Excerpt - Feral Recruit

Feral Recruit, the first book in the Calm Act Feral America series.

She survived. That’s not good enough.

When Ebola struck Manhattan, Ava Panic was a bright high school sophomore. Two years later, Ava’s still kicking. Also hitting, biting, and gouging eyes.

Nine out of ten didn’t make it. Half the survivors are feral teens like Ava. During the Starve, their gangs terrorized the city. The Army finally stopped the dying, and resettled desirable refugees to new lives out in the countryside.

But no one wants the gang rats, least of all the adults in the city. The generations loathe each other.

The new nation of Hudson hopes Army discipline can salvage these kids. Ava is game. Because the Army holds all the cards now. And if the streets taught her anything, Ava knows that only the ones with power survive. But for this to work, either the Army or gang rat Ava will have to change.

If you enjoy vivid characters, compelling world-building, and page-turning action, you'll love the climate change apocalyptic Calm Act Feral America series.

Feral Recruit was originally published as book 5 of the Calm Act series.

Chapter 1

Interesting fact: Two years ago, in early December, widespread Ebola broke out in New York City. Epidemic control borders crashed shut to isolate the ‘Apple Zone’ — the city, its northern suburbs, half of New Jersey, and Long Island — to prevent refugees from carrying the contagion. A year later, Project Reunion began to save the survivors. Many were resettled outside the Apple. Only 140,000 remained on Manhattan Island, down from 1.7 million. Among them was Ava Panic….

Joining the Army wasn’t even a dream ship on the horizon yet, as Ava Panic stood with the throng in Washington Square. The demolition team was ready to implode the blocks at the far, eastern end of the park. The teenager stood with the others behind the yellow warning tape of the blast radius, her mouth partially open in delight.

Five months of their lives the Soho Village crews had spent clearing salvage from this collection of eight-to-twelve story buildings. Ava herself had stripped on two of them, one a heavy grey edifice of New York University office space and lecture halls, the other NYU’s hollow core library, sheathed in orange sandstone. A university she’d never be able to attend. Just empty hulks now, of massive stone, blocking the low-angled November sun from reaching Washington Square.

What a colossal bore the prep had been. First out came all the equipment worth salvaging. Then the combustibles. Then they broke the sheet rock of the walls. More combustibles to tear out. Then the picky labor of stripping the rats nest of wires and copper pipes. There was plenty of salvage metal threaded through one of these behemoths. Day in, day out, through the dog days of August and ever since. The newer library hadn’t been so bad, but Ava hated that heavy lecture hall building. She was eager to witness its violent demise.

The crowd of salvage crews, on break to watch the big event, keyed higher and higher with anticipation, as the countdown klaxons sounded. Some of the old ones had tears in their eyes. Maybe they’d attended NYU, or knew someone who cared. The kids like Ava were enjoying every minute, bouncing on their toes.

Soho Village featured unusually short buildings for Manhattan. The mini-city occupied the remains of Soho and Greenwich Village. So they were low priority for the privilege of the expert demolition crew. Some of the other kids had witnessed the excitement as they collapsed whole blocks of skyscrapers in Midtown. But that was before Ava came in from the gangs. Demolition had worked its way north for months, and was only now revisiting lower Manhattan. She’d never seen this operation before in person. The other kids claimed it was awesome.

The traveling experts spent all last week installing the charges and control electronics. Then days of low cloud cover postponed the big event. They needed a clear sky for the shock waves to disperse safely into the heavens, instead of bouncing down off the clouds to shatter windows and eardrums around the blast site.

Ava remembered that part fondly. The idea of sending shock waves reverberating up to heaven, resonated in her raging heart.

Ava had listened in fascination as the city engineer explained the details of this operation to the town meeting before they began. Where they would install the charges. How they anticipated domino effects to work, one tall building helping to drag down the next. The water mains, gas mains, power and sewer lines disconnected and re-routed. The subway caverns to collapse down below. That meeting wasn’t well-attended in the first place, and then many of the adult voters slipped away bored. Ava’s own crew boss, LaTisha, was among the first to bolt. But Ava sat rapt. Leveling twelve city blocks, clear to Broadway, was like disintegrating a mountain. A living mountain, with its skeleton and circulatory systems still entwined with the living city matrix below.

And most magically of all, the crew did this main step for them, instead of the locals laboring tediously by hand. The pros didn’t even seek help laying the explosives. Only qualified people could do that meticulous work.

Today the old people were tiresome, about it being such a horrible shame to destroy these wonderful old buildings. How it always made them cry. Nothing new there. The old folk were always tiresome.

The thought brought a flash of Deda’s face, her grandfather. Deda wasn’t tiresome. He would have appreciated the old buildings, yet adored the excitement of their demolition as much as Ava. Deda had that fey joy in life, the ability to appreciate the good and bad alike. Sorry, Deda, Ava told his ghost.

Deda was nothing like LaTisha, anyway, Ava’s sixty-something crew boss. LaTisha supposedly supervised twenty kids under twenty. In practice, LaTisha yelled at random, and at almost-eighteen, Ava led the other kids, in Ava’s opinion. LaTisha was scowling at her as usual. Ava ignored her. She banished Deda from mind, too, to savor the cataclysm.

The warning klaxons sped up for a 20-second countdown. Belatedly, Ava remembered her kerchief around her neck, and hastily pulled it up over nose and face. She flipped safety goggles down from her forehead into place, and plugged in her ear buds. She gestured to the others on her crew, reminding them to follow suit. She didn’t bother to watch for compliance. Ava could barely contain her dark glee. She pumped a fist at the building. “Crash, crash!” she called out, in time with the count-down.

The other kids in her crew took up the chant, building to a crescendo. “Crash, crash!” The cheer spread to other crews, and infected the adults of the crowd as well. “Crash! CRASH! CRASH!”

LaTisha pinched her arm, saying something unheard through the cheering and ear plugs. LaTisha still wasn’t wearing her protective gear. Ava just shrugged her off. The old nuisance almost made her miss the big moment as the first charges boomed, muffled and subterranean, thrumming through their feet. Some tiny puffs of dust escaped windows here and there, at the far end of the ten-acre Washington Square.

They had a great view. Nearly every tree and shrub in the city was cut down and burned for fuel during the Starve. Tender leafless saplings, imported from Upstate and newly installed, didn’t block anything at all.

The next set of charges fired, louder. Explosions burst from mid-building this time, with all the ruinous fire Ava’s furious heart could desire. Glass and dust and shards of stone flew — the stone-blasts were beautiful!

Heart pounding, breath held, Ava watched a few seconds as the buildings still stood intact. Then in delayed reaction, brick and windows and solid lecture building morphed into a standing wall of dust. It hung poised another moment, then came crashing down. The billowing cloud of dust was too thick to see the other implosions in such detail, as other blocks continued, building after building collapsing to the ground.

