As I faced my death, I reflected that the hardest lesson of the past two days was that bad people always won. They cheated in ways that weren’t detectable. They knowingly did things that led to losses of lives. They lied. And they got away with it.
I gazed furtively across the forest, looking for any sign of the men who hunted me. By my math, there were three of them left. The leaves overhead rustled, as a light breeze made the hairs on my nearly naked body stand on end. My stomach growled, so I silenced it with a thump. There was nothing to eat out here, just trees and dead leaves stretching in every direction.
They always gift-wrapped their prey. The metallic red plastic ribbon around my neck was itching where the big bow touched my skin, and I wished to tear it off, but it was fastened behind my neck, and I couldn’t get my nails into the tight knot to untie it. I’d long since chewed off the ribbon on my right wrist. They were only a way to make it easier for the men to find me, and a reminder of how this had all started.
Two days ago, I had thought it was an unbelievable honor to be selected as a runner on The Chase. The rules were simple; evade two challengers for an hour on live television, on a show broadcast across every sector of the city of Novara, like an adult game of hide and seek. I’d watched it so many times and dreamed of being chosen, of wearing the red ribbons and eluding them.
There was an amazing prize: the chance to go to other cities as a sports ambassador for Novara, and inspire disadvantaged youths to take up sports. Not only that, but winners got into the Novara Sporting Hall of Fame. It was the ultimate accolade for a sports lover like me. I was from quadrant three, and everyone in Novara knew that we were the best at sports. Quadrant one always challenged us, and half the time they’d even win, but we were still better than them in every way.
Never in a million years had I expected to get selected, out of all the people in my city. I was an Interval Girl in the half-time ice show for top-tier baseball and football games. I was on team Interval Alpha, which was a handpicked group of the best skaters in the city. Rumor had it that anyone on major sports teams, including Interval Alpha, were exempt from being chosen for The Chase, because it meant leaving the city, whether you won or lost, and that meant your sports team had to replace you. So, when my name got read out, my teammates hadn’t believed it, nor had I.
I stopped my thoughts and listened as hard as I could, for any footsteps. My ears strained against the sound of the leaves. A twig snapped behind me and I spun around. About twenty feet away, one of the hunters was sneaking up on me. At this distance, I recognized him.
Being an Interval Girl got me plenty of attention from a variety of men, but I politely turned most of them down. Dating was nice, but I wanted to spend time with someone who didn’t expect me to wear sparkly skating outfits all the time. Besides, I was used to leading a crowd of hundreds of thousands of sports fans, and supporting my team with everything I had, and because of that, I struggled to find a man who would keep up with me.
The man who now stood before me had approached me a couple of weeks ago. He had been very aggressive when I’d refused to sleep with him, and had tried to drag me out of the stadium by my hair. Luckily, a couple of my teammates had helped me fight him off. I’d thought that was the end of it. He might have status but he wasn’t worth a second look.
“Hey, Ember, babe,” he slimed. “How’s ‘bout you show me how much you want to live? Suck my cock real nice, and I’ll tell the others you’re dead. I’ll need to show them convincing proof you’re dead, but the last girl survived a week afterwards. Came to check on her every day, until I got bored of her and put her out of her misery.”
His voice made my skin crawl. I glared at him, not even allowing myself to feel scared. I’d spent enough time amongst the bitchy and super-competitive Interval Girls to know when someone was trying to psych me out. Trash talk was easier than thinking about the very real possibility that he might make good on his threats.
“You sound like a precious little girl who doesn’t think she’s pretty enough to win the gold medal. You gonna throw hot sauce on my ribbon, too?” I asked him, indicating the bow around my neck. Hot sauce on skating costumes was a standard way to kill someone’s concentration. Any time someone didn’t land a jump properly, it was usually down to a generous application of hot sauce in her dance panties. It was freely available in every vending machine and it didn’t smell of anything so it was undetectable. It had happened to us all. “Or you could cut my shoelaces most of the way through… well, ‘cept I’m barefoot. You fuckers didn’t really want a fair fight, though, did you?”
There were plenty of ways to ensure someone looked bad on the ice and in seventeen years of skating, since I had been four years old, I’d seen them all. I never cheated with skating, because I wouldn’t want to get banned, but being around so many girls who did, I knew enough of their tricks. I had to have a slightly devious mind to pre-empt the other girls so I could fix whatever they’d done before I made an idiot of myself in front of a crowd. During the past two days, I’d drawn on everything I’d ever seen or thought of, to make this hunt fairer. He was about to walk into one of my traps. This one would never work on ice, but it was perfect in this forest.
