Autumn in the City of Lights

Read the first Chapter here!

~ Prologue ~

The colorless clouds in the Parisian sky hung low as my spirits the morning Grey and I stood on the Eiffel Tower after what would become known as the Battle for Hoover.  We’d been on the winning side if, by ‘winning,’ you meant that Karl hadn’t managed to take over the settlement.  Though, the destruction he’d caused made a winning side almost indistinguishable.

I was so tired.  My body was tired.  My mind was tired.  We’d survived so much already, and the odds had been stacked against us the entire time.  Now it appeared we really were fighting a losing battle.

I stared at signs inviting the French survivors of the Crimson Fever to join Le Front de Reconstruction.  The letters were black against the snow sticking to the painted wood.  I leaned back against Grey.  He was a pinpoint of warmth behind me.  The frosty air stole all other comfort from us.

“What are we going to do?” I asked him.  The wind whisked away clouds formed by my breath so quickly I wasn’t sure they’d even had time to form.

Grey was quiet for a few moments, then finally said, “This changes the game quite a bit – Karl being here, Karl being able to be here.”

As safe as Grey made me feel with his own superhuman powers, it suddenly didn’t feel like enough compared to the immense threat Karl now posed.  I glanced up at him.  His face plainly said he felt the same.

“What about Lydia?” I asked.  “Won’t she come back to check on us?”

“I’m not sure.  When she left, there was no immediate danger, and we were doing pretty well in Hoover.”

“Is there any way to get a message to her?  Or to The University?” I questioned.

He shook his head, squinting into the morning sun now piercing the clouds like silvery needles.  “Once they’re on the move again, they’re impossible to contact.”  He grimaced.  “Part of our defense.”

“But they have people living on planets all over the place.  What if they need help?”

“You forget ­– we’re only supposed to observe.  Therefore, if we run into trouble, we project away.  To another planet, if necessary.  But leaving isn’t an option for me.”

I was thankful for Grey’s resolve to stay, and I wasn’t the only one.  We hardly stood a chance against Karl with Grey here.  Without him… we’d have all fallen under Karl’s tyrannical rule long ago.

I stepped out of Grey’s warm arms and gripped the metal railing in front of me, wondering if my skin might freeze to it, but not daring to let go.  Paris lay before us, frozen in Karl’s grasp.  How many other cities did he have control of?  I didn’t know but we had to assume there were many more.  One thing I did know?  We were on our own.

“It’s up to us then.”  I turned to face Grey.  “Only we know what he’s capable of.  If we don’t do something, he’s going to take over the world.”

“We can’t let that happen.”

A chill passed through me, but it wasn’t the wind that caused it.  “No, we won’t.”

~ Chapter One ~

ONE
9 MONTHS LATER

The crowd around me was restless.  This meeting was the last place everyone wanted to be on New Year’s Day, and it looked like rain.  If we all got wet, it would top off the whole experience like a moldy cherry on top of this rotten sundae.

“What on God’s green earth are we doing here?” Daniel said, shifting his weight from foot to foot like a runner loosening up for the fifty-yard dash.

“It’s going to be okay,” I said.  “We’ll figure this out.”  Instead of making me feel better, the words only screwed up the ever-tightening coil of rope inside my stomach.

Ben put his hand on my shoulder.  “I’ve always appreciated your positivity, Autumn, but you’re delusional.  It’s not going to be okay.  This whole thing is a bad, bad idea.”

I shook my head.  “There’s always something we can do.”

“Yeah, like move,” Daniel said.

The wind gusted, blowing strands of hair loose from the band I’d tied it back with.  The air felt slightly sticky, humid.  I glanced at the darkening sky.  It was definitely going to rain.

No one was sitting down.  We were all milling around the edges, as if taking a seat would be a sign of agreement.  Tightly clustered groups watched each other, unsure and suspicious.

Through the crowd, I saw Diego Montoya, our new mayor, making his way toward the stage.

“Be right back,” I said to the guys.

I followed Diego through the huddled mass, overhearing bits of their conversation as I went. Strangely, it seemed most people were in favor of being here, though unwilling to state their opinion for all to hear.  The thought of so many people in approval of this atrocity made me sick to my stomach.

I caught up with Diego as he mounted the stairs to the stage.  He paused when I called out to him.  I gave him credit for masking almost all of his displeasure in seeing me.

“Hello, Miss Winters.  Now really isn’t the time­–”

“It isn’t too late to reconsider.”

“I’ve heard all of your arguments.  Many times.”  He rubbed his temples.  “From you and all of your friends,” he added, looking around wearily, as if anticipating them to pop out of the bushes lining the stage.