Her arms above her head, Ava screamed triumph and hopped around in a circle. The younger crew kids followed her lead, pet lemmings that they were. Other older teens hopped up and down shrieking victory as well, vaulting off each other’s shoulders, and laughing out loud. Ava grinned so hard tears squeezed out.

A vivid memory struck her. A building fire at 18th Street and 7th Avenue. That was winter, after Ebola died back, but still early in the Starve. People had rained down, too. Burning, screaming in agony to shatter on the pavement. Her gang had screamed and cheered and danced in triumph then, too, like the kids around her now. Frosty, their leader, her boyfriend, was in ecstasy. “Roast pig!” he screamed. “Falling from the sky! Let ‘em cook!”

Ava blew out, bent over double, holding her knees. Breathe through the flashback. Breathe out. No need to breathe in — your body does that by itself. Just breathe out.

It wasn’t a bad one. Just a few seconds, and she stood up again. A pair of square dancers passed her way, and she took a few swings with them. Then she shared some more pogo-dance cheering with her crew.

“Calm the heck down!” LaTisha yelled at them. She pushed down hard on Ava’s head, hurting her neck. “Shut up, you! Enough of your mouth, Panic! Get in there and clean the dust off the grass!”

Panic was pronounced more like ‘Panitch’ in Serbian. Ava gave up explaining that long ago. Tail Panic was her street name. She decided to spell it Pawic for her voter registration. She supposed that was her ‘real’ name now, Ava Pawic. Her legal name, anyway.

Ava slapped the old woman’s hand off her head. “Uh, no?” she retorted. “You nuts? No one can go in there.” She snorted derision and turned away, to high-five another teen on the crew.

“No work, no food, you gutter rats! You!” LaTisha pinched one of the younger kids. “Get in there and pick up a broom!”

Jelly obediently started trotting toward the middle of the square, into the dust cloud. That twelve-year-old probably didn’t have half a brain before the Starve, and it was all gone now. He was already twenty feet away before Ava realized somebody had obeyed LaTisha by accident.

“Wait, stop! Jelly!” she screamed, and started after him. He probably couldn’t hear her through the ear protection. “Stop him!” Dammit, they weren’t done collapsing the buildings. She could still see the orange bulk of the NYU library looming through the brown murk.

Jelly ducked beneath the yellow warning tape that kept the crowd clear of the explosive radius. Ava vaulted over it, seconds behind him.

Another crew boss, Larry, beat her to him, tackling Jelly just before she reached him. He helped Ava drag the boy back toward the safety line. Just as they pulled Jelly back under the tape, the next round of explosions began, on the block southeast of the Square. They paused to watch as well as they could through the dust cloud, as that rank of buildings subsided.

“That was close!” the forty-ish crew boss Larry said, once the blast buffeting passed. He shook Jelly’s arm a little, not cruelly the way LaTisha would have done. “What were you thinking, little man?” He yelled to be heard through the ear plugs they still wore.

Ava knew Larry. Soho Village was a small town. She knew everybody who passed the voter test. The crew bosses certainly had, though teen voters like Ava were rare.

“LaTisha ordered us to go in, Larry. I told her she was crazy. But Jelly doesn’t like to get in trouble.” She held the boy’s arm and eye. “But you listen to me, not LaTisha. Right, Jelly? I watch out for you.”

The boy, puzzled and frightened, nodded uncertainly. Ava pursed her lips and hugged him to her side for safekeeping.

Larry frowned toward LaTisha. “You sure about that, Panic? That’s like a serious accusation.”

“I’m sure. Tomorrow night’s democratic town meeting. I want her fired. She doesn’t care about us. Hates us.” She beseeched Larry with her eyes. “Back me up?”

That was a big ask, from a grown-up. Most of them hated and feared the gang rats like Ava and Jelly. But dammit, Soho Ville was their town, too. Guzman said so, the ‘Coco,’ the Community Coordinator, their official village chief under the martial law government. He promised the new town was for gang rats, too, when he talked Ava into coming in. Larry shrugged uncertainly. “Look, Panic, I didn’t hear LaTisha give any order. Could be the kid misunderstood.”

Ava laid a hand on his bicep, not something they did often. Touching an apple survivor was risky. But the crew bosses were supposed to be the high-functioning ones. “She said it, Larry. I swear it.”

“I’ll back you as much as I can, Panic. But you’ve got to find other people who heard her order that.”

“I’m the only voter on my crew, Larry. Me and LaTisha.” Some of them hadn’t even come in from the gangs yet, let alone passed the voter test. They visited to earn their food, then evaporated back into the ganglands. A third of them were under age, anyway, like Jelly. You had to be sixteen to be an adult in Hudson, according to the Constitution of their new country, formed from the old states of New York and New Jersey. You had to speak and read and write good English as well, and even pass a math reasoning test, to become a voter. That ruled out most who were old enough.

“Don’t need to be a voter to give testimony,” Larry said. “Just do me a favor and find other people who heard LaTisha give that order.” He caught her eye. “I believe you, Panic. Guzman will believe you too. Just can’t be your word against hers. Understand?”

They parted and rejoined their own crews. Ava kept hold of Jelly. They stayed and watched the devastation’s progress a while longer, as the more distant blocks fell. Gradually the dust clouds began to settle, enthusiastic cheering died back, and people started to drift away. Before they could escape, Ava found four others to agree that LaTisha ordered them to go in and clean up before the explosions were finished. She got them to sign a statement she tapped into her phone, supplying their names.

They were fake names, just like hers. But they were the names they were paid under, the names credited with their share of rations, the names registered for residency in Soho Village. They promised to show up for the DTM, the democratic town meeting, to back her up.

Ava knew they’d never come. Looking into Jelly’s vacant brown eyes, she knew he wouldn’t show up for the meeting, either. Which might be just as well. She doubted Jelly remembered what just happened, let alone who told him to go into danger.

It wasn’t right. Maybe she’d manage to get LaTisha fired, and maybe she wouldn’t. But Ava would stand up for Jelly, even if no one else would. No one cared whether Jelly lived or died. Possibly not even herself. But it wasn’t right. Jelly was a person. All the gang rats were. Just because LaTisha was an adult didn’t make her more important, or smarter than them.

Well, OK, LaTisha was smarter than Jelly. There was just no one home anymore, in his head. That happened with some of them, the ones who starved too much, and didn’t want to see and understand any more. They just went through the motions, surviving on some animal level.

But Ava made a better crew boss than LaTisha. She watched out for her tribe, especially the vacant-headed ones.