“You should be more deferent to the people who decide if you live or die,” he said. It was obvious that he was one of the Brotherhood, the elite boys’ club that ruled the city of Novara and lorded it over us regular people. All the men I’d been hunted by, everyone involved in this debacle, had worn the same teardrop tattoo under their right eye, marking them as part of the Brotherhood. I mentally willed him to take a couple more steps.
“You should be less shitty if you’re still trying to get laid,” I retorted, tucking my mid-length bubblegum pink hair behind my ears. Normally, I changed my hair color by waving a special hi-tech wand over it, and the device even detangled and cleaned my tresses. Now, though, my hair was matted and had bits of plant and twig in it from where I’d buried myself under a pile of leaves yesterday.
It irritated me that I hadn’t even been given a hair elastic, and my stupid locks kept obscuring my vision. Why did superheroes on TV always fight bad guys with their hair down? It blocked my sight and made it easy for someone to grab me by the hair. It was yet another way these asshats had tried to make this fight completely unfair. “And by the way, I wouldn’t suck your cock if you forced me. Try it. I have excellent teeth.”
“So angry,” he taunted. “Yet this whole situation is your own fault. If you’d just done what I wanted, come back to my mansion and let me fuck you on a livestream in front of the whole city, you would be home now, watching the basketball game with your family. I would’ve even let you use my shower to get the cum out of your hair.”
“Yeah, it was a hard decision,” I replied, rolling my eyes. My stomach churned. This hunter was delusional.
He took a couple of steps forward, then his face changed as a crackling noise came from his feet.
“You bitch!” he shrieked, then his voice turned to a strangled scream. He fell through the leaves and was impaled on the sharp sticks underneath.
“Yeah, well, a bitch is a dog, and dogs bite,” I muttered, then I continued to run. The sense of satisfaction was worth all the fake nails I’d lost while digging the hole in the loosely packed dirt and fallen leaves.
My feet were black from dirt, and I had cuts in places where thorns had grazed me. Four armed, equipped men and two dogs against one barely dressed woman. What glory was there for them? What challenge? It was the most pathetic and blatant cheating I’d ever come across.
I had lived all my life with the lie that, if you trained hard enough, you became a winner. That anyone could do it. That the people who didn’t win were losers who lacked drive and dedication. The city was not kind to losers. Six hours a day, I trained out of fear of failure. Failure was death. That had never been more true than today. But training hard at my skating routines was no preparation for being preyed upon. If I hadn’t worked every day with girls who played dirty, and if I hadn’t run two hours daily without fail besides, I doubted I would still be alive right now.
I tried hard not to think about Ketta, my cousin and my best friend ever since we were teens. She got chosen for The Chase six months ago. She was a netball player, and they always followed the rules.
My stomach growled again. I had drunk from streams, but there were no vending machines in nature, and the hunger and exhaustion made it hard to focus my eyes and think straight. I had to get back to the city and warn them about what was really happening, and that meant surviving this hunt.
A hound came charging at me, and I ran away, hoping I wasn’t being corralled into more danger. Before this hunt, I’d only ever seen dogs on TV. Dogs were another thing the Brotherhood had and regular people didn’t. If only there was something to climb, I could evade those snapping teeth, but all the trees were the sort with no branches for the first thirty feet.
The dog was soon joined by another one. Barking excitedly, they quickly caught up with me. One of them snapped at the back of my leg and I kicked out at it, sprinting as hard as I could.
My heart was beating in my chest and I tried to focus on my breathing, but years of running had taught me that I could only move at this pace for a minute at the most. I pushed myself on with all my reserves, and moving my legs was the only thing I thought about or felt. Terror kept creeping into my mind but I forced it out. I couldn’t allow myself to be afraid.
My sprint was enough to get away from the snapping hounds’ jaws, and I might have escaped them completely, but the landscape remained the same, flat and empty; the only features were tree trunks and dead leaves. There was nothing that would help me to escape the dogs.
Suddenly, tiredness hit me like a freight train. Running out of speed, I slowed to barely a jog, trying to move my legs but it was like they were stuck in quicksand. The people hunting me couldn’t win. I had to keep running.
A dull pain in one of my calves made me look down. One of the dogs had its teeth locked around my leg. I kicked it away weakly, and ran straight into a stocky black and white animal that made a mooing noise. It was the last straw. I bounced off the side of the strange animal and fell to the ground. The scent of rotting leaves filled my nose. The dogs converged on me as the huge black and white monster moved on.
As the dogs growled and snapped, I growled and snapped back at them, hoping to scare them. My chest heaved and the blood rushed through my ears. I dizzily tried to catch my breath. I needed to rest, and to eat. I had been running away with only brief respite for the best part of two days and my legs were now turning to jelly from lack of energy.
“There you are, Daisy!” a man with a strange accent declared. Something about his voice reminded me of the syrup that came with pancakes. I didn’t remember seeing him before, but he had to be with the other men. There was no one else out here. Nobody ever left the city. How would they survive with no vending machines?
