Ashton Wells has one purpose: Stop Europe’s Coalition forces from slaughtering the citizens of The Peaceful Union to prevent the spread of the Trembling Sickness. But his plan to overthrow The Order from within is thwarted at every turn by his ex-love, Charlotte Blackburn. A woman he betrayed. His treachery resulted in her capture and now she will stop at nothing to destroy the Order – even if it means all-out war with Ashton.
Hunted by the brutal Viceroy and struggling to regain memories of the past two years wiped by The Order, Charlotte must fight to master the devices and startling abilities thrust upon her as a result of her capture. As Charlotte and Ashton endeavor to discover the real reason for what was done to her, they uncover an unfathomable plan against the most innocent of outer City's citizens.
With ruthless enemies mounting against the struggling citizens of Outer City, Charlotte must brave the terrors of the churning sea and face her darkest truth to retrieve a strange submersible machine—a device that may very well be humanity’s last hope of survival.
Plaza Exilio, Spain – December, 1889
Dirigibles and air ships circled the port’s landing base, falling lower and lower as the weight of the refugees aboard burned through the vessels’ fuel. Snow flurried on a bitterly cold wind chapping the faces of the countless people on the ground as they crowded along the ten-foot-high barricade that corralled the passengers disembarking from both air and sea ships.
Riley pushed through the crowd, his eye on the guards in thick black coats who stood peering over the top of the barrier preventing the mass of people from entering the receiving camp. Filter masks over their mouth and noses, they kept their rifles aimed at the surging mob and shouted orders in Spanish, demanding registration of names and presentation before the line of doctors. The port teemed with refugees shoving and shouting their way to the vast metal doors that guarded the entrance to Spain’s last remaining receiving base.
Riley’s mech-hand shuddered and whirred, the uncharacteristic cold slowing the mechanica, and he clenched his fingers working the gears. Europe suffered disrupted weather patterns as a result of North America’s Great Calamity, and in the decade since, the strange storms that froze the coast or charred the mountains with lightning had not dissipated. Today was no different, as the wan noonday sun did little to stave off the winter chill. Snow packed from thousands of footsteps crunched under his boots as he walked along the line of jostling bodies, which stretched for nearly a mile down the port.
The receiving camp would close for good today at sundown on orders from the European Coalition formed to deal with the Peaceful Union’s massive disaster.
His hand went to the green band of material sewn onto the sleeve of his leather duster—a symbol of his status as a refugee with a clean bill of health. The red wax stamped with the coalition’s symbol of an olive branch was already beginning to crumble from the frigid wind.
Through the crowd, a familiar face came into view. Cephas waved his arms over his head, catching Riley’s attention. His dark skin was dusty with dirt, and his rumpled clothes bore the grime of living in the filthy holding camp. The cracked lens of his spectacles held the red grime of ash. Still, he smiled warmly as he wove through the milling bodies and took up step next to Riley as they made their way to the entrance.
“Cephas,” Riley said, nodding. “How is Reena and the child?”
“Safely hidden,” he said and let a half smile escape. “Sheriff, there is news from Outer City—”
“Not here.” Riley glanced at the row of armed men lining the fence.
“Yes, of course.”
They walked together, Riley silent as he took in the chaos around him
“Coalition of Khent,” Cephas said, motioning to the guards. “The European committee meets this week, I heard. They talk of a full blockade against the Union territories.”
“Won’t do any good,” Riley said, adjusting his large brimmed hat on top of his head. “Once people make it across the noxious Atlantic, there’s no way they’re going back to the city-states. Better to risk dying of exposure out here than to try to survive the Trembling Sickness and wasteland poison back home.”
“But a blockade would stop trade with Europe. Medicine, food, steel, and textiles. We need those shipments to survive.” Cephas shook his head. “Would they cut us off completely? Thousands would starve to death.”
“The sickness is spreading and so is their panic. They saw what happened to the city-states left unprotected by the Tesla domes.” Riley slowed, a deep growl sounding over the noise of the crowd, making him miss a step. He paused, his heart ramping up as his gaze skipped from person to person looking for telltale signs of the affliction.
“Two years and we’re still fleeing for our lives,” Cephas continued. He wiped melted snow from his brow with the sleeve of his Reaper tunic. “And now this final port is closing. What will all these people do?”
The refugees piled against the high fence, banging their hands or trying to climb over one another to scale it. Children cried, their tiny faces marred with confusion and fear. Mothers shouted for their loved ones, separated from them in the melee, and desperately clung to the ones still in their arms.
Riley and Cephas skirted the intake line and made their way to the barred gate.
Soldiers stood eight deep at the doors checking for armbands and waving people through.
Riley kept his gaze on the crowd, his throat aching at the desperate faces. It was as bad now as it was two years ago when the first wave of people escaped the shores of the Peaceful Union and braved the lethal Atlantic to seek refuge in Spain and Portugal. Rumor was that some even made it across the ice shelf to Canada. Riley had heard news of death by trampling and uncontrollable riots in other coastal countries hit with the fleeing citizens of North America.