The all-clear sounded. The demolition foreman waved the crew bosses over to issue instructions. Larry’s team started shifting the yellow warning tape across the square, toward where twelve blocks of hefty buildings used to stand. Most of the buildings were NYU once, but not all. One was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, site of a tragic fire over a century ago. The factory owners locked the emergency exits and stairwells against their own employees. The sewing teams leapt to their deaths to escape the flames. Many of those sweatshop workers had been kids, just like Ava’s crew. Ava could relate, especially against the adult enemy. She was glad the ghoulish building was destroyed at last.

By spring, Soho Ville hoped to grow crops in the newly opened land, which more than doubled the green space of Washington Square. Bright sunlight would flood in to feed the crops, freed of the city canyons.

“Get a move on!” LaTisha yelled at Ava. “Use hoses to spray down the dust. Clear it off the grass and trees.” LaTisha pointed an accusatory enameled fingernail at Ava. Proof positive that LaTisha never lifted a finger on their salvage work. Her ridiculously long fingernails, with their fake little glue-on jewels, had never unraveled and stripped wiring, never applied wrench to corroded copper pipe. LaTisha never donned the crew’s sturdy work gloves. “Move! Or I’ll dock your pay, little ho!”

“Sure you don’t want us on the far side of that tape again, LaTisha?” Ava returned, pointing to the yellow warning tape. “Order me into the collapse radius again?”

“I never said that!” LaTisha denied. She scurried away toward the truck full of hoses and watering cans and brooms, casting a nervous eye over her shoulder at Ava.

Ava shot an old Slavic hex sign at her. One Deda taught her long ago, in another city and state. Maybe another country, certainly another lifetime. She drew Jelly with her to select cleaning implements.

The buildings of NYU were gone. Not even rubble remained, really, as they disintegrated into mounds of dust. Not terribly tall mounds of dust, either. The buildings mostly formed tough shells around empty spaces, and fragile people long gone. When the wreckage settled, a lot of the mass would fill in the abandoned subways and foundation holes below.

Ava didn’t even recall that once upon a time, she hoped to apply to New York University. That would have happened right about now, in fact. This was supposed to be November of her last year of high school. In that other lifetime.

Chapter 2

Interesting fact: A key goal of Project Rebuild in the ‘Apple Core’ was to transform the built-up urban landscape into green space. The city wasn’t expected to become self-sufficient in food, but they’d have some local fresh vegetables, milk and eggs, for a little food security. The intent was to trade industrial goods and services for food from the rural districts. At this point, they supplied salvage.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Ava complained to the cafeteria proctor. They were in the cafeteria of the old NYU student center, one of the NYU buildings they planned to keep, now used as the Soho Village community center. This frail and elderly woman checked each person’s credit balance before clearing them to claim a modest lunch. “We worked all morning. All of us on my crew.”

“Not you crew,” the proctor returned primly. “LaTisha crew. LaTisha dock yous. All yous. Bad kids. Bad job.” She glared and wobbled her head, tsk-tsking. She didn’t doubt for a moment that Panic and her scrubby compatriots didn’t deserve to eat. She swatted a hand at Ava. “Go way!”

Ava slammed her tray on the metal bars of the slide-along serving line, for the sound effects. She stuck her face two inches from the elderly Hindu woman’s. “I’m not going anywhere, you old parasite. We worked. We eat. All of us. Full pay!” She banged her tray again. The other kids took up the clanging percussion.

“Police!” the proctor shrieked, shrinking backward. Actually it rhymed with Maurice, but Ava was used to it. The Apple was a cacophonous stew of dreadful accents and dire English. Luckily she learned English before her family moved here.

The bored militia pair on duty came over to shut up the ruckus. Ava explained for the third time this week that her crew had been docked their wages unfairly, while their crew boss was eating over there, back turned on them. Ava demanded yet again that LaTisha’s wages be docked, and her crew get their full lunches. And for the third time this week, she got her way.

Well, the kids got theirs anyway. Nobody docked LaTisha.

“Can you believe this crap?” the public relations face of the pair asked his side-kick.

His partner didn’t even bother to shrug. It was a rhetorical question. She kept her eyes trained on the kids and her gun at the ready.

“They worked,” the talking cop told the proctor. “They eat. Capiche?”

“Bad kids,” the proctor kept muttering, her head bobbing on a diagonal.

Ava shoved into her face again. “Bad proctor!”

Chatty Cop yanked her back by the shoulder. “Enough, Panic, you got your way. Again. Ladies, let’s not do this every day. Move along.”

Ava stood back out of the way, still glaring at the proctor. She counted heads, to make sure everyone on her crew got past the tiny dragon lady, before she trailed them to claim her own lunch last. By the time she took a seat, the younger ones like Jelly had devoured every crumb. They went into comic contortions trying to lick their milk glasses clean.

Ava bit into her cornbread and tuna salad sandwich, closing her eyes to savor it while she chewed. The sweet moist graininess of the cornbread. The fresh crunch of hydroponic lettuce. The slightly mustardy rich tang of mayonnaise. The stringy bits of tuna. The faintly fishy smell. Tiny sweet bits of pickle, kernel corn, and pepper. She swallowed slowly, and opened her eyes to take a small swallow of the fresh goat milk.

Seven orphans, of the age-15-and-under variety, ringed her, watching her every move with huge hungry eyes. They hadn’t gotten enough to eat. They never did. Neither would she.

She hated that about eating with the younger kids. She glanced over at the older teens. The couple. The loser trio. Two girls she hated, and the feeling was mutual. And five visitors, in from the gangs just for the day, for work and wages. None of them were from her old gang. Just as well.

“Stop staring at me,” she told the younger kids. “Go wiggle outside. Recess. Twenty minutes.”

They exploded out of their seats to comply. And she finished her sandwich alone, in peace. Her tongue was longer than theirs. She got every last drop of milk without having to turn the glass upside-down and look like a fool.

Well, that was ten minutes of lunch break accounted for, and 500 calories of her 1600 calorie day. The emptiness of these accomplishments seemed to yawn beneath her for a moment.

“These seats taken?” One of the demolition experts grabbed a chair at her table.

“No! Join me!” Her eyes lit up. She smiled. She un-hunched and waved an arm of welcome around the table. Ten strong adult men and women, not kids and not elderly, sat down to join her. They weren’t desperately hungry, doing whatever scrap work was offered in exchange for a tiny meal. These were real people who truly loved their jobs.

Best lunch ever!

And the demolition crew got to see what few people in Soho Ville ever saw. Because when Ava Panic chose to stop being hostile, she was a beautiful, vivacious, and intelligent young woman. Waves of long soft ash brown hair. A broad forehead with wide-set eyes and brows. High Slavic cheekbones and wide mouth, with clear olive complexion. At first glance, people dismissed her as younger, because she was so petite. That usually ended the moment she opened her mouth. Ava was used to command, if only commanding other kids. She spoke with self-confidence and flawless English.