Heart sinking, I saw that he had a gun tucked into a leather belt, which separated a flannel shirt from some battered blue denim jeans. He wore boots, and his face was ruggedly handsome. His hair was short, brown, and cut in an old-fashioned style. As he regarded me, he stood with one hand on his hip and the other wrapped around a thick wooden post that was balanced on one shoulder.
“My name’s not Daisy, it’s Ember Riley. You hear that? It’s Ember!” I screamed. How could they not even know my name?
“Wasn’t talking to you, cupcake, but since you told me your name, I’ll tell you mine. I’m Hadley Cohen. That’s my cow behind you, and she’s called Daisy. Been looking for her all morning.”
The information floated on the surface of my sleep-and-food–deprived brain, until it finally sank in. He had nothing to do with the men who pursued me. I didn’t want anyone else to get mixed up in this before I got a chance to return home. When I told everyone in Novara, I was sure they would put a stop to this evil hunt, but until then, any innocent bystanders might get hurt.
“Look, you have to get away. Just turn around and run away. Come back for your animal later, okay? It’s not safe here,” I warned him, not wanting to even think about what the hunters would do with a witness.
“Run away? From a couple of dogs? Why are they chasing you like that, anyway?” He raised an eyebrow in surprise.
I tried to drag myself to my feet before the hunters reached me, and unsteadily managed to stand. I couldn’t run anymore, but I didn’t want to die on my knees. Why wouldn’t this man listen? Was he simple? I’d heard people outside the city didn’t understand anything about anything.
“Just go, stupid. Go! Go!” I waved him away frantically. The barking dogs grew louder, and my stomach churned.
“I’ve got her, Tral!” someone shouted, as the dogs continued to bark.
Startled, I tried to run away, but I had no reserves left to draw on and I fell to the ground. Before I got back up again, one of the animals bit my arm and I was overtaken with a bloodlust, so when a hunter leaned over me, I sank my teeth into his leg with all my might. Relishing the squishy feeling, I shook my head from side to side and I scratched at him with my remaining fake nails. I knew that I had hurt him, because he kicked me, hard, in the side. I wheezed when the air left my lungs and I was forced to stop biting him.
“Feral fucking bitch,” he told me as I tried to get my breath. The pain from his kick made me see white and black sparkles. He turned to the man who’d lost his cow. “She tell you what she did to the others? Ensnared them and killed them!”
I wasn’t going to deny it. “I have every reason to kill you all. If I don’t, you’ll kill me. You don’t have any reason to be hunting me,” I pointed out.
The hunter looked at me condescendingly. “Stupid prey. You’re not supposed to fight back. None of the others did.”
“Go and fuck yourself. I’ll keep fighting you until I stop drawing breath.” My voice was hard. I knew they had the advantage but that didn’t mean I would give in to them.
“Don’t you understand? If we didn’t hunt the peasants, there’d be too many of you! You’d have no space to live, and you’d be packed into the city, shoulder-to-shoulder, barely enough air to breathe! We’re helping you.”
It was complete horseshit and I decided to call him on it. “But you decide how many babies there are. Instead of hunting us, you could grant less adoption permits.”
The façade of concern dropped, and the hunter’s face changed into an angry snarl. “Adoption levels in the city are set at an exact quota for a reason. Of course we could simply permit fewer babies to be adopted, but where’s the fun in that?”
I was so angry I forgot my pain for a moment. “Fun? You call this fun? You’re out of your fucking mind! Just kill me and be done with it!”
He chuckled, and it was the most ominous sound I’d ever heard. “Oh, no. That wouldn’t be entertaining at all. I want to see how many times I can shoot you, first.”
I knew then that this was the end of my life. It had been converging for two days, all the things I cared about had been gradually pared away, and I was one trap short of snaring them. There was nothing left to fight them with. I’d been worn down slowly. Although I’d fought back hard, there were too many of them, they were all a lot bigger than me, and they had dogs. They had no compassion for the fact they’d hunted me; it was sport to their twisted minds. And beneath all of my emotions, there was the strong feeling that I wasn’t good enough. If I’d been better, I would have beat all of them, even in a rigged contest.
“Karj! You’ve cornered her!” Another of the hunters appeared. “How many bullets you got?”
“Six. How about you, Tral?” Karj said, checking his gun. Everything around me faded into muted, murky colors and I tried to face this with a calm mind. I wasn’t afraid, just angry. I hoped their guns exploded in their hands or backfired in their faces.
When Hadley spoke, I remembered he’d been standing to one side, watching in silence.
