulders to be able to take care of his family and, one day, a wife and children. Less than two years younger than Emilia, he didn’t feel pressure to get married yet – a fact that left Andriana feeling angrier and more frustrated by the day. Already there were whispers that Emilia was unmarriable at 24, which was also impacting Andriana’s own marriage prospects. Andriana wanted to wrap herself in her brother’s cloak of indifference, to shout to the world that she was more than just a potential future wife to a man who would, most likely, not care for her beyond public appearances. But society did not tolerate that from a woman. If it weren’t for her father’s status and Emilia’s beauty, undoubtedly she would have been placed into the spinster category by their peers. 

A elbow nudged her, bringing her out of her musings. Andriana jerked, splashing red wine onto the floor and the hem of her dress. She looked up, about to give the clumsy fool a harsh word, but instead caught her brother’s twinkling green eyes that matched her own as he covered a laugh with his hand. 

“Benetto,” she hissed, using his full name to scold him “this isn’t funny!”

“Oh, but dear sister, if only you could see your face!” Ben continued laughing. He held his hands out as if in a peace offering and tilted his head to the side, with a significant look towards their mother and sister. 

Angling away swiftly and quietly, with a grace she couldn’t seem to find on the dance floor, she ducked into an alcove usually favored by indiscreet lovers, but also good for hearing whatever her brother was up to. Ben was her favorite of all her siblings, sweet and funny, but also a rapscallion who was always up to something. As though hearing her thoughts, he pulled at his jacket with one hand while slipping his other under the lapel and shifted to show her what he had hidden beneath. As she peeked into his jacket she saw a green glow and gasped.

“Is that…?” She whispered, eyes wide, too astonished to finish her sentence. 

Ben grinned, “Oh And, one day you’ll learn not to underestimate me!”

“Have you tried it?” She asked anxiously, pulling him deeper into the shadows. 

He gave an incredulous look and she grinned back.

Only a year older than her and four years younger than Marco, she and Ben were often both “too young” for what their older siblings got into. Perhaps that was why they were best friends more than simply brother and sister. They were more alike than any of their other siblings. Like their father, they both had dark hair and striking green eyes while Emilia, Marco, and their younger brother, Nico, took after their English mother with blonde hair and blue eyes. But their similarities went further than simply looks. Both bore a rebellious streak that often landed them in trouble and both took after their father’s youngest brother – hating high society and all the responsibilities that came with it. Uncle Dominico was their respite, their confidante, and the one person besides each other who always had their back.

Ben pulled the glass flask full of Ambrosia out of his pocket and uncorked it, offering it to her first.

“How did you get this?” She whispered, taking the flask carefully into her hands. 

“I know a guy,” was all Ben said cryptically. Both being a few years below the age legally allowed to partake in the Mixologist’s magical creations and having parents too concerned with appearances to even let them taste one of the cocktails, they had been trying to get their hands on one for ages. 

Andi took a sip, closing her eyes as the sweet taste washed over her tongue and the magic washed over her body, setting it afire in a way she’d never experienced before. Her eyes popped open as a tingling sensation started in her throat and worked it’s way down to her toes. 

“That’s -” she gasped, not finding the words she was looking for. 

Ben grabbed the flask, anxious to try it himself and took a gulp. Andi leaned against the wall, feeling faint from the onslaught of the magic and alcohol. 

Ben spluttered, droplets of the green drink landing on the ground and continuing to glow in the shadows.

“That’s strong,” he gasped, one hand over his heart. 

Andi nodded, even as she reached again for the flask. 

Ben gave her an assessing look, as if not sure he should hand the flask over. But she motioned impatiently, wanting to taste that heady mix again. 

He reluctantly handed it over, even as he tried to catch his breath. 

She took a larger swallow, feeling as though she were floating now, the sweet fire burning its way down her throat, setting every atom of her being alight. 

Almost as one, both jerked their heads up, spinning Andi out of her reverie, as they heard footsteps approach. Quickly, Ben grabbed the flask, recorked it and shoved it into his pocket before grabbing Andi’s glass of wine and hurriedly stepping out of the alcove. 

Andi, still feeling faint, yet blissfully rapturous, pressed deeper into the shadows. She knew Ben would protect her, the consequences for him were far less than the severe punishment she would have faced, simply by being a girl. She held her breath even as her heart raced from the Ambrosia as she heard a stumble and then a curse. She could just imagine him spilling his wine all over whoever’s step they had heard – that would certainly cause their interloper to reconsider what they had just been doing. After what felt like hours laters, her legs beginning to ache, her brow covered in sweat, but what was likely just a few minutes, a small blonde head poked into the shadows. 

“All clear,” Nico grinned boyishly. Nearly 10 years younger than Andi, Nico was the youngest of the family. She held a tender spot in her heart for him. He had been born early and was small and sickly for much of his life. Though he was about the same size as kids his age now, he still had bouts of sickness that no one could figure out. Their father kept a permanent physician at their estate. Even now, she worried at his pale face, even though it held a wide grin.

“Are you feeling okay?” She asked, reaching to feel his head. 

“I’m fine,” he frowned, quickly turning away. 

She sighed, knowing he’d never admit when he wasn’t feeling well, even when it was obvious to everyone around him.

She stepped out of the alcove and immediate crashed into someone. Stunned – where had they come from?? – Andi couldn’t move. At least not until she heard a dark chuckle come from the person who had crashed into her. At the noise her head jerked up, hoping and praying to the gods no one believed in anymore that it was someone who wouldn’t immediately report her to her parents. Instead, her eyes met ones she’d never seen before, eyes she didn’t think could exist on this earth. They were brown, with threads the color of honey woven throughout. They shone and shimmered like the stars’ reflection in the water at night. 

And then he smiled and Andi thought she might really faint. If she thought her sister was beautiful, then surely he must be a long-forgotten god. Closer to Emilia’s age than her own, the stranger was tall, she didn’t even make it up to his shoulder in heels, with broad shoulders that tapered down to a narrow waist. He was the most handsome man she’d ever laid eyes on.

And he had the power to destroy her.

One word to her parents, or worse, to the rest of society and she would be ruined. It doesn’t matter that she had been in that alcove with her brother. Or that they had simply snuck a few sips of Ambrosia that ha left her head still spinning. 

No, at her age and unchaperoned female would be thought of as ruined – regardless of the truth.

As she began to stammer an apology and beg for mercy, her stranger winked. 

“Fear not, I was just leaving and I have no interest in this crowd.” He paused. “Usually.”

Andi’s mouth gaped open and closed like the orada she so often saw in the canals and lagoon. 

He frowned as he glanced down and tilted his head to the side quizzically, “is that wine or blood?” 