Her elders at the table hugely enjoyed their little one-girl fan club. They answered her questions. They explained the delay before imploding the library with little diagrams sketched on a tablet. Basically the southeastern-most section of buildings was independent, not aiding to pull down other buildings. So detonating them separately reduced the shock wave, and thus the wear and tear on the rest of the neighborhood.

“So do you live in Manhattan?” Ava asked.

“On weekdays we live near the current demolition site,” Oska replied, one of the two women on the team. Although much burlier, she looked Slavic like Ava, maybe in her thirties.

“We’ve got a house near Delancey for a couple months now, in Resco Margolis’ town. But most of us live in Brooklyn Prospect, Resco MacLaren’s town. Except Juan Carlos there, he lives in Inwood. Far end of Manhattan. And Madonna’s got family on Staten Island, in Lacey’s enclave.”

Ava grinned. That was a lot of name-dropping, the biggest names of Project Rebuild. Colonel Emmett MacLaren led Project Reunion to reintegrate the city and save the remaining survivors. Colonel Ash Margolis had taken over now, directing the rehabilitation for the martial law government. And Adam Lacey, now a private citizen who chose to settle in Staten Island, led the first Coast Guard engineers back into the city. They got the ferries running to transport survivors out. The survivors lucky enough to be offered new homes outside, that is. The towns Oska named were the model mini-cities of the reconstruction, this year’s finest neighborhoods of the Apple Core, the ones re-developed first as proof of concept of what the new Apple could become.

Soho Ville didn’t look anything like those charming green showcases.

At last, the moment Ava had been building up to. “And do you take apprentices?” she asked hopefully. “I would love to do what you guys do!” Hazel eyes shone with earnest appreciation.

Juan Carlos, their leader, chuckled. “You have no idea how many volunteers are on our waiting list! Sorry, Ava, we get that question all the time.”

“We don’t take anyone under twenty-five,” Oska added. “With experience.” She quirked a quick regretful smile at Ava to soften the blow.

Ava’s open friendliness snapped shut like a clam. “Right. ’Course not.” She rose, scraping her chair backward. “Well, screw you too. Thanks for blowing up the hood, though. Looks much better leveled. Wish you’d blow it all to hell.”

“Hey, kid —” Oska attempted.

But Ava slammed her empty chair back in against the table and stormed off outside.

“Don’t mind her,” LaTisha sang out from her own table of sixty-something aged cronies. “Gang rat trash. Place is infested with them.”

“LaTisha, cool it,” Larry called from another table. Larry ate with his own teen crew. “Sorry Panic was rude to you guys. She’s just frustrated.”

Juan Carlos waved the apology away. “No problem. Like that all over.” The rest of his demolition crew nodded. “We’re used to it.”

Once outside, Ava kicked at a concrete step with her high-top red sneaker. Dammit.

“Shot down again, hey, Panic?” one of the older girls on her crew jeered. “You just trash like the rest of us. When you gonna learn?” She shoved Ava’s shoulder. “Gonna fight back? Huh? Huh?”

Ava danced backward. “If I did, you’d be hamburger, Cavey.” She didn’t know why the nineteen-year-old’s handle was Cavey. She never liked her enough to ask. “No fighting in the work crew.”

“Ooh! Then we fight after work. Everybody hear that?”

“I don’t need to fight you, ever,” Ava said flatly. “Look, idiot. Fighting with crew will get your wages docked. You’ll get fired, and I won’t stop them.”

“I don’t need you to protect me, White Trash!” Cavey screeched. “Maybe it’s worth it, huh? Prove to you, you’re no better than us!”

Yes I am. “Right, Cavey,” Ava said. “I’m no better than anybody. But I don’t fight with crew and lose my job.” She turned and walked away. Once around the block ought to kill enough time for this lovely lunch break to end.

But Cavey wasn’t having it. She screeched again and tried a running tackle on Ava. Ava heard her coming and dodged left, kicking out her right leg low to trip the girl. Cavey landed badly, face-first on the sidewalk, yet somehow still scraping her hands.

Learn how to take a fall, idiot, Ava thought. She crossed her arms and shook her head. “Stay down,” she advised Cavey, and strode away again.

Cavey growled inarticulately, and lunged for Ava’s legs. Ava nimbly hopped out of the way, and followed up with a spinning roundhouse kick, just inches above Cavey’s head.

“You tried to kick me in the head!” Cavey screamed.

“No, I planned to kick over your head. If I wanted to bash in your skull, the kick would have landed. And then you’d stop talking,” Ava explained. “Stop talking, Cavey. Just shut up and stay there. Could you people make yourselves useful?”

The rest of the older teen contingent from their crew had tagged along to watch. Reluctantly one of the ‘loser guys,’ Ricochet, piped up. “You lost, Cavey. Give it up.”

The biggest of them, not terribly large, planted a work-boot on her back. “Yeah, stay down already. She’s not worth it.”

Ava gave him an exaggerated bow. “Thank you, Smuts. That’s right. I’m not worth anything at all. And this never happened.” She thoughtfully stepped on Cavey’s finger on her way to anywhere but here for the few minutes left to her lunch break.

“What you thinking, Cavey?” she heard Ricochet say behind her. “Panic was queen bitch of White Trash. You don’t stand a chance against her.”

“Used to be,” Cavey argued. “She lost it! She down!”

“She didn’t lose. She walked away, fool. Just like she walked away from you.”

As soon as she turned the corner, Ava breathed out. She looked back to be sure none of the crew still trailed her. Good. Then she shifted into urban workout mode to burn off the adrenaline. Step, squat, kick left, spin, kick right, spin, repeat for ten. The sidewalk cleared nicely of onlookers. Adults got nervous when they saw a gang rat workout. Jog up the front steps of a brownstone, jump off the steps. Repeat for ten. Now punches alternated with roundhouse kicks. Repeat from the top.

That blew off enough steam, killed enough time. She sprinted back to work, the long way around the block.

Chapter 3

Interesting fact: The Ebola epidemic and the Starve culled the population of the Apple Core disproportionately. Resettlement exaggerated the effect. Children under age 10, and caregivers if they still had any, received priority evacuation. Of the remaining population, 50% were between the ages of 10 and 19, and 25% aged 60 and over, leaving only 25% spread between the prime working ages of 20 to 59. The largest demographic cohort was feral orphans aged 15-19, a whopping 35% of the population.

“Saw you working out earlier, Panic,” Guzman said, as he took a seat beside her on the church steps.