“Say, you fellas aren’t gonna really shoot her, are you?” His face was full of concern as his brows knitted together. He shifted the wooden post that was balanced on his shoulder. My heart sank. He could have gotten away while they were distracted, but for some reason he was still here.
“What’s the wood for, bumpkin?” Karj asked.
“This? It’s a fence post! That there’s my cow and she broke the fence post when she escaped. Just taking her home so I can mend my fence, once she’s on the proper side of it.”
“Then keep walking.” With his gun, Karj indicated for Hadley to move on.
“Sure, soon as you answer my question.”
I wanted to cry at the fact that this man wouldn’t get to safety.
“Yes, we intend to shoot her. She’s given us a very good chase; the longest in ten years. But now it’s time to finish her off. What’s it to you?” Tral replied with an impatient snarl.
“Wouldn’t do that if I were you.” Shifting the fence post on his shoulder, Hadley was perfectly calm. He seemed upbeat, but I now noticed that his voice had an undertone of ‘don’t fuck with me.’
“We’re part of Novara’s elite Brotherhood; the rulers and lawmakers that run the city. We can do whatever we like,” Karj chuckled, as though he were explaining it to a four-year-old.
Karj lazily shot his gun at me. The bullet grazed my right arm with a sharp burn and I growled in pain. Unhelpfully, my eyes tried to water. What would my family do? Would they even know I was killed, or would they think I was too ashamed to return home? I didn’t want to let them down.
If every contestant of The Chase died in a similar way to this, what about my cousin Ketta? My heart felt like it had been stabbed as I realized she had suffered this same fate, probably for the same reason. The TV broadcast had said she won it. Now, I knew different. I knew why we’d never seen her again.
“That’s all I needed to know, thanks.” As if it were a javelin, Hadley very swiftly hurled the heavy-looking wooden post at Karj. Impaled by the post, the hunter’s smug smile turned into a scream of horror. He fell to the ground. I sat, staring at the dead man. I think the lazy efficiency of it was what shocked me most.
Tral panicked and waved his gun between me and the newcomer. “How can you take her side? She had it coming!” he shrieked.
I couldn’t blink, but just stared at him, hoping against hope that he wouldn’t shoot me. He kept firing inaccurately, and managed to kill both of his own dogs. Then, another bullet grazed me and my left leg felt like it had been sliced open. I stifled a scream by stuffing the heel of my hand into my mouth and biting down on it. The next bullet could be my last.
Hadley drew his own gun quickly and fired at Tral, killing him instantly.
“I guess that does it for the fence post. I don’t want it now,” he remarked casually.
Still on my hands and knees, I tried to back away from Hadley. He clearly wasn’t as stupid as he first seemed, and I didn’t know if he was going to turn his gun on me, next. Instead, he put his weapon in his belt and moved slowly toward me. Too many things had happened over the past couple of days and I didn’t have the brain space to stop myself from reflexively cringing. I hoped it didn’t make him angry because I was in no fit state to fight him off if he lost it.
“You’re hurt,” he said gently.
I closed my eyes. Of course. The only time men ever spoke to me in that soft tone was when they wanted to sleep with me. According to all my friends, the TV, and billboards advertising perfume, I was supposed to want to attract a man to have sex with. For some reason, every time I tried it, I was left dissatisfied, bored, and wishing I’d spent the time practicing my skating instead. My parents were completely bemused that I was twenty-one and hadn’t had a long-term fuck buddy yet.
I had no energy to fight him right now. Even keeping my eyes open was a struggle. Anyway, he was quite handsome. If I had wanted a man, he was just about as perfect a specimen as I ever saw. And he hadn’t tried to rape or kill me yet, which was a definite improvement on most of the men I’d met lately.
“I’m fine,” I whispered, contradicting the litany of injuries all over my body.
I really wanted him to go away so I could get some sleep. The moment I spoke, some part of my brain must have decided I wasn’t in immediate danger, despite the fact I didn’t trust this man one inch, and I promptly slipped into darkness from the exhaustion and pain.
After I buried the bodies in the forest and scattered a thick layer of leaves so they wouldn’t be easily found, I looked at the naked girl asleep on the ground. Ember’s figure was perfectly shaped, and her pert, perky breasts finished in large areolas. Her lips were full and kissable, and her heart-shaped face was sweet and gave her an air of innocence, especially when coupled with her bubblegum pink hair and long, curly eyelashes.
Never in my life had I seen a woman I was more attracted to. Even when she’d been cornered with no chance of winning, she never stopped fighting, and never gave in to what the men had wanted. She’d clearly been evading those men for quite some time before I got involved. I swore to myself then and there that I would do anything it took to protect her and help her get over her harrowing ordeal.