She tore her eyes from his face and followed his gaze where she could see the wine stain on her hem from earlier. 

“Wine” she managed to whisper, her face heating.

“Ah,” he hummed, “we can’t have that can we?” With a quick murmur, too low and fast for her to catch, he gestured with his hand and the stain disappeared. 

Her gaze flew to his face, her jaw dropping in another flawless imitation of an orada. 

He looked confused for a moment before he looked off to the side, where all Andi saw was an empty hall. 

“I have to go,” he said suddenly, staring at her intensely, still slightly bemused, before he turned and walked down the hall. Andi stared at his retreating back until he opened the arched doors at the end of the hallway and walked through them, the doors closing silently behind him. 

“Andi!” She whirled, quickly losing her balance – she hated heels – before Ben caught her arm and righted her. “Didn’t Nico come get you? People are starting to notice your absence, but I covered for you, of course,” he smirked haughtily. 

As he looked down at her, he frowned. “Are you okay? You don’t look too well. Was it too much Ambrosia, you’re supposed to take it slow your first time with one of the Mixologist’s drinks- not down half the flask like you’ve spent a year in Ordos!” He scolded her. 

 Andi wondered if she had indeed had too much Ambrosia. Maybe the man with the scintillating eyes had been in her imagination. Maybe she was drunk on alcohol and magic and imagined the whole incident. She slowly moved her gaze down, praying once more to those gods she didn’t believe existed, before her eyes rested on her untouched hem. 

Ben wrenched her out of her thoughts and he gently tugged her down the hall. As they reentered the hall where intermission was still lingering – how could it still be intermission? The end of the act seemed years ago to Andi – they heard a commotion and Emilia crying out.

Andi and Ben quickly rushed over to see their mother bent over Nico, a sheen of sweat over his pale face. She immediately rushed over and dropped to her knees, ignoring the wealthy and powerful crowding around a murmuring behind their elaborate fans, some of which cost more than a small house. She knew very well there were bets placed on her family – what ailment afflicted Nico, when Emilia would get married, if her father’s latest business latest proposition would succeed, if Uncle Dominico would be committed to a madhouse one day, the list went on. But the worst, the very worst of society’s wealthy and powerful, made bets on when Nico would succumb to his malady and she knew that’s what they were whispering about now. 

“Where’s father?” She asked her mother, already sliding an arm underneath Nico’s shoulders. He was too big for her to carry on her own now, but she knew Ben would be right behind her, ready to help. 

Before her mother could answer her, her father kneeled down across from her and scooped her brother up in his arms. 

“Elizabeth, calm yourself. This is nothing different than before. He simply needs his tonic and rest. Sons, escort your mother and sister back inside, the opera should be resuming shortly.” 

At that, Marco, who must have arrived with their father, gently lead Emilia and their mother away. Ben looked at Andi to confirm. She nodded, knowing that appearances always came first with their family. Emilia must remain, tonight was as good a night as any other social outing for husband-catching. Their mother, as her chaperone, must also remain with her. Marco, of course, was paramount to the family business.  And Ben? Well, their father had some trust issues after he snuck away from a masked ball three years earlier and wrecked a steam mobile. As far as their father and the constable were concerned, Andi wasn’t involved. Well, she wasn’t once her father made quite a large contribution to the police force. Andi rarely got caught when she wasn’t with Ben, so to her parents, she was disposable. Not yet of marriageable age and a woman, she could go missing from public functions, as long as she and Ben were separated as combined, they often got into more trouble than she did alone. As such, she had long ago been designated Nico’s defacto caretaker. She didn’t mind, her younger brother was as dear to her as Ben and she would do anything for him. 

She hurried along after her father who met their own steam mobile around front of the opera house. He laid her brother in the back and stepped aside so Andi could climb in. She immediately started tucking blankets around him, murmuring words of comfort. 

Her father stepped aside as he fiddled with the controls. “Take him straight home. I’ve already sent an auragraph to Dr. Findley. He should be waiting for you by the time you arrive.”

“You’re not coming with us.” It was a statement, not a question. Her deep disappointment and disapproval was clear in her tone. 

Her father cupped her face in her hands. “One day you’ll understand. One day, everything will be clear. I promise my darling girl. Everything I do is for a reason and it is for you and our family.” He placed a kiss on her forehead before stepping away and closing the round door to the steam mobile. Immediately, it lurched forward, taking Andi and Nico back home. 

#

Bang! Andi’s bedroom door slammed open, rousing her from her fitful sleep – full of dreams of emerald green rivers and honey eyes. 

She sat up, her hear racing, as she looked towards the door. 

“Iseppa! What’s wrong?” She cried as she looked towards the door and spotted her family’s housekeeper clutching the doorframe, tears streaming down her face. 

“They’re dead!” she exclaimed.

Chapter Six

CHAPTER SIX

Reverend Mercer wiped his hands on a towel, leaving bright red smears on the pristine white cotton. Somehow he had managed not to get any blood on his robes, quite the feat indeed, since Simon’s blood not only covered himself and his own clothing as well as the Reverend’s hands, but there were also spatterings of it on the bed and concrete floor.

Simon’s head fell forward. He wished he could pass out, but unfortunately the good Reverend had given him Amphacil, a drug that pumped adrenaline and endorphins through the bloodstream, essentially ensuring that he couldn’t pass out. His head fell forward and he gazed at the puddle of blood on the floor directly in front of him. As he started to get lost in its crimson gleam, a drop fell from his head and into the puddle, breaking him out of his blood-induced spell.

“You should have taken the money and position, Mr. Baxter.”

Simon actually smiled at that, he would have laughed, but he didn’t have the energy. “What on Earth makes you think that being part of your corrupt little regime would ever appeal to me? And unless I can use that money to fund my experiments it’s useless to me. Oh, and by the way, it’s Dr. Baxter.”

That comment earned Simon another slap across his face, the Reverend’s ornate ring cutting into the flesh of Simon’s cheek. The ring was a symbol of religious or governmental power, or both in this particular instance, as only the highest power players were given the metal all-access pass to the Inlands. One flash of the ring would grant the wearer access to the most exclusive establishments. Simon’s general rule of thumb was that anyone wearing one of those rings had a very nasty path, and if he believed in souls, then he would have said that they had very dark and dirty souls. Nearly all of the dirt that they had dug up on those men was enough to make his stomach churn, and considering he spent his free time dissecting animals, that was probably not a good thing.

“Simon, Simon, Simon.” The Reverend shook his head as though he was disappointed, when in fact he was probably happy that he got to use his fists on someone. According to the information Jake had gotten for the Rebellion, Reverend Mercer was a different kind of sick and twisted. Simon knew now that he wouldn’t be going to the execution room anytime soon. Though he wasn’t Mercer’s usual type, to old and big enough to fight back, it didn’t really matter, since Mercer’s other turn on was violence and blood, and chained to the floor like an animal, Simon couldn’t exactly fight back. Hell, he couldn’t even bring his hands up to protect his head, he thought wearily.