St. Anthony’s of Padua was an old grey stone edifice with black iron portcullises at the top of its broad steps. The church faced Sullivan Street, where both of them lived, at the corner of the broad greensward that used to be Houston Street, the ‘Ho’ of ‘SoHo’ — south of Houston. Houston Street itself was gone, a greenbelt now where they buried the dead of the epidemic and the Starve to build the soil. The Houston Calm Park was its official name. They even consecrated it at Halloween a couple weeks ago. Over a million people traveled in to attend the city-wide memorial service for the millions of dead.

Goats and chickens grazed there during the day. They’d grow crops in the spring. That’s what would happen to the collapsed buildings of NYU, too, eventually. Minus the corpses. They’d finally run out of corpses. Ava was thankful she came in after that grizzly task was complete. The Houston green lay black and quiet in the night now. Only sporadic lights from windows shone on the dark street. It was nearly 9 o’clock curfew.

“Got to exercise less and put on some weight,” the ville chief Guzman advised. “We don’t feed you enough to work a full day, then train at night.”

Ava nodded. “I noticed.”

“Talk to me, Ava,” Guzman encouraged, leaning back on the cold steps.

Guzman wouldn’t understand. In her world, she couldn’t stop fighting. She had to keep in shape, practice her katas, to win. Once a queen bee of a gang, everybody wanted a piece of you. Then again, maybe he would understand.

“I thought I could come in. Leave the fights behind, you know? But there are too many of us. There’s no way out, even here.”

“They won’t kill you here,” Guzman suggested.

They would if I let them. “Maybe not,” Ava allowed.

“It’s weird. How we ended up with so many kids left behind, the adults dying.”

“Cytokine storms,” Ava said.

Guzman chuckled. “Say what?”

Ava said, “Ebola triggers a cytokine storm. Other diseases do it, too. It’s when your body overreacts to the disease. Basically you end up killing yourself. It’s worst on healthy adults, because their immune system is the strongest. Kids and old people get sick, and get over it. More of them, anyway.” Deda was old, but the cytokine storm killed him.

“You learned stuff like this at Brooklyn Tech, huh? Heck of a school.”

Ava picked at her sneaker. “Cytokine storms were in a project for biology. My parents were nurses at Mount Sinai Hospital. That’s how we got here, America. Critical skills visa.”

“I didn’t know you were an immigrant! Where from?”

Oops. “Shh,” she whispered. “Please, Guzman, it’s important. Never repeat that. Frosty doesn’t know.”

Guzman scratched his jaw. “How long did you date this guy?”

“Two wonderful years.” Sarcasm dripped to congeal on the cold stone.

“You might want to be yourself a bit more in your next relationship, Ava,” Guzman suggested. “He has some kind of problem with immigrants?”

Ava blinked. “Guzman, ‘White Trash’ is what the other gangs call us. Frosty’s gang is White Supreme. As in, white supremacists.”

Guzman, a black immigrant from the Dominican Republic, stiffened beside her. “You believe in that crap, Ava? You disappoint me.”

“Not like that,” she breathed. “Guzman, you think the black gangs aren’t racist? The Hispanic ones, the Chinese? The Muslims? They all are. Got to stick with your own kind on the street.”

“Hell. And you look down on blacks? And immigrants?”

“I didn’t agree with Frosty,” she said quietly. “There was nowhere else to go. Until you offered me an option. And I took it. If he knew what I was, Frosty wouldn’t want me any more than the other gangs.” Maybe. She hadn’t dared to test him.

Yafuel Guzman considered that, kicking himself for not catching on quicker. As an ex-police detective, he prided himself on being more street-savvy than the average Coco. But the feral kids were anything but forthcoming. Getting Ava Panic to come in had been a major coup for him, a gang leader who actually talked, explained things.

“I hoped you’d bring in the rest of your gang,” he murmured eventually.

Ava’s teeth raked her lip. “You don’t want that. Frosty committed to White Rule. The gang supported his decision.”

White Rule was one of the largest insurrectionist groups in the new nation of Hudson. They claimed a ton of support in the Upstate sticks, though Ava doubted it. People who thought saving the Apple was a bad idea unless it was ‘ethnically cleansed.’ Unlike most of the insurrectionist groups, White Rule approved of the martial law government. They loved the ‘death angels’ even more, the shadowy organization behind ‘culling’ the population. Word on the street was that because of that stance, the authorities weren’t cracking down on White Rule like the other insurrectionists. The group didn’t target troops and militia, so they were low priority.

Ava wondered, not for the first time, what kind of hold the ‘death angels’ had on the martial law government. Why the young nation of Hudson hadn’t gone after the ones who murdered New York City.

Guzman hissed. “So White Rule is what, targeting the non-white gangs in the city?”

“Pretty much. I’m not too popular here,” Ava returned. “With the other gang rats.” To put it mildly. “Stupid. I tried to tell Frosty. The other gangs catch on, they can work together to wipe us out. Them. White Supreme.” It wasn’t her gang anymore, only Frosty’s.

“The morals of this don’t bother you?”

“What morals,” Ava growled. “Kill or be killed. That’s all. White Rule is going to get White Supreme wiped. They don’t care about us. No one does.” She shrugged. “I might be able to bring in a few of the survivors after it gets too hot on the streets. But they’d still be loyal to White Rule. Just use you as a shield, Guzman.”

“Then knife me in the back. Great.”

“If it makes you feel any better, they hate me more than you,” Ava offered. “Traitor to White Supreme. Enemy to everyone else.”

“Friend to Yafuel Guzman,” he refuted this. Though this new information shed much light on why Ava wasn’t as useful to him as he’d hoped, as a bridge and peacemaker to the gang population.

“Even if I’m a racist? I wasn’t, before. Just been in a whole lot of fights since then. You know?”

“You weren’t racist before?”

“Brooklyn Tech was only a fifth white,” Ava said. “Most of the public schools were that way. That was just normal, here. It was hard to get used to, when we moved to the city. I was in mostly white schools before. Mm, my family was pretty racist. They liked Frosty.” Not that they’d known him very well. Deda only saw him at karate dojo. Her parents went by what Deda and Ava told them.

“So you knew him Before.”

“Yeah. We founded the gang together.”

“Think you could let it go? The racism.”

“I can if they can.” Ava scuffed the heel of her sneaker on the step. A stray thought led her back to the previous discussion. “Hey, Guzman, did you get it? Ebola?”

“No. Vaccinated.”

Ava frowned. “When? Just before the outbreak?”

“No, NYPD got it months before. Why?”

“Nothing.” Her parents were vaccinated a week Before, at the hospital. She wondered if that was the vector, how they did it, introduced the disease.

Guzman changed the subject. “What I wanted to talk to you about — you ever think of joining the Army?”