“I just don’t think that you–”

“But that’s just it.  It’s not about what you alone think.  It’s about what we all think.  And this meeting represents what the majority wants.”

He turned and climbed the remaining stairs and stepped to the center of the stage.  I returned to Daniel and Ben.

“One last ditch effort?” Ben asked.

“Maybe I can talk to him afterward,” I wondered aloud.

“It’s over, Autumn,” Ben said.  “Be thankful we at least have someone on our side up there.”

The murmuring of the crowd slowly faded as Diego tapped on a microphone to get everyone’s attention.

“About time,” Daniel muttered.  “Let’s get this circus over with so we get back to doing something that’s actually productive.”

“Have you seen Shad?” I asked, looking around the group.

“You expect him to be anything other than late?” Ben answered.

“Thank you all for coming today,” Diego said, his voice echoing around us.  He paused and cleared his throat.  “I appreciate you taking time out of your day to be here.  I know you’re all working hard to rebuild our home.  This is an important step forward.  A step that isn’t going to be taken lightly, but should be taken, nonetheless.”

“Not if we have anything to say about it,” Ben whispered.

“I’m going to bring forward a couple people to be part of the mediation up here so we can get through some of the finer points of the deal.”

A figure emerged from the shadows behind him just as raindrops began to patter down.  People around us groaned and pulled up hoods or opened umbrellas.  Through the sudden activity, I watched Grey take his place next to Diego on the stage and search the crowd.  When his blue eyes landed on me, I felt some of the air that had left my sails return, filling me up with a renewed hope that whatever came our way, we’d face together.

Someone else came to stand on Diego’s other side, and I clenched my jaw in an effort not to scream in anger at his very presence.

Karl.

Just as Grey’s had, Karl’s dark eyes found me in the crowd.  His expression was mild smugness.  I glared back, my jaw aching.  How had it come to this?  How had we let this happen?  We failed.

Before Diego could begin, there was a strange fizzling noise, like a firecracker being doused with water.  Then the whole amphitheater lit up with noise and light and a force that knocked us all to the ground.  Everything went dark.

*             *             *
I was lying on the ground.  I was fairly sure of that.  Everything else was a damp, cloudy blur.  Where was I?  Hoover?  No.  Burbank… New Burbank.  We’d come back home to Los Angeles.  Right?  A roaring sound flooded my mind.  Was I at a train station?  That didn’t seem right.  I mentally reached for a better explanation as I became suddenly weightless.

“I’ve got you,” a voice said.  “Hold on.”

I felt the bump of heels hitting the ground with each step my rescuer took.  Grey, I thought, letting my head fall against his chest.

The air was thick in my nose.  Smoke.  With great difficulty, I tried to open my eyes, but they felt as if they’d been glued shut.

A moment later, icy wetness pricked my face, and the roaring sound faded.

“You’re okay, Autumn.  You’re gonna be fine,” the voice said.  It rang strangely in my ears, like a strummed chord on an out-of-tune guitar.  The remark was right, but the voice wasn’t.  And Grey seldom called me by my name when we were alone.  He always used Fòmhair[1], the Gaelic word for the autumn season.

My lips parted with a groan as I tried to lift my head.  Open your eyes, I thought, mentally shouting.  Open them now!

“Easy, easy.  You’ve had a shock.  Just relax.”  With the sound of the man’s voice came images of a radio station and a desert hill at night.  My eyelids sprang open.

The light was bright behind him, making a halo around his face.  I squinted, and he slowly came into focus.  It was Karl.

Karl, the leader of The Reconstruction Front; Karl, who had terrorized Los Angeles after the deadly Crimson Fever wiped out all but one percent of the planet; Karl, who had attacked those of us who fled to a new settlement at the Hoover Dam; Karl, who had killed countless innocent people in his plan to reshape this planet into his new home, was now carrying me in his arms.

“Put me down, now!” I yelled and pushed away from him.  He nearly dropped me, but paused to regain his grip under my knees and back, pinning me against his chest again.

“Autumn,” he said, sounding like my father, “Please stop.  I’m not going to hurt you.”  He gave me an exasperated look and continued walking.  This time I noticed his gait was uneven.  He was limping.  “Do you remember what happened?” he asked.

An image resurfaced in my mind of people standing shoulder to shoulder, jacket hoods up and hats pulled low to ward off the cold January rain drizzling down on them from the overcast sky above.  All of them staring up at the stage.  The meeting at the Hillside Bowl.  That’s where I was.