But he could endure it, he thought. If this was his punishment for all the work he’d been able to accomplish on the H-Virus, then so be it. He’d almost found the cure, and that was work the Rebellion could pass onto another scientist, who could hopefully finish his work and develop a cure. For that, well he could withstand anything this sick bastard could throw at him. He’d pay any price to be able to save even just one person from going through the heartache he had gone through, from losing a loved one to that damn H-Virus.

 

Chapter Five

CHAPTER FIVE
Three hours later, Connor stood on a raised platform in the grand ballroom. He had made the announcement informing the rebels of the upcoming mission to save Simon. Alexia stood to his left, with Nick on his right. Walter and Chase were on opposite sides of the ballroom, waiting for the Rebels to sign up for the mission. As was the rule, no participation was mandatory. People could sign up for any mission they wanted to participate in, and those who didn’t agree with the mission or didn’t want to take the risk didn’t have to sign up. It was another way to keep a balance of power. Without enough support from the Rebels, the missions were scrapped, no matter how the council felt.
Fortunately, Alexia thought, it looked like the majority of the Rebels agreed with saving Simon. The support was almost overwhelming. Chase and Walter looked like they were being swarmed by those wanting to participate. Inwardly, she smiled. This meant they’d have the best on their side. Whenever someone joined the Rebellion they were put through a multitude of tests to assess ability and desire. They were then assigned a general role in the Rebellion, one that hopefully fit both ability and desire. When this many people signed up for a mission, they took those who had the highest ability for the mission. Since this mission would likely need a lot of soldiers, and it appeared that there were quite a few of those signing up, they’d be able to pick and choose the best, instead of having to accept as many as possible just for the numbers. Hopefully, that meant they’d be able to get Simon back without losing too many of their own. Alexia knew that they would lose some people, that was inevitable with any mission on this scale, but she hoped that their losses would be minimal.
Connor surveyed the crowd. “Looks like we’re going to have a good turn out this time around.”
“Yeah, which is good, because otherwise I don’t think we’d be able to even come close to Lock-Wood, much less get Simon out,” Nick said.
Alexia nodded her head in agreement. “Alright,” she said, looking at Connor and then Nick, “let’s do this.” She smiled, then stepped off the platform to grab a quick nap and then get ready. One of the best advantages the Rebels had was their speed. Unlike the Gov., the Rebels didn’t have a lot of bureaucracy to struggle through. Chase, Walter and Connor would choose the individuals and assign team leaders. The team leaders would work with them to choose team members. Then Chase and Connor would assign tasks to the teams, while Nick prepped supplies. Alexia usually helped at that stage, but she since this would be a night strike and she didn’t get much sleep the night before, she knew she needed some rest beforehand. All that would take several hours, but it would be far less if Simon was being held at Brent-Cage or basically any other facility besides Lock-Wood. Alexia flinched, remembering the last time she had been in Lock-Wood. She shook her head, clearing her mind of memories as she climbed the stairs to her room.
She activated her ring-key and entered her room, all but collapsing on her bed. She pulled off her boots and clothes, until she was only in her underwear, and then scrambled under the covers and fell asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. She knew Nick would wake her up with enough time to get ready, so she didn’t bother setting an alarm.
Buzz! Buzz! Alexia groaned and rolled over. She really didn’t want to be awake, but checking her ring-key, she knew it was probably Nick come to give Alexia her team assignment and make sure she was awake.
Not wanting to get out of bed just yet, Alexia swiped her ring-key allowing the doors to unlock and Nick to come in.
“Hey sleepyhead! Look, who I found?” Nick came in and shut the door behind him and Ollie. “You’re such a bad doggy-mom. Don’t worry, I picked up the slack and fed the big guy.”
Alexia grunted her thanks as she flopped back down and pulled the covers over her head.
“We’ve got about two hours until our team heads out, Captain.”
She peeked out from under her covers. “I’m team leader?”
“Yep. Don’t worry, I’ve got your back,” Nick winked at her. “I’ve also got our task here,” he waved his left hand which housed his ring-key on his middle finger and raised his eyebrow at her.
She obliged his silent question and held out her right hand, where her ring-key sat on her her right hand. Ring-keys were essentially the one piece of tech everyone, whether part of the Rebellion or the Gov. had on them at all times. Most kept their com-links on them as well, but ring-keys were never taken off, unless a person really wanted to stay under the radar. All ring-keys were programmed to their specific owner’s biometrics, so no one else could wear one and use it. They could do everything from locking and unlocking specific doors to starting transpos. They also housed a person’s Ident, so if caught by the Gov. a quick sweep would reveal an individual’s name, date of birth, address and rap sheet, among other useful pieces of information. Thankfully, Celina, the Rebellion’s top hacker could not only change the Ident on a ring-key, but she could also change Gov. records so any Ident a Rebellion member used while on a mission linked to a very clean Inlander record. Being caught without a ring-key and Ident was a death sentence in the Inlands. Ring-keys could also linked to handhelds, which were essentially mini-computers.
“Transfer Data 8641-9211-X” Nick said as he pressed his ring-key to her’s, effectively transferring the mission file to her ring-key, to be accessed by her handheld later. “Do you mind if I grab a shower here?” he asked. “Your crazy is hanging outside my room looking to pick a fight, and I’d rather keep my beautiful face in tact for as long as possible.”
“My crazy…?” Alexia asked, confused and still groggy. She put it together before he could answer. “Oh, Chase. He wouldn’t—”
“He would,” Nick interrupted her.
“Go shower.”
Nick mock saluted her and headed into her bathroom with his go-bag. All Rebels who might possibly go on a mission had a go-bag packed with extra clothes, food, weapons and anything else they might need on a moment’s notice. Alexia’s was in her weapon’s closet. It was a smaller closet in the bedroom that had been used solely for shoes in 2316, by Annabelle Evans, a former occupant of La Petite. While Alexia, like any other girl, whether an Inlander or Outlander, loved shoes, that was a bit much, even for her. So she turned the former shoe closet into something a bit more practical, a weapon’s closet.