“Why would I think of joining the Army? You mean the army that penned us up to die in here? That army?”

“They’re not doing that anymore,” Guzman pointed out. “They run our new country now.”

“Yeah. Great place,” she said sourly. The propaganda news played on the big screen in most of the cafeterias. To be fair, the segments she recognized from her own world seemed honest enough. It looked like downright paradise in other parts of Hudson, outside the Apple Zone, in Upstate or South Jersey, or even out on Long Island. Not like Before. But not like this.

“The thing is, Ava, they’re looking for recruits. I’ve got five slots for the first group. The goal is a way out for kids like you, a career opportunity. Training. Security. Discipline. You come out the other side, no one cares any more about your time in the gangs. Anyone would hire you.”

“Why me?”

“You’re a good fighter,” Guzman said. “But for these first recruits, we need to work out the system. Figure out how to train kids like you. The U.S. Army was all volunteer, cherry-picked high school grads. But here Hudson’s got all these gang survivors. Over three hundred thou in the Apple Core alone. We’ve got to find a life for you kids. Not with insurrectionists like White Rule.”

“The Hudson Army can’t be that big.”

The average kid, or even college grad, wouldn’t have spotted the numerical chasm between the size of the problem and the proposed size of band-aid. But most kids weren’t at Brooklyn Tech, one of the three premier science high schools of New York City. Hundreds of thousands of kids competed for entry. If it weren’t for Ava getting into Brooklyn Tech, the Panic parents would have moved on after a couple years, like they always did, to their next lucrative nursing contracts. The family stayed for Ava to attend her precious high school, and sealed their doom.

“No. Hudson needs to cherry-pick, too,” Guzman agreed. “But they’re giving preference to our gang problem. Three quarters of the recruits will come from the Apple Zone. Like I said, out of ten thousand kids in Soho Ville, I get to choose five for this first batch. I want to send gang rats smart enough to make it. Work out the kinks so I can send average kids next round. You’re the smartest I’ve got, Ava.”

True. “They got stuff to read up about this? On the Internet?”

“Probably.” Guzman considered a moment, whether to push, and how. “Hey, Ava, what did you want to be? Back at your fancy high school.”

“Parents wanted me to be a doctor.” She shrugged. They were nurses, after all. “Engineering maybe.” All moot points now, it seemed. She’d left high school in her second year. The only college still open was in New England. They didn’t want Hudson’s gutter rats any more than Hudson did.

Wistfully she added, “Those demolition crews were awesome. Then I was a jerk to them.”

“That why you’re moping on the church steps?”


“You sit here and think when you’ve had a bad day.”

“Huh.” Maybe he was right. And when she sat here, Guzman often dropped by to talk. Maybe he did care. Fool if he does.

“Catholic? You never talk to the priest.”

“No. Sit here and talk to Deda. He’s buried here somewhere. Probably.” Who knew what pile, where, the dead ended up. She pointed a thumb over her right shoulder, along Houston. “We lived at Washington Square Apartments, Bleeker and Wooster. Guess we’ll blow those up too.” The building was huge for Soho Ville, twenty stories. There had been fires in there, like most places. It was burning the day she left.

The apartments had nice balconies.

“Haven’t decided yet on the building,” Guzman said. “Not this year, anyway. Deda, that your dad? What language is that?”

“Grandfather. Serbian. Deda mostly raised me while Tata and Mama worked.” They never left work after Ebola broke out. Not many survived the hospitals. The Mount Sinai Hospital bodies wouldn’t be in Houston Calm Park. “Always spoke English to me. I don’t really remember Serbia. I understood more Serbian than they thought I did, though.”

Guzman laughed. “I bet you did. And I bet the Army needs engineers and medics and stuff. If you make it, you get training and a career. And get out of here. If it doesn’t work out, you’re welcome back. With training, maybe the older voters will let you into the militia.”

“You’d really trust me with a gun?” The vote went overwhelmingly against that proposal at the democratic town meeting.

“I would,” Guzman said. “But after a little army discipline, maybe the others would too. You kids make up half the ville. You know I think you should help police it. Maybe police the ganglands, too. But, you saw. In the meeting, they shot me down. Ava, trust is earned. Sucks at your age. But you’ve got some more earning and learning to do.”

The kids were half the ville, but only a handful of voters. Ava nodded. “Sucks.”

Guzman’s phone beeped a 10-minute warning to curfew. Creakily, he rose and offered her a hand up. “Think about the Army.”

“I will,” she promised. “And hey, Guzman? Thanks for talking to me. Like a real person. Nobody else does.”

Guzman shook his head. “Of course you’re a real person. You all are. You know that, Ava. And you talk to me, too. Like I might not be the enemy. That’s why I enjoy talking to you. Anytime, young friend.”

Chapter 4

Interesting fact: Several diseases can invoke the ‘cytokine storm,’ a positive feedback loop whereby the body’s own immune response kills the victim. The weaponized Ebola so effective in culling greater New York City was optimized for this response. Other diseases include ARDS, SIRS, sepsis, avian flu, and smallpox. The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, which killed 50 million people worldwide, was especially deadly to healthy adults in their 20’s and 30’s, possibly due to a cytokine storm.

Early the next evening, Ava peered around the church corner in the gloom. She let her eyes adjust, carefully keeping them away from lit windows. The usual throng of after-dinner teenagers was out on Houston Green in the rain. The puzzle was how to cross it without engaging with anyone. That would slow her down.

She’d just about decided straight through with her head down was the way to go. Then a flock of elderly joggers appeared around the corner at the back end of her Sullivan Street block. Worth a shot. She waited and let them pass her, then joined the tail of the group, stumbling a bit to fake being winded. Yes! The herd took the path across the Calm Park at Sullivan, a track made of rubber gravel cut from recycled car tires. With her hood pulled down against the rain, no one noticed her.

Halfway up the next block, she decided to sprint for a block, and left the joggers behind. The senior health club veered right onto Bleeker Street, and never knew Ava had joined them. Unfortunately, at the next cross-street up, Sullivan Street hosted a hip hop party tonight, with several hundred kids clogging the intersection. She slipped the wall, giving them as wide a berth as she could. Some couples were humping in the basement apartment stairwells. They wouldn’t bother her if she didn’t bother them.

She stood against the right wall at the corner of West 3rd, paused, and peered around the corner. A black kid peered back at her from a foot away, the posted guard.

“Just passing through. Not looking for trouble,” she whispered.

“Who you?”

“Nobody. Doing nothing.”

The guard stepped out to gaze around her. “Yeah, alright. Better run fast, little bitch.” He grinned, his face dimly lit by spillover from a spotlight they’d rigged from one of the fire escapes across the street.