I looped some rope around the cow’s neck, then draped the girl over the cow, which gave me a first-rate view of Ember’s toned bubble butt. She must love to work out. Coming from a ranch, I thought a girl who could lift two bales of hay at the same time was far more appealing than a girl whose lipstick matched her shoes.
Daisy bucked, but I shushed her and patted the top of her nose before leading her back to my ranch. Poor Daisy had had one hell of a time out here. I would be surprised if she ever left the ranch again. Cows weren’t made to listen to gunfire and I’d be lucky if this whole incident didn’t sour her milk. I only had two milk cows, so if that happened, I wouldn’t be able to make enough cheeses to sell to the rich people who had enough money to ignore the ban on meat and other natural ranch produce.
What I’d never figured out was why they ever banned wholesome food in the first place. The cities all had machines that made food, but it was second-rate garbage that no one in their right mind would eat if they had a choice. Artificial meat, grown in huge vats and processed by automatons, was invented about fifty years ago. It started off as convenience food, quick and easy for the busy city people. But advances in technology made it quicker and easier for the machines to make it, and soon, processed food was available for free in giant vending machines, that were frequently restocked by more machines, which operated on a complicated schedule to ensure nothing ever ran out. The preservatives in everything meant that even the least popular items never went out of date.
One day, when I was about seventeen, the Brotherhood—the men who ran the city—had outlawed meat and other fresh produce. The penalties for possessing fresh food were severe. Around the same time, my parents died in a tragic accident. My ranch only continued because I made a deal with a few men from the Brotherhood, who enjoyed meat as a delicacy. As far as I understood it, the law was only there to make regular people dependent on whatever garbage was being fed to them by the machines, which were also controlled by the Brotherhood.
“It’s a coupl’a miles back to the ranch, Daisy. We’ll take it in turns to carry the girl. Deal?” I looked at the cow expectantly. She snorted and reluctantly walked with me. What sort of a messed-up place had the city become since I last went there, if they were hunting nearly naked young women for sport these days? It was despicable.
The walk through the forest was mostly pleasant. The sun shone over the treetops and diffused spots of sunlight streamed through the leafy canopy. All was not safe, however, and I was especially wary of crossing paths with any bears. I carried a gun whenever I left the ranch, so I wouldn’t become bear food, but I wanted to avoid using it if possible. Bullets were a finite resource. The city probably didn’t have ammo in any of their fancy vending machines. Anyway, there were bands of raiders that traveled the wilderness, and a dead bear in their path was a giveaway that someone lived near here. If they saw it, they might take the time to explore the nearby area instead of moving on. They didn’t need more ways to stumble upon my ranch. The fields, barn, sheds, and whatnot were already conspicuous enough.
The raiders were mostly desperados on the run from the cities, avoiding the law. Sometimes, that meant they had simply crossed someone with too much power. Other times, though, their crimes were real and sinister, and I didn’t have any way of discerning between the two until they were close enough to disarm me, so I liked to keep my distance.
I’d sized the girl up as a good person fairly quickly, but there was a chance I was wrong. I hoped I wouldn’t regret my decision to save Ember. I’d never had reason to make an enemy of anyone in the Brotherhood before, but the things they’d said when they thought I wasn’t listening had made me angry.
When we reached the ranch, I was carrying the girl over one shoulder, to give Daisy a break. Ember sure was pretty, although her hair was a strange color and she needed a long bath. I wanted to get rid of the ribbon around her neck; it made her look like a gift for the hunters, but maybe she wanted to keep it. It wouldn’t kill me to wait until she awoke and then ask her. I was in no hurry. In fact, I hoped she wouldn’t wake up for a nice long time, since she looked like she hadn’t slept in a week. Poor girl. She was so young. She should be at home with her family, or spending time with her friends, carefree and happy.
I put Daisy in the barn with my other cows. I only had a dozen at the moment; two milkers and ten beef, because they were a lot to manage without a ranch hand, and mine had left a few months ago to find a girlfriend in the city. Living out here, there wasn’t anyone to marry. It was one of the realities of living in a world where most people had moved to the city.
In the whole of the continent, there were only seven cities; huge, sprawling megalopolises, each one was hundreds of miles across. Novara was the capital, and the next nearest city was fifteen hundred miles away. The scale of everything was so big, it was easy for my little ranch to disappear amongst the wilderness. Nobody troubled me here, since only a handful of people knew where to find me.
Hiring another ranch hand was impossible when, as far as I knew, there were no other ranches left in the whole world. Nobody looked for work, because in the cities, everything was free. The machines did all the work, directed by the Brotherhood, and the regular people… well, I’m not completely sure what they did. Most ranchers had given up and moved to the city, and they must have liked it, because they never returned. Personally, I’d rather starve to death in the wilderness or face the law than voluntarily give up my way of life and my clean food.