Alexia leaned down and grabber her handheld from her belt that was lying on the floor where she left it when she came back from the mission announcement. Usually she was a lot neater, and never left clothes just lying on the floor before bed, but she had been exhausted. She pulled up the mission files and was studying exactly what her team’s objectives were and memorized the data available. They had the times for guard switches as well as access codes for the first level of security into Lock-Wood. Alexia whistled. Patrick had to be on the team that gathered this Intel. The boy was magic, as far as Alexia was concerned. He got good, reliable intel faster than anyone else, and usually that intel was better than anyone else’s as well. She didn’t know how he did it, but she was glad he was on their side.
“I’m convinced you have the best bathroom in La Petite.” Nick exited out of said bathroom only wearing his pants and carrying his go-bag and shoes. He sat down on her bed as he started putting on his socks and boots. “Did you check out the roster?” he asked her, nodding at her handheld.
“Nope, who else have we got on our team?” Alexia pulled up the sheet on her roster and scanned the names on the list.
“CB.”
“Claire signed up for a mission?” Alexia asked, her eyebrows rising in surprise.
“Yeah, I talked with her while you were snoozing.” Nick finished tying the laces on his left boot and moved onto the right. “Elizabeth is finally finished with her physical therapy, and after the massacre with the old council, well, Claire thinks it’s her fault that there were no survivors, and she’s determined not to allow that to happen again. I mean, I’m certainly not complaining that we’ll have a 1st Rank doctor on our team. We’re probably going to need her before the night’s over.”
Alexia nodded and started to reply, before a buzz buzz interrupted her.
“That’s probably CB now. She said she was going to stop by with an energe-bar for you, since I told her you were snoozing away while the rest of us were slaving away…”
Alexia smacked him in the arm and stuck her tongue out at him. She swiped her ring-key, allowing the locks to disengage, as she threw off her covers and crawled out of bed. She heard a growl and jerked her head up, looking at Ollie automatically, about to admonish him. But Ollie was curled up on a cushion rescued from the dump, blissfully snoozing away. She looked up at the now open door in confusion, and suddenly she wasn’t so confused anymore. Instead of Claire at the door it was Chase. Figures, Alexia thought.
“I can’t believe you’re fucking sleeping with him,” Chase hissed angrily.
“I can’t believe you care,” Alexia spit out as Chase entered the room and slammed the door shut behind him.
“Woah! Hey, we’re not—“
Chase cut him off with a steely gaze. “Yeah, that’s why you’re half dressed and Alexia’s in her underwear, ‘cause you’re not sleeping with my girlfriend.”
“I’m not your girlfriend.” She only managed to keep her voice even due to years of practice as a child. “What are you even doing here?” She asked as she went into the bathroom to pick out mission appropriate clothing.
“I wanted to talk to you.” Alexia heard Chase’s flimsy excuse as she dressed in black form fitting pants, black boots with special hidden pockets for knives, a black camisole layered under a black form fitting long sleeve shirt and finally a black half zip pull over. She undid her long braid and went with a Euro-braid twist that kept her hair out of her face and out of her way. Distractions in the field were deadly. She took a deep breath and gazed at her reflection in the mirror.
“Lex…”
“You should be with your team right now, going over prep.” Nick interjected.
Alexia turned just in time to see Chase punch Nick straight in the face.
“Chase! What the hell is wrong with you?” Alexia exclaimed as she rushed over to Nick’s side.
“I see my timing is as impeccable as usual.” Claire Rookwood stood in the doorway. She had a black bag in one hand and a small shiny parcel in the other, a highly coveted energ-bar. She crossed the room to where Alexia was crouched next to Nick’s fallen form. “For you,” she held out the bar to Alexia. “And for you, Mr. Farrell, I’m sure I have a Relieve and some gauze,” she set her bag on the ground and bent down, digging through it looking for the specified items.
“Save it.”
“Nick!” Alexia exclaimed.
“Relieve is hard enough for us to come by. It’s just a broken nose. I’ll be fine. Physically. I’m not too sure how I’ll fare emotionally after looking in the mirror,” Nick joked and even attempted a smile.
“Get out.” Alexia’s voice was steely as she turned to Chase.
Chase started to say something before Alexia grabbed his arm and led him out of her bedroom.
“Lex, I’m sorry. I just…it hurts, seeing you with him. I love you.”
You sure have a funny way of showing it, Alexia thought bitterly, but bit her tongue. She couldn’t afford to get sucked into the black hole that was Chase Maclay right now. She needed to have all her attention focused on the mission. “We’re not together, Chase. Me and you or me and Nick. And you really should be prepping with your team.”
“I’m not giving up on us Lex. No matter what you say. Especially after the masquerade.”
“The masquerade was a mistake.”
“No, it wasn’t. We’re good together Lex, I still don’t understand why you gave up on us.”
“Because I’m still not your first priority. I refuse to take second place in your heart, Chase. I don’t want to end up in another situation where you choose the Rebellion over me, and I nearly die. The lasers were the least of the damage done that night.”
Chase looked startled. “Did something else happen that night that you didn’t tell me about?” He sounded alarmed, and gripped her shoulders, practically shaking her.
“Your broke my heart Chase. And most importantly, you broke my trust in you. I love you, but I can’t be with you. Not now.”
He took a breath and was about to speak when she interrupted him. “Go prep with your team. I should do the same.” She turned to head back into her room, when his right hand gripped her left arm and pulled her around to face him. His left hand came up to cup the back of her head as he bent down and kissed her. It was a fierce, demanding kiss, nothing at all like the kisses they shared before the night he left her in her father’s offices. It was kiss that spoke of promises and passion. He wasn’t letting this go, no matter how determined she was to end it.
He broke the kiss and rested his forehead against her’s. “Stay safe out there, okay, Lex? I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to you.” He turned on his heel and headed back downstairs.