The historic Los Angeles landmark was one of the few places in the Hollywood Hills to survive the wildfires after The Plague, though there’d been some exterior walls that showed burn marks.  It was also the halfway point between our settlement, New Burbank, and the Westside, where Karl and The Front lived.  Our two groups were meeting here to negotiate a peace treaty to unify Los Angeles.

“There was an explosion during the peace talks,” Karl prompted.  “Do you remember?”

I turned my head to look over his shoulder.  He had carried me halfway up the seating area of the open-air amphitheater.  Below us, people crawled like ants over the wreckage of the band shell behind the stage.  Up here, thick smoke drifted among the people running everywhere; some dirty with soot and ash, some wet with rain, some red with blood.

“Grey… where’s Grey?” I mumbled, my mouth feeling uncoordinated.

“I haven’t seen him.  He probably projected to safety.”

Hearing Karl casually reference their special ability to disappear from one place and reappear in another made me uneasy.  It reminded me they were connected, and from the same place… an alien planet.  But they couldn’t be more different.  Karl’s usual first inclination was to save himself.  Grey, being a doctor and a decent person, would stay in a dangerous place until the last person was out of harm’s way.  This was one of the many reasons I loved him.

“I’m sure he’s fine, Autumn.  Don’t worry about him right now.”

But I was worrying.  Seeing the rubble on the stage, where he’d stood only minutes ago, brought back the fear that was never too far away these days.  Where was Grey?  Where were the rest of my friends?  Were they hurt?

Tears welled in my eyes, but I raised my chin, forcing them back.

“Please put me down.”

Karl stopped next to an ivy-covered retaining wall on the far west side of the seating area.  He put my feet on the ground but kept his arm across my shoulders while I stood.  I didn’t want any help from him, so I stepped away, bracing myself against the wall.

The rain felt lighter here, and I looked up.  A dense elderberry tree grew above us, shielding us from the heaviest of the raindrops.  It had been oddly thoughtful of Karl to find a somewhat dry place for me.  I looked at the man I’d feared and loathed for almost two years and found him watching me warily.

“You’re not going to break my nose again, are you?” he asked, referring to two of our past meetings when I managed to bash him in the face with a hard object: the first time with a chunk of cement, and the second time with my foot.  “I’ve still got a limp from where you shot me back in Hoover.” He motioned to his leg.  “And a scar from where you bit me.”  He grimaced, rubbing his forearm through his rain jacket.  “You can’t blame me for being on guard around you.  But keep in mind, I did just save your life.”

The sudden urge to hit him repeatedly with anything within reach welled inside me, and I looked away, afraid I might actually do it.

“Autumn!” came a familiar voice on the wind.  Ben, I thought with a rush of relief.  I turned to find him sprinting up the stairs three at a time toward me, soggy, soot-stained, and scowling.

“Get away from her,” Ben hissed between clenched teeth and stepped between us, his back to me.  “This is your fault,” he said pointedly at Karl.

“I assure you, it isn’t,” Karl said, his voice calm and even.  “I’m only interested in peace.”

“You’re scum, and you don’t deserve to have any peace,” Ben growled.  “Haven’t you killed enough innocent people?”

“Grey!” I gasped, interrupting the showdown between my outraged best friend and the man I hated most in this world.  Ben turned and saw what I had: Grey emerging from the wreckage of the stage, a limp woman in his arms.

My weakness suddenly gone, I leaped down the stairs and yelled his name as he helped the woman sit down in one of the remaining garden boxes.  Grey turned, the pinched anxiety on his face fading to relief, and he closed the gap between us.

I crashed into him at full speed, almost taking him down with me.  He clasped his arms around me.  I could feel him shaking.

“Are you okay?!  Are you hurt?!”  Concern pursed his lips as he gently touched my forehead.  I winced, and for the first time, realized my head ached.  I reached up through his fingers and felt a swollen area near my temple.

“Looks like a rough piece of wood hit you.”  Grey peered at my forehead again, then touched it briefly.  I felt the slightest pinprick, and he held up a splinter pinched between his thumb and forefinger.

“It was part of a picnic table,” Karl said, suddenly appearing beside us with Ben close behind him.  “What was left of it was lying on top of her when I found her.”

“Thank you for helping her,” Grey said.

“Any time.”

I couldn’t bring myself to thank Karl, so I let the silence linger while watching him from the corner of my eye.  Karl searched the crowd of people, his forehead wrinkled with concern.  It frustrated me to see him acting like he cared so much.  I reminded myself it had to be just that, an act.  Karl had made his goals clear to us the night he attacked and burned down most of the Hoover Settlement.  Nine months had passed since then, and our lives had changed drastically again, but I knew Karl and his motives would remain as unyielding as an icy winter wind.