When I reached the living room, I laid the girl on my couch and gently gave her a sponge bath with soap and hot water, wiping the dirt away. It probably wasn’t the polite thing to do for a girl I just met, but her injuries needed to be made clean, and while she was covered in dirt, I couldn’t see where she’d been hurt. Anyway, she was only wearing a red plastic ribbon around her neck, and the rest of her was bare, so I’d already seen nearly every inch of her beautiful figure.
Lightly, I dabbed my sponge at one of her breasts, where she’d been scratched by something small. It looked angry, and might leave a scar, but at least now it wouldn’t get infected. That sort of thing could be deadly. The silk of her delicate, pale flesh against my rough hands made my cock surge. She was one beautiful girl under the evidence of her ordeal.
I had guessed that the men had hunted her for sport. What I couldn’t figure out was how she’d gotten into this situation in the first place. She seemed feisty and resourceful. If there had been fewer men hunting her, or if they’d given her a pair of shoes, she probably would have beaten them all and eaten my cow, too. I gently rubbed away all the dirt, and wrapped her worst wounds in gauze.
“Is it show time already?” she asked foggily, opening her eyes. They were a delicious chocolate-brown color, which made my heart clench. It was my favorite color for eyes, and the same color as my own. Her eyes perfectly complemented her pastel pink hair, which came to just below her shoulders. Pink and chocolate… what a sensual combination. I wanted to wrap her up in taffeta and feed her strawberries until she showed me her smile. I imagined it was as cock-wrenchingly sexy as the rest of her. She seemed a little confused, though.
I decided she must be disoriented, so I explained, “You’re at my place, about two miles east of where I found you.”
She tried to sit up, then winced in pain. I frowned. I didn’t want her to be hurting. She’d been through far too much already.
“Careful, you have two bullet grazes and two dog bites. Had your rabies shot from a doctor?”
“That explains the pain. What’s a doctor?” She blinked and frowned.
I tried to think how to explain it. “Someone who takes care of sick people.” I hadn’t needed to see a physician since I was a small boy, but I was surprised that she didn’t know what one was.
She looked down at the bandages on her arms. “Are you a doctor?”
I smiled and shook my head. I’d walked right into that one. “I’m a rancher.”
“What’s that?” She looked at me blankly again with those devastating brown eyes. Had the city folk really forgotten so soon? It had barely been a decade since meat was outlawed.
“Someone who takes care of animals and produces food? On a ranch?” I didn’t know how to explain ranches and food to someone who had no concept of either.
“Is that where vending machines come from?” she asked.
I sighed and shook my head. She was clearly clueless and this was going nowhere. Anyway, I had more important things to ask her. “When was the last time you ate something?”
“Two days ago, if it’s still the same day as it was before I passed out?”
I nodded. I wasn’t used to the touchy-feely stuff, and she didn’t seem to want it, so I decided to be practical. “You’ve some water here; drink it in small sips while I get you something to eat.” I indicated the glass.
“Wait! Can you get this stupid bow off me, please?” She indicated the red ribbon around her neck. I smiled and nodded. With my pocket knife, I cut the ribbon away and she rolled her neck with relief.
“Thanks. It’s been bugging me for days.” She smiled gratefully, then reached for the water.
“Small sips, remember,” I told her, wondering what food to fix for her. Before I left, she seized the water and finished it in three gulps. I sighed and shook my head, knowing exactly what would happen next.
“That was a bad plan, babe.” I handed her the garbage pail and watched the look of utter surprise on her face as she vomited water. At a guess, I’d say she hadn’t eaten anything at all for days.
“Ugh. Got any nausea pills? Painkillers too, please? My whole body aches, inside and out.” She looked slightly green.
I shook my head. “There’s nowhere to get things like that on a ranch.”
“You must have really basic vending machines here. How do they even get to you?”
“I don’t have any vending machines. Not really sure they have any uses.” The day I allowed a vending machine on my ranch was the day I should retire.
“They’re where all the stuff comes from! Clothes, food, pills, toothpaste… it’s all in vending machines. How can you not know that?” Although she was clutching her stomach, she still somehow managed to look at me like I’d just announced that I was a bedspread.
“Because on my ranch, nearly everything gets made from scratch,” I explained. At least something made sense. She’d probably never seen a doctor because she got pills for most ailments from vending machines. Would she have any idea that it was even possible to be self-sufficient?
“I don’t follow.”
I tried to get her to think her way through this whole thing. “Where do things come from before they’re inside a vending machine?”
“Robots! Obviously!” She said it in the same tone someone might use to explain that grass was green. “The machines provide.”
“Before robots made everything, people used to make things all by themselves. And they sold those things in shops.” I looked into her beautiful eyes to try to figure out if she understood what I was saying, or if it was too alien to what she knew. She nodded hesitantly.