Chapter Four

CHAPTER FOUR
The sun poured through Alexia’s windows, disrupting her sleep and causing her to wake. She groaned, unhappy with her slumber being interrupted. She knew, however, that Walter would be calling them all into a meeting about Simon within the hour. Alexia yawned and stretched, raising her arms above her head and curling her toes. Her right arm nudged something warm, yet surprisingly not furry, while her left tangled in Oliver’s fur. Huh? She thought, wondering who the hell was in her bed besides Ollie. She rolled over, facing her mystery person and came face to face with Nick’s sapphire eyes.
“Good morning, sunshine.”
Alexia yawned again, memories of last night washing over her. “’Morning,” she grumbled. “Has Walter called the meeting yet?” She mumbled, barely coherent. Another reason to be pissed at Chase, once again he had kept her from getting enough sleep to be even semi-functional.
“Nope!” Nick responded, quite chipper. “Now, wake up! We can probably squeeze in a quick run before the big announcement.”
In response to that ridiculous suggestion, Alexia yanked the pillow out from under Nick’s head and whacked him with it. “Shut up, and pass me the blanket you stole last night. I’m going back to sleep until I get a com from Walter.” She rolled over, pulling along the blanket that Nick grudgingly handed her. She curled up and nestled into the blanket, on the brink of sleep once more when she heard a quiet ding in her ear, signaling an incoming communication, or com, on her com-link. Alexia groaned in frustration and sleep deprivation. “Activate com,” she said, answering Walter’s call as Nick did the same on his end.
“Alexia?” Walter asked, making sure she was on the link.
“Here,” she replied.
“Nick?” She heard Walter ask, after her confirmation.
“Awaiting your orders, boss-man!” Nick replied.
“Alright, we’ve got everyone on the link, then.” Walter informed them all, and Alexia could hear the smile in his voice.
“This is a mistake.” Of course, that would be the first thing that Chase said to everyone.
“Good morning to you too, Chase. I slept wonderfully after your fit of near hysteria last night, thanks for asking.” Nick quipped. Alexia smacked him and gave him a look that clearly showed her disapproval of his attempt to antagonize Chase.
There was sigh over the com-link. And there’s Connor, Alexia thought.
“Chase,” Walter admonished sternly. “We’ve been over this already. We’re going after Simon, and that’s final. I don’t want to hear anything that’s not constructive to this mission out of you again. We’ve taken a vote, and if you don’t like that then you can go join the Gov. where votes don’t matter.”
Alexia sucked in breath. This was the closest Walter had ever come to making a veiled threat at kicking anyone out of the Rebellion. Though he hadn’t been in charge for long, and truthfully, he wasn’t actually in charge, the group had just turned to him for guidance when the members of the old council and Jessica had died in a mission gone tragically wrong. He had taken the helm with grace, even though Alexia knew he’d much rather not bear the burden of responsibility. When Jessica had been in charge she’d made it clear that she wouldn’t accept any sort of misbehavior that might put the Rebellion in danger, and had actually kicked out quite a few individuals. She didn’t think Walter would take it that far, and certainly not with Chase, but the threat was definitely not an empty one. Even without throwing Chase out, Walter could certainly make his life miserable.
“Okay, well we should meet in the drawing room and go over plans before we make the announcement,” Alexia rushed in, before Chase could say anything else to get himself in more trouble.
“Seconded.” Connor put in quietly. The fact that he seconded her so quickly that no one else had a chance to respond told Alexia that he too was worried about what Chase would say next. Or maybe he was just as sick of the fighting as Alexia was. Connor rarely spoke unless it was to offer a point of view that hadn’t been given, or point out a flaw. Sometimes Nick joked that Connor thought words were an endangered species, and saying one was the equivalent of killing off a valued member.
“Alright. Everyone clean yourselves up, we need to be presentable and I’ll make sure Cooke brings breakfast to the drawing room. Meet up in 30.” The ding sounded, informing everyone on the link that Walter had signed off. Nick pressed his com-link in his ear, and Alexia heard the resulting ding, followed by a third.
“Ale-“
Alexia quickly pushed the button on her com-link as well, before Chase could finish. After last night she wasn’t in the mood to deal with any more of his drama. She loved him, but she just needed a break right now.
“Well, I’m going to hop in the shower. I’ll meet you down there?” Alexia asked Nick as she threw off the blanket and climbed out of bed, heading towards her private bathroom suite. She was lucky that she joined the Rebellion at such a young age. Most of the newer recruits had to share a communal bathroom with dozens of showers and toilets, but she had a private bathroom, something she was incredibly grateful for. She no longer felt guilty about it, as she used to when she first joined the Rebellion. Absentmindedly, her hands went to the scar across her ribs. She’d earned this damn suite. It wasn’t just a bribe to keep her on the Rebellion’s side instead of her father’s anymore. She’d given up everything for this cause, and she refused to feel guilty about Jessica’s bribes anymore.
Nick snapped her out of her reverie. “I think I’ll nap with Ollie while you shower, and we can head down together.”
Alexia gave him a thorough once over. “I believe Walter said to make ourselves presentable,” she joked, faking a stern voice, as she placed her hands on her hips and gave him a mock glare.
Nick laughed. “Honey, this is about as presentable as I get, and you know it,” he winked at her.
Alexia laughed too. “Fine. But don’t give Ollie any more treats. Last time I left you unsupervised with him he was sick all day!”
Nick gasped, placing his hand on his chest and pretended to look offended. “What? Why, I never!”
Alexia stuck her tongue out at him and turned to go into her very luxurious bathroom. She shut the door behind her and leaned against it, taking a deep breath and shutting her eyes. Through the exchange with Nick her com-link had been going off non-stop, the mechanical voice informing her that it was Chase—of course. He couldn’t just leave her be. She took a deep breath and continued to ignore the dinging going on in her ear. She almost took her com-link out, but she wouldn’t break Rebellion rules, not even if she was alone in her bathroom. She shuddered, remembering the last time she took out her com-link and the horror that ensued. She hadn’t found out about the attack on Fort Benning until hours later, and by the time she’d made it there Jessica was already dead. Alexia still couldn’t forget her lifeless eyes staring back at her. Maybe her presence wouldn’t have made a difference, or maybe she’d have been lying next to Jessica, left lying on the ground like nothing more important than a piece of trash.
Alexia crossed the expanse of marble which, according to the history records of La Petite which were kept in the fourth and smallest library which was housed on Alexia’s floor, had been imported from Italy in the 18th century. She turned on the water and waited for it to warm up, wondering, as she had many times over the years, what life was like back then. When the world wasn’t so messed up. Or maybe it was just as messed up, and it had always been. Maybe she was just part of a selective group of people who realized exactly how messed up it was. She sighed. Sometimes she thought she could just go back, back to her life before Chase convinced her to join the Rebellion. Back to being a high ranking Gov. official’s daughter, who had all the privileges one could possibly have in the Inlands. Back to when life was so much easier. No one shot at her with lasers, no one tried to kill her. She didn’t have to make any decisions, because they were made for her.
Alexia stepped under the spray of treated water, a luxury in the Outlands, and her mouth twisted. That was the crux. She wouldn’t be able to stand the oppression for long if she went back. Now that she knew what true freedom was, she’d never be able to go back to her old life.
She didn’t think she’d be able to leave Chase, or his mom, Maribelle, or Nick either. She frowned thinking of Nick. He was one of the reasons why she fought for this cause, another, stronger, reason why she couldn’t give up and stop fighting, no matter how difficult or fruitless her efforts might seem sometimes.