One of those. But Ava nodded jerkily, as though terrified, and launched into another shambling jog. As expected, the corner lookout yelled, “Jackrabbit! Catchee, catchee!”

Ava sped up, dodged grabbing hands, spun, vaulted, and made it across the street. Once past the crowd, she ran full out. “That was no jackrabbit, fool!” she heard behind her with satisfaction.

No, rabbits were prey. She just didn’t want to be slowed down. She reached the top of Sullivan Street at Washington Square. Clear! The militia enforced a strict six-kid policy near the community center, at the old student center. They dispersed any larger clumps.

The center appeared undamaged from the violent demise of the sandstone library across the street. Ava trotted right in, and up the dim stairs to the Soho Village library.

“Incognito again tonight, Panic?” the librarian Samantha joked with her. Samantha was an old one, too, and needed a walker. Sit-around jobs were reserved for the frail.

“Short on time,” Ava explained. “DTM tonight.”

She shook the raindrops off her big boxy plaid hooded coat, and hung it on the coat-rack. Who wore stuff like that Before? It looked like the sort of thing parents would camouflage a girl in, to ship her off to parochial school, as though an ugly coat could prevent teen sex. The homely thing would make a good ground blanket for sex, actually. Like most gang rats, Ava preferred to avoid loose clothing. Too many handholds. Rather than a backpack, she wore a waist-pack. She also favored shoes with ankle protection. But everyone knew her at a glance in her signature skintight black leather jacket, black skinny jeans, and high-top red sneakers.

Clothes cost next to nothing in the city. They salvaged wardrobes by the millions, and could wear whatever they liked. She often swapped out parts of her wardrobe on Saturday, flea market day. Food was what cost money.

Ava slipped into a study carrel, with 20-inch monitor and ear bud jack. Not too busy tonight. She was surprised. With the DTM later she expected the place to be packed.

Samantha shuffled over in her walker, dragging one foot. “Can I help with anything, honey?”

Ava grinned up at her. “Why are you so nice to me? Aren’t you scared?” She curled fingers in front of her face like claws, still smiling. “I’m a highly dangerous predator, I’ll have you know.” The kind of dangerous predator who snuck into libraries to protect her rep.

Samantha laughed. “You read. I like that in a young person. Not that there are any books to read.” Not a one in the library, in fact. Books made a convenient fuel brick for cooking supper or boiling water, or just keeping warm. Books were in short supply in the Apple these days, just like the trees. The library housed their public-access computers. Of course, consumer electronics were in ample supply. Ava had a tablet herself. Power and Internet connections were sparse, though.

“What are you up to tonight, Panic?” Samantha asked.

Ava logged into Amenac, the usual online forums where the Hudson government seemed to publish things. Samantha taught her that. “Army training,” she said thoughtfully. “How would I search for that?”

“Oh, are you thinking of applying to boot camp? How exciting! Let me think.” Samantha leaned over her to type in some search terms. Ava rolled her chair out of the way, but held onto Samantha’s walker to stabilize the old woman.

In nothing flat, Samantha had three tabs ready for Ava. One, army entrance requirements. Two, an application to the Hudson Army. Three, a pre-collapse website describing the old U.S. basic training process.

“Don’t take that last too seriously,” Samantha cautioned her. “The new army will probably change things.”

“You’ve already heard about this?”

“Oh, you did, too, sweetie.”

Ava smiled in amusement at the ‘sweetie.’

“Governor Cullen announced that in the first state of the State speech last week.”

“Why do they call it that? State of the state?”

“State as in condition, of the state as in nation-state,” Samantha said. “But I watched in here, instead of some noisy cafeteria like you. And I followed the links.” She pointed at the screen. “That should get you started. You need anything at all, just ask. Oh, I’m so excited for you! And this is exactly the sort of thing that shows me that you, young lady, are a smart and responsible voter.”

“You’ve got my vote, Samantha.”

“I didn’t tell you what I want yet.”

“Doesn’t matter. I’ll back you.”

Samantha chuckled and shuffled away to check in on someone else’s carrel.

Ava read the pages Samantha had queued for her. It all looked quite doable. Sixteen or older, check. Qualified Hudson voter, check. There was an exam to take, trivial compared to the SAT and Brooklyn Tech entrance exams. She should take a practice exam first because she was rusty. Two years since she left school, after all. But no big deal. They waived the high school graduation requirement, since no high schools were open anymore, check. She certainly wasn’t overweight, check. The physical fitness test sounded like a light workout to her, check.

The description of Basic gave her pause. Not because it sounded hard, but because she pictured doing it surrounded by fellow gang rats. Guzman was right to be concerned on that score. Whole lot of obedience training. Well, gang rats were beaten into submission all the time, she supposed. Normal members, anyway, not gang royalty like her and Frosty. She sure never wanted to be in the middle of the heap. Looked painful.

No time to take a practice test tonight. She sat back and frowned at the screen. Do you think this is a good deal, Deda?

They killed Deda. And Mama and Tata and millions of others besides. No, they didn’t come in here and shoot us. They just barricaded us in to die and cannibalize each other, because there was nothing left to eat but the corpses and the rats. Then Frosty wanted to join forces with White Rule to finish the job after the survivors finally got a reprieve. Because the Army hadn’t waited long enough. Too many browns and immigrants still breathed in the Apple Zone. Damn you to hell, Frosty.

Yeah, Army Basic Training was doable. Joining the Army was also a betrayal of everyone who died. Then again, Frosty thought she’d betrayed them by joining Guzman and coming in from the gangs to help build Soho Ville. She understood the rage. Oh, she knew the rage alright. Her heart was pounding just thinking about it.

Live, Ava! Deda ordered her, on his last day. He bled from his eyes and nose, his skin mottled purple and magenta and greenish all over, from the blood vessels bursting inside him. Liquid rustled in his lungs as he whispered. That’s all that matters. You live!

She blinked away the flashback, and blew out. The lungs take care of breathing in automatically. Just breathe out slowly.

She sat up and loaded a fresh dozen books onto her tablet. She picked a couple novels that featured boot camp and military service. She liked to read at night. The tablet did double duty, serving as both entertainment and lighting. Her apartment building supplied a recharging station on the ground floor, for phones and tablets and flashlights, but no Internet. She tucked the tablet back in her waist pack.

She’d have to think about the Army. Right now it was time for her showdown against LaTisha. She wiped her Internet history and logged out.


“Five,” Guzman sang out from the front of the assembly.

Ava rose from the first row and held up her ‘5’ card to Guzman, granting her the next turn to speak her issue. She turned to face the other voters, a small crowd tonight, only a couple hundred, most of them old and hostile as usual. Ava gulped, but then spoke out clearly and with authority, just as she had as queen bee in White Supreme.