“But… why don’t you just let robots do it? Why waste your life making things? Watch sports and listen to music instead.”
“Before I answer you, I want you to eat a little of this bread.” I passed it to her.
She examined it thoroughly and frowned. “Are you sure this is safe to eat? The shape… it’s so irregular, and I’ve never seen bread cut like this before. How did you get the butter and filling out of it?”
“Just try it.” I didn’t even know where to begin explaining that sandwiches didn’t arrive on Earth fully formed and ready to eat in those odd plastic packets. I’d seen what passed for food in the city and I was unimpressed by it. I didn’t know how anyone lived where they couldn’t eat proper food, but perhaps they got used to it. While Ember was here, she would have to learn to appreciate real food, because I didn’t have anything else to feed her.
She closed her eyes and took a tiny bite. She chewed a little, then frowned. “The best I’ve ever tasted! But it looks so irregular and… damaged!”
“That’s what it’s supposed to look like. You know what’s irregular? Uniform square slices that come ready filled with synthetic tuna.”
She shook her head in disagreement, but I wanted her to drink instead of talk, so I poured her some more water. “Little sips this time.” I held the glass to her full lips and pulled it away each time she tried to gulp it. She slowly drank the water in silence, then fell asleep again, her features relaxing into a half-smile as she sank against the pillows.
I stroked her soft pink hair away from her creamy forehead, then covered her up with a wool blanket. I would talk to her about what just happened in the forest, but only when she had rested properly. Getting her back to health was my number one priority.
When I awoke again, I felt the urgency of the situation pressing down on me. It didn’t help that my entire body still ached and my grazes and bites stung. While I was here, wherever here was, the Brotherhood members who had gone back to Novara early were probably showing people footage of The Chase, and telling the whole city that I’d lost. What would my parents say? They would be so disappointed in me. And what about next time? Nobody knew that people were being killed. That was never shown. Twelve citizens a year were dying in this one game. People had to know the truth. I had to get back and prove I hadn’t lost. That the game was rigged.
When my parents saw me, they would have to believe me, and then they’d help me do something about this. I didn’t really know what we could do, but I had to try. We didn’t live in a democracy, and everyone knew what happened to political dissidents, but surely this was different. I didn’t want to overthrow anyone or make big waves. I didn’t want to spearhead an uprising. I just wanted to be allowed to get on with my normal life and the ruling class were making that impossible, not just for me, but for so many other people. Whether a human being was permitted to live or die shouldn’t be a political issue, any more than being able to say no to sex or being able to see my family again. I felt like I’d been punished for turning down that creepy Brotherhood man, because he helped run the city and I was nothing.
Sure, I was well-known in skating circles but I was under no illusions. Most people watching any interval show didn’t recognize faces or know the names of the skaters, and we were all replaceable at a moment’s notice. I had no power to leverage, no voice to tell the world what was happening. Although I was exhausted, and the burn in my legs was nearly unbearable even when I didn’t move, I had to get up.
“Hold your horses. You need to take it easy,” Hadley told me. I hadn’t realized he was sitting near me. Had he waited here while I slept? It seemed that way. “Why don’t you tell me how you got into this situation?”
“There’s a live TV show called The Chase. It’s shown once a month. One lucky contestant gets the chance to elude some hunters, like a big game of hide and seek. If the runner doesn’t get caught for an hour, they get an amazing prize: the opportunity to be a sports ambassador who helps other cities aspire to be as good at sports as Novara. The contestants are supposed to be selected at random. But I wasn’t. I feel so stupid. I thought it was such a big deal, to get onto the show, but one of those men brought me here on purpose because I wouldn’t sleep with him. I had no idea that The Chase didn’t end after an hour. I didn’t know it wasn’t a competition. I didn’t know I was watching people run for their lives.” I fell into a silence filled with swirling thoughts. I was sickened that I’d sat at home and watched The Chase, believing it was all a game.
How many of those contestants had been chosen because they hadn’t served the right temperature coffee to someone, or had said ‘hello’ in the wrong tone of voice, or refused to go on a date? How many of them had died alone and afraid, out here in the wilderness where nobody would find their bodies?
My mind returned to my cousin Ketta. She’d had the most beautiful hair, golden tumbling waves like fluffy clouds at sunset. I remembered kissing her goodbye, wishing her the best of luck. Why her? I didn’t want to think about what they’d done to her.
I instinctively covered one of my gauze bandages with my hand and pressed down on it, trying to ease the pain, but I didn’t have enough hands to press against all of my injuries. I had to power through my current state and return to Novara.
“I have to get home. I must warn everyone that this is happening,” I told him.
Hadley sighed and shook his head. “You need to get well. That’s your only job right now.”