She finished up washing, turned the water off and grabbed a towel. She sighed, while she didn’t miss the waterless cleansers available in the Inlands, she did miss the instant dry that came with standard wet showers. She walked to her closet and picked out an outfit that exuded control and authority, while demanding respect: tan form fitting pants, which were tucked into black knee high boots, a white cotton (in high demand after The Depletion) button down shirt, with a black vest layered over it. She added her utilities belt, which held her own laser and handheld, along with several other useful tools, such as a lock picking kit, and her leather (in very high demand since The Depletion, Alexia had stolen them from a Gov. shipment several months back) gloves. Though she was physically the smallest member of the council, at only five feet and one inch she might actually be the smallest adult member of the Rebellion, she could be intimidating when she needed to be.
As she gazed into the mirror, braiding her long chestnut hair, she thought about the upcoming meeting and how the hell they were going to get Simon back. She knew going after him was the right thing to do, and they certainly needed him, but she hoped that someone had some better ideas about how to actually get him than she did, because she was drawing a blank.
“Activate com—time.” Alexia said, her com-link informing her that she had ten minutes to spare before the meeting. With one last look in the mirror, assessing her appearance a final time, Alexia exited the bathroom.
Nick and Ollie were still passed out in her bed. She smiled, thinking of a way to wake Nick up that wouldn’t exactly be pleasant, before he grumbled, “don’t even think about it Lockheart.” Nick sat up, rubbing his eyes and he stood up. “C’mon Ollie. We got a nerd to save.”
He stretched as Ollie jumped off the bed and padded over to Alexia, nudging her hand with his head. “Morning sweetie,” Alexia said to Ollie as she scratched his favorite behind his left ear.
Nick crossed the room to her, twisting her doorknob and stepping back to let her and Ollie pass as he opened the door, allowing her to come face to face, or rather face to chest considering the height difference, with Chase. Chase looked past her and saw Nick and immediately a scowl crossed his handsome features.
“What the hell are you doing in Alexia’s room?” Chase practically growled and tried to push his way past Alexia and in to her room.
“Chase—“Alexia sighed, trying to explain that nothing he was thinking was correct, but Chase wouldn’t even let her finish.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Chase practically roared. Still trying to push past Alexia, Chase’s fair complexion was starting to turn an angry shade of red.
Sandwiched between Chase and Nick in front of and behind her, respectively, and with Ollie on her left and the door on her right Alexia was starting to feel claustrophobic. While Chase and Nick were both incredibly good looking, both fair haired and with blue eyes, and both over six feet tall, being sandwiched between wasn’t nearly as much fun as one might think or hope it would be.
Taking a deep breath, Alexia shoved Chase out of her room. She snapped her fingers and commanded Ollie out, then grabbed Nick’s elbow and pushed him out too, before following and locking her door, by swiping her hand in front of the scan pad while simultaneously pressing on her ring key.
“We’re going to be late if we don’t leave now.” Alexia said, heading for the grand oak staircase on the other side of the eastern wing of La Petite.
She really couldn’t handle Chase’s drama right now, especially when she knew she’d be getting another dose of it in the upcoming meeting. She headed down the stairs with the boys trailing behind her and finally made her way into the drawing room. According to her ring key, she had exactly one minute to spare.
She ignored both Chase and Nick, knowing that getting involved would only make things worse, so she sat in her usual chair, next to Walter , who sat at the head of the large oak dining table, and Nick, who sat right next to her on her left. Across from her Connor was already seated, and Chase took his seat next to Connor as Nick sat down too. Now they were just waiting on Walter. He strode in right just a few seconds before they could all rag on him for being late. Alexia didn’t think Walter had ever been late to anything in his life. He was the most punctual person she knew.
Walter walked in and stood the head of the table, in front of his seat. He pulled out a datachip and placed in on the table.
“Intel’s come through. We know where Simon’s being held, how many guards, what time their shifts change—we know everything we could possibly know.” Walter gestured to the datachip in front of him.
“Then why the doom and gloom act?” Nick asked, his brow furrowing in a frown as he leaned forward on his elbows, locking his fingers together and extending his arms on the table.
“Maybe because he finally realized that it’s a futile effort!” Chase all but exploded.
Everyone turned to look at Walter, wondering if he had changed his mind on the mission.
“He’s being held at Lock-Wood.” Walter said quietly.
Alexis sucked in her breath and tried not to flinch. Nick sat back and ran his hands through his curly blonde hair.
“Shit.” He breathed.
“Now, can we shelve this preposterous idea? That place is a fortress, there’s no way we can get in!” Chase stood up, pacing a short length beside the table and gesturing wildly.
“We have gotten in before.” Connor finally spoke.
Everyone looked at him, a look of disbelief crossing Nick’s features.
“Well, we have.” Connor said simply.
“Chase, sit down.” Walter commanded, taking his seat as well. “The information about Lock-Wood changes things,” he said simply, as he steepled fingers together in front of him. “We’re going to go over the information Intel’s compiled for us. Then we’re going to take another vote—“
“My vote’s not changing.” Nick interrupted harshly.
“Neither is mine.” Connor agreed. “Knowing this information only makes me want to back out even more. We’re not going to be able to get him out of Lock-Wood. Maybe if he was held at Brent-Cage, but even then, I don’t think we should waste resources on this mission.”
“You’re the one that brought up that we’ve gotten into Lock-Wood before.” Nick hissed.
“That method won’t work again.” Connor stated coolly, locking eyes with Nick. “I was simply pointing out the facts. And the fact is, breaking into Lock-Wood to retrieve that pet scientist of yours is only going to lead to casualties and captures. Neither of which we can afford after losing the last battle. We can’t go head to head with the Gov. again, at least not until we boost our resources.”
“My vote is definitely not changing.” Chase added. “Connor’s  right. Alexia, you can’t seriously be considering going back in there—“
“My vote is final. I refuse to just sit here while they torture him.” Alexia raised her head and stared Chase right in the eyes. Calm. Cool. Collected. Confident. The 4 C’s. She’d learned them in prep school as a child. She’d had to practice this exact same look a thousand times a day. She’d had to be the perfect Colonel’s daughter. That look had made the help shake for fear of what she might do, and she would use her upbringing, the one that still made her sick to think about sometimes, to make sure Simon got out of there alive. Staring back at Chase, she made sure he knew she wasn’t backing down. “Walter?” Alexia turned towards him, asking what his decision would be. His only answer was a frown and a glance at the microchip.
“None of us are changing our minds, no matter what’s on that chip. You’re the only one who might, and you’ve already seen all the Intel. I’m sure you spent most of the night going  over the specs and coming up with a plan, probably a brilliant one at that,” Alexia said gently and offered Walter a small smile. “You’re the swing vote, boss. What’s your call?”
“We go after Simon.” Walter raised his head, and gave the same look Alexia had just given Chase to the whole table.
“Fuck!” Chase shouted, and threw his hands up in the air. “You have got to be fucking with me!”
“The decision’s final. We’re going after Simon. Of course, you and Connor don’t have to come on this mission. You’ve got full autonomy, we all do. If you’d like to stay behind, that’s perfectly fine.” Walter said coldly, with clipped tones.
Connor sighed, sounding defeated. “So what’s this brilliant plan of yours? I really hope it’s a good one, because I don’t feel like dying anytime soon.”