“We’ll figure something out,” Riley said absently. Another growl pulled his attention, and he stopped in his tracks at the sight before him. “What have they done?”
Cephas followed his gaze, the color draining from the man’s face. “Oh, no.”
A man infected with the sickness, a Trembler, writhed in a large cage near the gate. He gnashed his teeth and flailed his blue-skinned arms through the bars at the terrified passersby. Black eyes roving, a shudder wracked his body breaking bone. Keening with pain, he fell to his knees, still clad in the trousers and fine shirt he’d been wearing when the strange affliction overtook him. At least a dozen more cages lined the fence leading to the entrance.
A soldier wrestled with a screaming woman as he tried to shove her into an empty cage. She shook in his arms, her low moan a dead giveaway of her condition.
“They check for signs of the Trembling Sickness in the camps now too. All of us daily, even if we are already cleared,” Cephas muttered next to Riley. “They dragged a poor woman out yesterday because she was shivering from the cold. We haven’t seen her since.”
“It will get worse.” Riley turned at the grating sound of an iron-clad ship pulling into port. A stream of Peaceful Union citizens poured out of its hold. More refugees from the failing nation come to seek aid and shelter in Europe after the massive Reaper attack crippled half of the city-states of their country. “Won’t be long until it is not just Spain and Portugal, but all of Europe that starts to turn entire ships away on the rumor of sickness.”
“That is my fear,” Cephas muttered. “Or worse. Why waste time going through each camp person by person? How long until they slaughter all of us just to be sure?”
Fear eroded the fabric of decency. How long until it ripped apart humanity entirely? The line moved up, and Riley turned to show the guard his armband.
“Face.” The guard demanded, stepping forward and shoving Riley in the chest with his rifle. “Show me your temples.”
“What?” Cephas asked, startled.
Before Riley could remove his hat, the guard knocked it off. “Your temples and your fingers. Now.”
Riley stepped forward, nearly nose to nose with the guard, and held up his hands.
“No blue, see?” He stared him down, his anger barely contained. “I’ve been cleared.”
“You present every time you enter, or leave the camp,” the guard snarled. “Or you get shot. You choose.”
“We do not have a problem here.” Cephas picked up Riley’s hat, handed it to him, and then held his hands up as well. “I am not sick. He is not sick.”
The guard glanced at Cephas and then back at Riley. He turned, muttered something in Spanish to his man at the gate, and then motioned for them to enter.
Riley stepped past him, his gaze locking with the man as he went. Out of habit, Riley’s hand went to his hip, where his weapon would normally rest in its holster.
Cephas’s mouth twitched nervously as they side stepped the row of guards into the camp.
Walking through the gates, Riley paused, taken aback by how much had changed in the two months since he’d been here. Hundreds of new tents filled the area, makeshift shelters made out of sails and sheets and whatever else the refugees could find. Thousands more people had arrived. How would he locate one man in this sea of people? More importantly…how would he do it in time? He blew out a breath of frustration.
“You know for sure your contact is here?”
“Well, yes, I believe so, but that is what I wanted to speak with you about…” Cephas pulled a roll of crumpled aethergraph paper from his pants.
“Is he here or not?” Riley eyed the missive, waiting. “What are you not saying, Cephas?”
“Yes, he is here or he was a few days ago. I believe he is in the northern quadrant but there is something you must read first.”
Riley shook his head. “No time.”
“You will want to know this, Sheriff. Please, it is news from back home.”
“I just left Outer City a week ago. What could have gone wrong in the time it took the dirigible to fly here? Besides, Deputy Kiril is capable of handling whatever it is.”
He tried to continue, but Cephas stepped in his way.
“But it is why you are here. The reason you came all this way, Sheriff.” Cephas shoved the paper in Riley’s hand. “It is Dr. Bartlet. She sent this aether missive a few days after you left Outer City to come here. It is coded, but I deciphered it. Sheriff, it says they found Charlotte Blackburn.”
Riley’s world stopped. His pulse rammed in his ears, and all sound fell away. He took the message from Cephas with shaking hands. Gaze traveling the etching left by the electric rods of the machine, he traced the words on the paper with his fingers. Not believing, he read it again, making sure he understood every word.
You were right, Riley. She was exactly where you thought. We found her. We have her.
“They…” Riley tried to form words but his mouth was dry, his breath coming in hitches. He staggered, gripping the paper, unable to think. “She’s safe?”
“Go,” Cephas said, patting Riley on the shoulder. “Hurry back to Outer City. She is waiting for you.”
A deep ache in his throat made it impossible to answer. He nodded mutely, blinking rapidly as he tilted his face to the sky. Fine flecks of snow fluttered onto his skin, melting in the heat of his exhaled breaths. Two years in the grip of a madman and she had survived. His mind churned with anguish at the terrors she must have endured, but right now all that mattered was one thing.
Charlotte was alive.