I strongly disagreed. The city was full of girls like Ketta; warm, friendly, unassuming. I tried hard to be nice to people, but I’d always been competitive, and she’d smoothed me out. She’d seen the good in everyone. When sector three had played against sector one, she’d shouted encouragements to whichever side was losing. This wasn’t just about me. They were taking girls like Ketta and doing this to them. “No! I can’t let this happen to anyone else. Don’t you understand? If you hadn’t saved me, I would be dead right now.”
“I feel like that qualifies me to know what’s in your best interests right now, and you’re not well enough to travel two hundred miles back to Novara.”
My wellness was irrelevant. As far as I was concerned, if I died the same hour I got back to the city, it would still be worth it to prove what happened. “I need to tell people in the city!”
“You’re hurt. If you try and leave in your condition, I’ll put you over my knee and spank you. That’s what happens when naughty girls won’t behave on the ranch,” he told me in a gravelly, no-nonsense voice. “Do I make myself clear?”
I felt quivery when Hadley mentioned spanking. The idea wasn’t completely unfamiliar to me. I’d occasionally seen it in movies and TV shows, although I’d never been spanked in my life. It was something I’d always been equal parts fascinated with and afraid of, like skydiving or time travel. And, just as I believed that both of those things didn’t exist outside of movies, until that moment I’d never thought that spanking was a real thing.
I looked into his dark brown eyes and blinked rapidly. He was serious. My eyes flicked down to his sculpted arms, their tanned color contrasting nicely with his white tank. I vaguely remembered him lifting me in one arm and carrying me easily over his shoulder back to the ranch. If I wrapped both my hands around one of his biceps, my fingers wouldn’t meet. What would it be like to feel those hard, well-defined arms powering his wide, rugged hands, while they rained corrective swats onto my bare flesh?
“Well?” he prompted. Why did he want an answer? Wasn’t it humiliating enough that he’d even mentioned it?
“Yes, sir,” I replied, then colored red furiously. I closed my mouth before I said anything else humiliating. The ‘sir’ had popped out, an innate response to his words and my own thoughts. I wished to take it back. I was suddenly very aware of his presence, and that he was a very attractive man, and I was a single woman. Contemplating what it would be like for those strong arms to bend me over some furniture before spanking my bare behind, I blushed even more. Then his tapered fingers might split my cheeks and become drenched in my wetness before his cock filled me with his cum.
I tried to be cool, but it was hard. No man had ever had this effect on me before so I was unsure how to react. Feigning disinterest was impossible when my eyes roved over his body, drinking in his perfection, and my ears just wanted to listen to his voice forever. It put guys off when women threw themselves at men, and I didn’t want to scare him away, but I wanted to demand sex to get him out of my system already. It wasn’t just his physique. I’d been around plenty of football players, baseball players, and other sportspeople. My sector was full of them. The hot body helped, but it was something inside him that attracted me; some extra spark of something… I couldn’t put my finger on it.
“Good. I’m fixing you another drink, then you’re getting more sleep. Talk to me about your situation more in the morning.”
I didn’t want to talk about it. Anyway, with a peaty, growly baritone voice like his, it was a crime for me to talk at all. I just nodded and let the sounds reverberate through my body. I hoped in the morning he’d be more amenable to helping me expose what was happening with The Chase. It would be a pity to cross swords with the only man I’d ever been attracted to in my entire life.
Inside, I felt a lot of different emotions that were being squashed down, and I could barely keep a lid on them all. I was viewing the past two days’ events from a distance, like they’d happened to someone else, but that someone else was still me, and she was deathly afraid of what she’d done and what might happen next. The warm, caring me, my normal self, was too broken right now. Crying in a corner of my own mind. Begging someone to make the pain stop. Watching those men as the life left their bodies, over and over, every time my eyes closed even just to blink. Hearing the gunshots when they tried to kill me. Running through all the things I could have done differently, ways I could have fought back harder.
It was like something had flipped a cut-off switch in my brain, only, at the same time, they hadn’t. I knew it was all there, beneath this numbness. I could touch my pain with detached curiosity. But I couldn’t let her out. It wasn’t safe. There was no one else to take care of her, so I was being strong for myself.
I wasn’t two different people, not really, it was more like I had a choice. Either I fought this emptiness and got dragged under by this shit, or I pressed on and hoped my shattered soul got a chance to heal after this was over. Letting that all out seemed like failure. I had to keep running. It was what I did. So, really, I didn’t want to talk about it. Anyway, what was the point? I wanted to do something. When I didn’t think about any of it, I was fine.
A few moments later, Hadley brought me a drink. I sipped at the strange-tasting liquid then, despite my injuries, I found myself drifting to sleep on the couch as I realized what I found most attractive about him. He was the most genuine man I’d ever met.