Chapter Three

Simon Baxter leaned his head back against the stark white wall of his prison cell. He sat on the cot provided for him, which had probably housed dozens, if not hundreds, of others before their respective executions. His hands clenched in frustration. If only they’d listen to him! He didn’t care for the Gov.’s controlling policies, but nor did he feel that fiery passion that Chase and the others felt for the Rebellion’s cause. He just cared about the lives. The lives that were being lost because the Gov. wouldn’t let him find a cure!

He had spent the last 12 years since the first outbreak of the Infection researching a cure. And he was very close. The Gov. had long ago outlawed all forms of education aside from Gov. sanctioned institutions. Such institutions mostly  taught Religion and theocracy, rather than science. Still, he had gone and in the process he learned that Religion wasn’t everything the Gov. made it out to be. He’d learned what he could, and taken that to new height that had been unheard of in the Inlands for centuries.

And that had paid off. He almost had a cure. He was so close he could taste it. But he’d let his excitement and passion get the best of him. He had needed new rats, to test the cure on, before he could move on to human trials. He refused to give people a drug that might do more harm than good. But the Rebellion was running low on funds, and he was too. He didn’t want to have to deal with Chase and ask for more money to get new test subjects. So when he found a buyer offering the rats at such a low price…well, he should have known better. He definitely shouldn’t have gone to the meet in person, and by himself no less. At least no one else had gotten caught with him.

Damn it! He could be saving lives right now! Instead he was sitting in a blindingly white prison cell, awaiting news on his execution. He leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees as his head hung low. He breathed deep, and not for the first time in the past several years, wished that he had a God to pray to. He wished he bought into the Gov.’s teaching and could blindly follow. Life was so much easier for them. He only hoped that Alexia had received his communication before the Gov. took him in. Those damn uniformed bastards. The FBI agents grabbed him the second he walked into the warehouse and then deposited him in this claustrophobic prison cell. He had not had communication with anyone aside from a Reverend that came to check on his “soul” every afternoon.

Simon sighed. He didn’t know what was worse, being trapped in this cell with only the Reverend for company, or waiting for the Gov. to “deliberate” on his crimes. He and they already knew that the only way out of this cell for him was to be lead to the execution chamber. The crime for non-Gov. sanctioned research was death. There was no way around that.

He only hoped that they weren’t dragging their feet and taking their time to entice the Rebellion to send a rescue mission. He knew Chase would never allow such a thing. While he didn’t exactly enjoy the prospect of his impeding execution, he didn’t want others to die for him either. If only Alexia got his communication. She would know what to tell Cooper Bronson. He was confident his former roommate from St. Christopher’s University would be able to find a cure with Simon’s latest insight. Together, he and Cooper were not only researching a cure, but were also in charge of the Rebellion’s own university and schooling for the younger kids. He could only hope Cooper got his message via Alexia about the cure, since that would mean they wouldn’t need to send anyone after him.

Because if the Rebellion sent a rescue mission after him, it would only lead to casualties and, in the worst case scenario, the end of the Rebellion itself. If they captured enough members and convinced them to talk, there might never be a cure.

Simon was about to stand up and begin pacing throughout his 10×10 cell for the dozenth time that day, when he heard keys jangling from down the hall. He sighed in frustration, knowing that it was probably the Reverend’s daily visit. At least he hopefully brought lunch with him. That was the only benefit of being a prisoner for the Gov.: they had great food. Even for the prisoners. Compared to the food stuffs available in the Outlands, even being a prisoner was eating like a king, or rather like a Gov. official.

The Inlands, where the Gov. had total control and everyone bought into Religion and the Gov.’s official mandates, had the best access to everything one could possibly want: food, industry, technology. The Outlands, where the Rebels were house and many of those involved in the black market and other illegal trades weren’t completely in the thrall of the Gov. Most of the Outlands tried, at one point or another, to gain independence. It didn’t work too well, especially with the constant FBI patrols and raids. They generally made life hell for Outlanders. Thankfully, the Rebellion had a great cover of housing those who couldn’t find work in the Inlands, and there was no real evidence for their real purpose or mission. As it stood, the Rebellion was officially The Alliance for the Unemployed, and all records pointed to a wealthy Inlander sponsor, so the FBI had only come to La Petite a handful of times in the past 8 years since they had started using La Petite as their HQ.

That was supposedly thanks to a hacker named Celina. According to the Rebellion grapevine, Celina had set up all of the records to keep La Petite off the FBI’s radar. She also managed all of the Idents that the Rebellion used when sending people into the Inlands. Rumor had it that her fakes had never been discovered the the Gov. That’s how good she was.

Simon’s cell door opened, bringing him out of his musings. The guards came in and motioned for him to bring his hands and legs together so they could shackle them first to each other and then to the floor, allowing him to sit somewhat comfortably on the bed, but otherwise severely restricting his mobility. Once that was finished, the first guard, taller and more brawny than the second, though he was certainly well muscled himself, walked out and retrieved a chair, which he then placed directly opposite Simon’s position on his bed.

Reverend Caleb Mercer took sat down across from Simon, and crossed his right leg over his left. He donned the traditional Religious smock, white in color, with overly elaborate lapels adorned with scenes of the Scripture in red and blue, the official colors of the Gov. Officially titled the Federal Government of the United States of America, most citizens and others around the world just called the massive entity the Gov. As a high ranking Religious official, Reverend Mercer held a lot of sway with the Gov. and was appointed to sit down with all Rebel members captured by the Gov. Participating in Rebel crimes was a life sentence in itself, unless of course, the Rebel captured chose to make a deal with Reverend Mercer. Simon refused to even entertain the idea.

“How are you doing today?” Reverend Mercer smiled at Simon, tilting his head slightly to the left.

“I’m great. Really, just fantastic.” Simon sarcastically replied.

Still with a smile on his face, Reverend Mercer just sat there and stared at Simon. He obviously wasn’t fooled, but he was determined to wait him out. Unfortunately for the Reverend, he didn’t know Simon, whose patience knew no bounds. As a scientist first and foremost, Simon learned a long time ago that patience was a necessity in his chosen line of work. He sat completely still and returned the Reverend’s stare, unflinchingly. He refused to be intimidated by a man whose blind faith and ignorance was contributing to deaths every day. Rather, a man whose false and pretend faith contributed to those deaths.

