By K.C. Finn
And it will change her forever.
Posing as Raja, a boy-soldier, the Underground girl is thrown into Legion life at its full, brutal speed. Here, she meets Senior Commander Briggs, whose savage authority reigns over the teenage soldiers. Amongst them are a band of oddballs known as the South Tower Rejects, led by Stirling, a tall, savvy stranger with bright copper hair and eyes that shine like oceans. There’s something hiding behind his cocky smile, and Raja wants to know what it is.
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He thinks I’m cowardly now too—a very promising sign. When the commander runs through the process of how to load our automatic guns, I ask him to stop and repeat even the simplest parts of the instructions. I can see the strain in his steely eyes, like he’s resisting the urge to just get up and smack me for interrupting him. On the outside, the others are still looking at me like I’m defective in some way, but, on the inside, I’m starting to enjoy winding Briggs up by playing the fool.
We have limited time to practise setting up the guns in our pairs. The bruised girl is surprisingly good at locking the pieces into the right places, and I learn more from watching her than I did from Briggs’s brisk display.
“What’s your name?” I ask her, once I’m sure the commander is busy helping someone else.
“Lucrece,” she replies.
I am taken aback by the broken quality to her voice. She sounds as though someone has forced her to gargle with glass.
“I’m Raja,” I tell her, and she lets that little smile slip out again.
“You’re all right, Raja,” Lucrece says. “The first friendly-looking face I’ve seen around here. Pity friendly isn’t in Briggs’s assessment criteria.”
Lucrece is a remarkably intelligent girl. Though her hands shake with nerves, she understands the mechanics of the gun far better than I do, and she explains the principles of distance, perception, and air resistance with confidence. From her, I learn that the guns have two settings: single shot and continuous fire. She finds the switch to change between the modes with ease. It pleases me to know that she has so much skill, but a little part of me is sad when I realise that she won’t be coming to the South Tower with me after all. Once today is over, we might never speak to one another again.
“Time’s up,” Briggs snarls. “You, you, and you, with me up here.”
Lucrece is one of the three people that Briggs’s pointing finger finds. She hands me her gun and stumbles nervously to the commander’s side with the two tall boys the commander has picked. Briggs uncovers something huge and lumpy from beside the gun stores, throwing it at Lucrece. She misses the catch as the heavy object thumps her hard in the chest, but when she manages to lift it again, the object takes shape. It is a thick, padded jacket, which appears to be full of small, frayed holes.
“Put these on,” Briggs barks, handing a jacket to each of the boys too, “and go and stand in front of the targets.”
He can’t be doing what I think he’s doing, and yet I watch in horror as Lucrece pads up and walks a few metres away. She heads toward the spiral-shaped targets that I’d assumed we would be aiming at. Briggs gives the three teens a shout when he’s satisfied with their distance, then turns back to us with a self-satisfied smirk.
“Set your weapons to fire single shots,” he instructs. “Let’s make some holes in those dummies, recruits.”
They aren’t dummies. They’re people. Real people. My fellow soldiers are adjusting their guns, but I can’t stand to even touch mine now.
“What if we miss, sir?” I interject. “We could kill them.”
Briggs leans close to my face, his bared teeth glowing white against his dark lips.
“You’d better not miss then, had you son?” he purrs.
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It takes me a moment to break the glare that Sun and I are sharing, but the sight of Goddie and Apryl is a welcome relief when I spot them entering the room. Apryl has a small bag of provisions which she hands me, and I sling it over my shoulder as my gaze rests on Goddie. He’s looking me over, his mouth open a little.
“I know. Don’t say it,” I tell him. “I look ridiculous.”
“No,” Goddie says gently. “I mean... ya don’t look like you, dat’s for sure. But ya look... good. Okay.”
“Wow,” Apryl adds dryly. “That was charming. You’re just full of backhanded compliments today.”
“I,” Goddie begins at once, wincing at me apologetically. “No, I don’t mean dat, I mean... Oh hell, ya know what I mean, right?”
“Seldom if ever,” I tell him.
But really, I do know. I must look different, so radically different from normal. And yet this is how I was supposed to turn out, I presume. Mumma’s little girl. Long hair and dresses. Pretty as a picture.
“So long as it gets me in and out unnoticed,” I add quickly, feeling the redness in my cheeks. “As soon as we know where Dad is, we can make a move.”
“Kip’s waiting for you on the surface,” Apryl tells me with a nod. “He’s going to tail you both back to the walls in case there’s any trouble. But I want you to take this.”
She reaches into her pocket, then forces something small and cold into my hand. It’s a brooch, apparently made of gold, and it has a black stone set in the centre that glistens a little strangely. The circular piece of jewellery has a pin on the back for it to be secured on clothing. When I don’t do anything with the brooch except stare at it, Apryl huffs and then takes it back. I watch her pinning it to one side of my dress, a little to the right of my heart.
“What’s that?” Sun asks sharply, eyeing the brooch.
“A camera,” Apryl explains. “Delilah and I rigged it up back at the base. Direct feed back to our computers and tablets here.”
“We’ll see everything you do,” Delilah adds.
When I glance towards her, I realise she’s looking directly at Sun Lin. Sun, for her part, seems to pale a little at the eyes on her, but soon she shrugs the comment off in that haughty way of hers.
“Enjoy the show,” she says with a curling smile.
Kim spends most of her time locked in the writing cave with an obscenely large mug of tea. When not writing, she can be found pursuing her PhD in Linguistics, watching classic British comedy, or concocting evil schemes in the secret laboratory in her attic.
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***From February 17th to 23rd, my fantasy novel The Book Of Shade will be 99 cents, a 78% discount on the usual Kindle price.***