“I don’t suppose any of this was your doing?”  Grey asked suddenly, turning to Karl.  His voice was calm, but his eyes were full of suspicion.

“No.”  Karl’s simple response was unflinching and natural.

“I think you should leave now,” Ben broke in.  “As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter if you were behind this or not.  This attack had everything to do with your presence here, and every additional life lost in this city is your fault.”

Karl nodded slowly, and if I didn’t know better, I’d say he looked wounded at Ben’s words.  “I believe this was an act of protest against me,” he said.  “Not New Burbank.  If I were you, I’d look at your own for likely suspects to blame.  Those who have opposed these negotiations…”  Karl let his sentence hang in the air for a moment before tipping his head in goodbye.  “I’ll leave you in peace.”

“I really hate that guy,” Ben said, gritting his teeth as he watched Karl help another injured person find a seat away from the crowd.

“No time for that now.  We should go help,” Grey said, ever the doctor.

“Yeah, and I have to go look for Shad.”  Ben eyed the rubble.  “God, I hope he’s not under any of that.”

“I’ll help look,” I said, starting to follow them down the long cement staircase, but Grey reached a hand back to stop me.

“You should stay here, Fomhair,” he said.  “I’ll come back for you as soon as I’ve gotten to any critical patients, and we can start moving people back over the hill to the hospital.  I want you to go in the wagon with the first group.  You need a CT scan before going home.”

“I feel fine,” I began to protest, but he cut me off.

“Do you feel nauseous or weak?  Numb anywhere?  Does your head hurt?”

“Of course my head hurts.  A friggin’ picnic table landed on it,” I quipped.  “But I can still help.  And what if Shad’s down there?”  I motioned to the broken band shell.  I mentally ran through the list of my other post-Plague family members, thanking God Connie was at home with Rissi.  But where was Daniel?  I looked around anxiously for the tall man with bright red hair I’d known for a year but felt like I’d known forever.  Connie still hadn’t gotten over Daniel’s close call with death.  He’d only just recovered from a near-fatal gunshot wound he received at Area 51 the day of The Front’s attack on the Hoover Settlement, and I didn’t want to imagine how she’d react if he was injured again.  Connie had barely let him out of the house during his recovery, even for their wedding, which had taken place a month after we’d formed the New Burbank settlement.

I heard my name and turned to see a figure rushing toward me.  It was Shad.  He whipped me up into a bear hug that almost hurt.

“Oh, thank God,” he said, moving from me to wrap an arm around Grey.  “Where’s Ben?  Have you seen him yet?”

I pointed down to the rubble-filled stage.  “Ben’s down there looking for you,” I said.  “We haven’t seen Daniel yet, though.”

“Daniel’s fine.  I saw him when I was looking for you guys.”  I opened my mouth to ask where exactly Daniel was, but Shad barreled on.  “I think I might have seen the guy who set off the bomb.”

That stopped us cold.  “How do you know that?” Grey asked.

“I was standing off to the side of the stage when the explosion happened,” Shad said.  “I was running a little late and thought I’d slip in unnoticed.  Lucky for me, I guess.”  His lips tipped into a thin smile for a split second and disappeared.  “Then I saw this guy in a hat holding a cell phone up to his ear.  I figured that was odd, given there aren’t many cell towers up and running anymore.  Particularly ones that would deliver a signal in here.”  He motioned around at the bowl-shaped amphitheater.

“You sure it was a cell phone?” Grey asked.  “Could it have been some kind of walkie or radio?”

“Could have been.  Either way, he didn’t say anything, just walked around the corner to the exit, and then boom, I’m blown off my feet.”

“Was he one of ours?  Or part of The Front?” I asked.

“I don’t know.  His back was to me,” Shad replied.  “Could be The Front… could be one of ours, too.  There’s so many people in both groups now; I just don’t know.  He had a tattoo on the back of his neck though.  Looked like a star, but he had his collar up, so I couldn’t tell.”

“Did you see him after the explosion?” Grey questioned.

Shad shook his head.  “Probably long gone.”

“You need to organize a search party for him,” Grey said.  “Now, before he can get too far.”

“Okay, but which direction do I even go looking for him?”

“West,” I replied.  “I’d be willing to bet money The Front’s behind—”

I stopped mid-sentence when a metal-on-metal creaking noise drew my attention to the stage.  A crack widened in the band shell, and a large section of what was left of the structure began to lurch.  Pieces started to break free and crash to the stage… right where Ben stood.

[1] Pronounced ‘Foe er’

FacebookTwitterPinterestRSS Feed