“Ava Panic, or Pawic,” she identified herself. “I ask that my crew boss, LaTisha, be fired from the salvage crews. She endangered the lives of my crew during the building implosions. She ordered me to take us in, beyond the warning tape, before all the charges were blown. I told her no. But one of the younger kids, Jelly, obeyed her and ran toward a building about to blow up.

“This isn’t the first time. LaTisha hates us. She tries to dock our pay, day after day. She’s supposed to supervise, and train the day-workers in from the gangs. But I do all the work. She’s a danger to us, not a supervisor.”

Ava looked around the room, hoping but not really expecting to see any kids who could corroborate her story. They hadn’t come. Her eyes paused on Samantha, the librarian. She hung onto LaTisha’s arm and caught Ava’s eye, shaking her head in entreaty.

No way, Samantha, Ava thought. I meant I’d back you for yourself, not for LaTisha. She hadn’t realized the old librarian and her crew boss were friends.

Ava jutted out her chin and held up her phone. “I have names of other kids who witnessed this. And Larry,” she pointed to him, “got to Jelly before I could. Larry’s the kind of supervisor we need. Not LaTisha.”

Larry stood. “Jelly ran toward the NYU library before it blew, like Panic said. I didn’t hear LaTisha order him in. I wasn’t nearby. But it was Panic who ran after the kid to save him. Not LaTisha. And day after day, the police have to authorize her crew’s lunch because LaTisha docked them. Those kids hate their crew boss, and she hates them. That much I can vouch for. I believe Panic. And I think LaTisha is unfit to supervise that crew.”

Ava nodded curt gratitude to Larry. He went further out on a limb for her than she expected. Her eyes flew wide as two ‘losers’ from her team, the friends Songkram and Tyrone, slipped into the back of the room. They must have been lurking just outside. Tyrone shyly rose his hand.

Ava turned to Guzman at the front of the room. “Guzman, these two guys are on my crew.”

“They’re not voters!” LaTisha yelled out.

“They’re witnesses,” Ava insisted. At Guzman’s nod, she turned back. “Go ahead, Tyrone.”

“Yeah, like Panic said,” he mumbled.

“Speak up, son, and identify yourself,” Guzman encouraged.


“Say your name, Tyrone,” Ava explained. “And talk louder.”

“Uh, yeah. I’m Tyrone. He’s Songkram, but his English is bad. We’re on Panic’s crew. Like she said. LaTisha ordered us in to clean before the all-clear. Panic told her to stuff it. Then LaTisha pinched Jelly. She ordered him to go in or she’d pinch him again. She pinches really hard with those sick long nails. Panic didn’t see, because we were all dancing around and cheering like fools. But Jelly obeyed LaTisha. He could have got hurt bad. It’s not right.”

“How old is this Jelly?” Guzman asked.

Tyrone and Songkram shrugged.

“Jelly is twelve,” Ava supplied. “And gone zombie. Not all there, in the head.”

LaTisha called out, “And you should have been watching him, instead of dancing around like a fool, ho!”

“No crosstalk!” Guzman ordered before Ava could retort. “LaTisha, that’s twice you’ve spoken out of turn. Be silent, or leave the room.”

LaTisha huffed back in her chair. Samantha draped a consoling arm around her shoulders and shot a hurt look at Ava. Ava scowled at her.

“Does anyone else back this accusation?” Guzman asked. “Remember, the ask is that LaTisha be removed as a salvage crew supervisor, for endangering a child under her supervision.”

Chatty Cop from the lunchroom stood. “Randy Hone. Yeah, every day LaTisha docks the kids’ lunches. We have to break up a ruckus to get the kids fed. Getting old. It’s petty and it’s mean. LaTisha’s crew hates her. That’s all I can say.” He sat.

Quiet Cop rose from across the room. “Victoria Palmer. I’m Randy’s partner. I can vouch for all that. I watch her kids like a hawk. One of these days I bet they’ll jump her in the cafeteria, they get so mad.” She sat again promptly.

“Anybody else? Is LaTisha’s team making quota?” he asked the lead bean counter.

The man rose. These days he wore jeans and sweatshirts, but somehow one could still see the ghost of a Wall Street suit on him. Maybe it was the accent. “Dennis Horner. LaTisha’s crew performance is low, but consistent with the team composition. Her crew has kids under sixteen, low-functioning like this Jelly boy. Plus a revolving door of gang kids in for the day. It’s usually Panic who reports in for the team, not LaTisha. Seems like Panic trains the gang visitors, too. That’s not how it’s supposed to work, but.”

“Thanks, Dennis. If we remove LaTisha from salvage, can inventory take her?” Guzman asked.

“No, sir. Inventory has an issue with this worker.”

“Elaborate, please.”

“LaTisha used to salvage residential. She pilfered too much, basically.”

“There’s a death penalty for looting, Dennis,” Guzman reminded him.

The lead bean counter shrugged a so-so. “Everybody does it, Guzman. It’s a matter of degree. We decided to just shift her to commercial salvage and herding the gang — uh, temporary workers.”

Everyone nodded a fair-enough. If you ran across a bit of extra food, you ate it. They were all hungry, all the time, with reflexes built up during the Starve.

Guzman studied his knuckles, lips pressed in a line. “What did LaTisha steal?”

Dennis admitted, “A case of Cheerios went missing. Seventy boxes of cereal.”

Guzman narrowed his eyes dangerously. “That’s not a matter of degree,” Guzman ruled, voicing what they all thought. That was no hungry reflex. Cereal boxes were bulky. Stealing and hiding all that would take cunning and planning. “How long ago was this?”

“Few weeks, I guess, from when we caught on. Panic’s crew used to work for Ra’id.”

Who couldn’t keep his hands off the girls. Ra’id was the second supervisor Ava got canned. LaTisha would be number three, if this worked.

“Alright, I’m going to table this, pending investigation,” Guzman said. “Dennis, Victoria, Randy. Panic, you and your two friends back there. I want you to go search LaTisha’s apartment and report back to me tonight.”

“Don’t I get to respond?” LaTisha shrieked, swaying to her feet. The woman still shook her booty when she moved. Her body hadn’t caught on to the fact she had no fat left there, or anywhere else. “That little ho —!” She let loose a stream of profanity, raining insults down on Ava, ornate long fingernails clawing forth in counter-accusation.

“Hold her!” Guzman ordered the on-duty militia. They extracted apartment keys and an address, then dragged LaTisha away to cool her heels in the community center jail.

Dennis of the phantom Wall Street suit gathered his citizen’s committee, and they set off into the dark.

The rain had mutated into a nervy thunder-snow while Ava was inside the community center. At least that cleared the kids off the streets.

Continue reading Feral Recruit!