In my weakened condition, a direct attack wasn’t wise, but if I “surrendered” . . .
The good thing about being a female A.F.—no one wanted to shoot me unless forced to.
Logistics: I could only raise one hand, so they might think I was reaching for a weapon and fire. A gunshot wouldn’t kill me, but it’d draw more guards and Baggers.
I commanded the vines of my cobra’s flare to slip down and twine into my empty poncho sleeve, puffing it out. I moved my green arm; looked like the real thing. Perfect.
In past battles, I’d tried to limit the body count. Now I cared only about what actions would be quickest. Once I completed my mission, none of this would have happened.
I limped into view, working the damsel-in-distress angle. “P-please help!” I cried, both arms raised—the green one emitting poisonous spores. “Can you help me?”
The two guards swiveled and gawked at me. One said, “A female!” and ran to apprehend me. The other reached for his radio.
Neither completed his action before he dropped.
Pulling my poncho hood back up, I strode past their bodies and approached the entrance. I peeked inside; no one right there, so I slipped in.
Lining a dark corridor were cells filled with what must be two hundred men. Past the cells at the far end of the curving hallway was an open doorway. Light, heat, and music spilled through it.
I could tell I neared those plants! My claws budded and sharpened, and I felt the first real tingle of regeneration.
No one had seen me back here in the dark. All eyes were trained in the other direction on two more shirtless men guarding that doorway.
Whimpers and murmurs rippled from the cells: “What happens now?” “Has anyone escaped?” “What will they do to us?”
Nothing good, I wanted to answer.
Since the Flash, I’d been caged by a militia, shoved into a serial killer’s laboratory, dragged down into a cannibal’s subterranean pantry, and forced into a house-of-horrors torture chamber.
These prisoners weren’t headed for a pleasant destination. Would they be slaughtered like cattle? Or used as target practice as some faction mowed them down?
I sidled closer to the cages. In one, a boy of about nine was crying while an older guy—looked like his granddad—tried to comfort him. But the grandfather was clearly just as wigged out. The kid called him Pops.
I eased over to them, keeping a low profile until I got more intel. “What state are we in?” I asked Pops.
He jolted, maybe because he’d just heard the voice of a rare female; or because I was strolling around outside the cages. “Indiana.”
Still? Damn it! “Who runs this place?”
Overhearing our hushed exchange, a burly guy with a bandana over his head turned toward me and said, “Solomón, the leader of the Skins.”
Pops said, “Those are Sol’s fanatical followers.”
Bandana added, “They consider us the Shirts.” Shirts and Skins. As in football? Who makes up this shit? “Sol’s been rounding up survivors all over the state.”
“Why? Why put you in cages?”
“Because Sol likes games,” Bandana said. “For entertainment. You’ll see soon enough.”
A guy sitting beside Bandana asked me, “Don’t suppose you know how to hotwire electronic cell locks?”
No, but I could slip a tree between two bars, growing it till the metal bent. Maybe I should free these prisoners.
Then I remembered the lesson I’d learned from Jack and Aric: shackled person did not mean good person.
Besides, these men roaming free presented too many new variables and would slow my mission. In an altered future, I never would have been here anyway.
How to get to Sol most quickly? If I turned myself in, those guards might not hand me over to their leader right away, might even mutiny to keep a female for themselves.
An electronic whirring sounded, and all the cell doors opened. No one was brave enough to be the first to step out, to try an escape.
The two shirtless guards—Skins—started down the corridor, guns at the ready. One of them called, “You men are about to make history!”
In Sol’s games? If these prisoners were part of his entertainment, then my best hope of access to him might be to join them. I slipped into Pops’s cell, blending with the others before the guards passed. The pair ambled to the other end of the corridor.
“Everybody out and start walking,” the second guard called. “Any of you still in a cage when we roll through gets shot. Better hightail it out before then.” They were driving us toward that entrance?
Men hurried to exit, and I joined them. Playing along—for now—seemed quickest. Still, impatience had me by the throat.
Bandana edged closer to me. “I could look out for you, little girl,” he said. “If we live through this.”
I frowned at my new suitor. “You’re optimistic. And I don’t need you to look out for me.”
Bandana’s friend smirked. “You say that now, but wait till the blood starts flowing.”
That was my problem; I couldn’t wait. The red witch bayed for it.
Pops murmured, “You should announce you’re a female. You’ll be spared whatever’s about to happen to us.”
I could feel that we were approaching those plants; I had to stifle the urge to run ahead of all these men. “I’ll be just fine.”
Bandana met his buddy’s gaze and twirled his forefinger at his temple. He thought I was crazy? That’s fair.
“You don’t seem scared,” Pops said. “Do you know something we don’t?”