Simon had attended a meeting several weeks before his capture detailing some of the more shocking information uncovered by the latest undercover Rebel posing as a Lindell, which was the base level of preachers of the Religion. They  were “students,” Simon used that word loosely, that trained for several years before being able lead a congregation on their own. Jake, the Rebel Lindell, had sent the information to the Rebel’s temporary council, which consisted of Alexia, Chase, Nick, Connor and Walter, and it was quite shocking information; some of the worst imaginable dirt on the men who were supposedly the cream of the moral crop. Simon figured that since the Reverend couldn’t get information out of him by simply talking or threatening him, he was left with only two choices: bribery or torture.

Chapter Two

As Alexia walked up the spiral oak staircase in the western wing that housed most of the Rebels’ living quarters, she worried over the upcoming mission. “What are we going to do if we don’t get Simon back?” she murmured aloud to herself and Oliver. He whimpered in answer, nudging her hand again as if in support. She sighed and swiped her hand in front her door, disengaging the locks with her ring-key. She flopped down face first on her bed and screamed into her pillows out of pure frustration.

She loved Chase. There was a part of her that always would, and she knew that she would take a laser for him in a heartbeat. But that was part of the problem. She rolled over onto her back as Oliver jumped up on the bed and lay beside her. She patted his head and pulled her shirt up, tracing the burn scar that ran across her left side, right over her ribs. She remembered the day she got those scars as if it were yesterday. It was right after Chase and his mother had convinced her to join the Rebellion, just days after she walked away from her father, a high ranking Gov. official. They’d been asked to obtain copies of the latest Infection reports by Jessica, the Rebellion’s late leader.  She knew that Alexia would have access to them through her father. Back then, she’d been idealistic and in love. She’d met Chase as a child, as his mother worked for her father and lived on their estate. He was her first everything, her first friend, her first love. When Chase had told her he was part of the Rebellion she’d been shocked at first, but over time she’d ended up going to clandestine meetings with him and joining the Rebellion, herself. So when he’d asked her to help him with the mission he’d been assigned to by Jessica, she’s jumped at the chance to help him. She’d been so in love with him that she would have done anything he’d asked her to do. So she got them into her father’s offices. They’d even managed to get the Infection reports without getting caught. Unfortunately, it was when they were leaving the offices that they got caught.

And that where her fairytale with Chase ended too. They’d been together for over a year at that point, and while Alexia had no doubt that Chase loved her too, his love for her couldn’t compete with his love for the Rebellion. When they’d been caught, he’d grabbed the reports and run, leaving her to fend for herself. It would have ended with her death, but the guards who worked for her father knew her, and therefore only injured her, wanting to bring her before her father alive. At first, she was surprised her father hadn’t turned her over for execution by the Gov. right away. But then she realized that having lost the latest Infection reports to the Rebellion, at his own daughter’s hands no less, would not win him any support by the Gov. In the end, she realized that regardless of her feelings for Chase, the Rebellion was the side she wanted to be on. That her own father not only knew of the Infection conspiracy, but actively took part in it, was almost too much for Alexia to handle, and the next day she snuck off her family’s estate, and moved into La Petite.

Though Chase had tried to explain that those reports were necessary for any future Rebellion activity and he’d promised Jessica he would get them to her no matter what, she couldn’t fully forgive him. He was still her best friend, and she still loved him, but she couldn’t completely forgive him knowing that she would have never abandoned him like that. It stung too, that he had used her and her connection to her father to get the reports for Jessica. But she had long ago accepted that fact that for Chase the Rebellion and getting revenge against the Gov. would always come first. While her the base of her feelings hadn’t changed for him in the six years since that incident, she knew they could never really be together as long as the Gov. was still in place. She couldn’t handle being second to his revenge, and though they’d certainly slipped in her friends only mandate many times in those six years, she was determined not to slip now, not when on the brink of getting Simon back.

If the Gov. were smart, they would have already executed him by now. He alone held a potential cure for the Infection. His work could destroy the Gov.’s fear mongering hold on the general public. No one else had ever come as close as he to figuring out a cure for the Infection.

But the Gov. wasn’t smart. They were controlled by fools. Fools who allowed Religion to take over and prevent medicine and science from progressing, which in turn led to millions of deaths in just a few years.

They needed Simon’s cure. Even if the people didn’t know it, if they spent all day praying instead of researching, they still needed it. Alexia was determined to get Simon, and the cure, back and end these deaths. Research and science had been outlawed since before Alexia had been born, but that hadn’t stopped the Rebels, and when the Infection broke out when Alexia was just a child, they’d been researching a cure. Now, on the horizon of that cure, the Gov. had interfered again and she wasn’t going to stand by and allow thousands more to die because of the Gov.’s ignorance.

Buzz, Buzz. The alert sounded, notifying Alexia of a visitor outside her door. She jerked up, not expecting anyone to come by this late. She sighed, expecting it to be Chase. She refused to break her friends only rule tonight. She’s made a new promise to herself after the last slip up at the Hallowe’en masquerade three weeks ago, and she didn’t want to break that promise so quickly after she broke the last one. She activated her ring-key opening a com channel between herself and her visitor. “Chase—“

“It’s not Chase.” A deep voice came through her com link, sounding considerably concerned, and for good reason.

Alexia smiled, and climbed off her bed, swiping her hand in front of the control panel by the door. “A bit late for a visit, isn’t it? Especially since we’re supposedly convening in, oh, 4 hours.”

Nick Farrell grinned and quipped back, “Oh like you sleep, little miss night owl.”

Alexia laughed, pulling him into a tight hug.

“You okay, Lex?” His voice strained with concern.

Alexia sighed and pulled him into her room shutting the door behind him. “I’m fine, I just wish we were all on the same page.” She sat down on her bed, leaving room for Nick to sit between her and Oliver.

“Don’t let that ass upset you. I don’t know why you still put up with his shit after all these years. He’s not worth it. And you know he and Jake are never going to agree with any of these mission unless it’s a direct attack against the Gov. They’re ruled by their anger.”

“I know, I do. But…”

“Yeah, yeah, he’s your first love. I get it, Lex, I do. But at some point you need to let go and move on. Speaking of which, I see you’ve stolen my dog again. What if I needed a little canine love to mend MY broken heart tonight? Hmmm?” He winked and scratched that spot on Oliver’s neck that made him twitch with delight. “Aww, yeah. Did my Ollie miss me? Huh, did he?” Nick practically cooed.

Alexia let out a boisterous laugh. “Ollie,” she deliberately emphasized “has not missed you one bit. And by the way, we all know he’s mine!” She smiled and lay back down, gazing at her ceiling, trying to forget her stress and worries about the future.

“Don’t think too hard Lex, you’re liable to lose some brain cells there.” Nick smirked and lay down beside her, falling asleep before she could think up a suitably witty response.