Vagrants (Vagrants Series Book 1), page 1
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Copyright © 2017 by Jake Lingwall
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
1 Fifth Springs
3 A New Project
4 A Ride or a Gun
7 Jeff’s Path
8 Only a Guest
10 The Cure
11 A Warm Meal
12 Generous Fool
16 Day One
23 Side Effects
24 Chosen One
27 Fallen Friends
29 Another Lesson
31 A Game
35 Second Generation
37 Be with You
40 Old Unity
43 White Knight
1 FIFTH SPRINGS
THEY SAID THAT THE MAN Jeff was fighting was an Apostle, but robotic gods didn’t bleed, and Canon was about to. The fight was already over; Jeff’s opponent just didn’t know it yet. He stepped forward into Canon’s left hook and let his cheek absorb the blow. He felt his skin split and his brain rattle, but allowing himself to be hit by the gigantic excuse for a man opened his mind.
“All right, that’s enough. Let’s call that a round,” the fat judge from Townend said as he stepped between Jeff and Canon and pushed them to their corners. The thirsty crowd booed the decision; there wasn’t much in the form of entertainment in the bones of Kansas City, and the fights between Fifth Springs and Townend had drawn the largest crowd Jeff had ever seen—most of which were eager to see him beat to a pulp by the much larger man.
“Always the showman, giving the people what they want,” Dane said as he wiped the blood dripping from Jeff’s cheek. “Fine by me—I got a week of partial labor on the big guy.”
“You and everyone else are about to be very wrong.”
“You have him?”
“Yeah, it’ll be over soon,” Jeff said. He didn’t know how he knew these things, but he was never wrong when they came to him.
“Good, ’cause I hear Canon has an in with the mayor of Townend. Doesn’t do any labor and picks on kids half his size. Like you.”
“That’s not true, is it?”
“How about you knock him out, and then we’ll ask him about it.” Dane gave him that stupid grin that Jeff wanted to slap off his face every time. That smile had gotten Jeff into a lot of fights over the years. No matter how much Dane deserved a beating, Jeff had protected him. He was just as much a brother to him as Chad, more so in many ways.
“Here we go, boys. Let’s have it.” The judge was drowned out as the corpse of the old stadium filled with cheers.
Jeff turned to see Canon stalking toward him, confidence bursting through his muscular chest. He doubted that Dane knew anything about Canon, but the man looked like he might be a bully. And Jeff didn’t like bullies.
He braced himself with his right leg, well before Canon’s fist arrived where he knew it would. Even with his instincts, he barely managed to keep himself upright. The crowd gathered in the ruins of Arrowhead Stadium cheered raucously, as it appeared that Canon was close to securing victory.
But the crowd didn’t know what he did. Jeff brought his arms up with vengeful speed, smashing them into Canon’s still-extended arm. Canon’s limbs were thick with corded muscle, and he was a foot taller and nearly sixty pounds heavier, but he didn’t know how to fight like Jeff did. No one could fight like Jeff.
Before Canon could recover, Jeff spun around and smashed his leg into Canon’s exposed knee. He followed the instincts that had promised him victory a moment before, acting out the string of events that his mind had envisioned. Block a punch. Hit damaged arm again. Head-butt chest, and slip away. He landed a quick hit to the kidney as he twisted around the hulking man.
The crowd fell silent as Jeff finished the string of moves that he had sensed would bring him victory. He kicked Canon in the back, sending his sculpted body falling face-first into the soaked, overgrown turf. It happened exactly how Jeff had known it would. He blinked, snapping himself out of the zone that kept his mind hyperfocused while he fought. It had felt almost like he had been watching the fight from the future, and now he was back in the same weary reality as everyone else.
The crowd of nearly five thousand people stood in stunned silence. Jeff took a few seconds to look directly at some of the people in the largest gathered crowd he had ever seen, daring them to cheer now that he had defeated their human Apostle. Canon had been the heavy favorite for the people stupid enough to try to bet some excess labor or luxury food on the fight. Labor was too intensive and food too rare to gamble on something as risky as a boxing match.
Jeff searched for the braves—the closest thing Fifth Springs had to soldiers— who had called him a fool for taking the fight. Canon was too big and too strong for him, they said. Canon was going to tear the spine out of his back. Jeff knew he was a fool, all right, but not because he had been willing to fight the giant—he’d never been worried about that.
Winning the fight meant that he had won seven boxing matches in a row. It was a perfect record, but more than that, it was a record that made it look like he was better than everyone else. And there was nothing more dangerous in Fifth Springs than looking like you were trying to put yourself above the community. It was one of the fastest ways to get yourself killed—not as fast as running into an Apostle or a vagrant, but it got the job done just the same.
“I never doubted you, for the record,” Dane said as he joined Jeff, who was striding out of the spotlight as fast as possible.
“Of course not.” His jaw popped as he stretched it out on the way to his fighters’ tent. The judge was already shouting out his introductions of the next fighters using an old sound system that Jeff had rigged up to work with an energy cell. The crowd hadn’t completely reengaged with the atmosphere of the event after witnessing his stunning victory.
“That was Apostolic,” Chad said in a hushed voice as he hugged Jeff. “Truly exceptional, you idiot.”
“Thanks for your support, brother,” Jeff said. He pushed Chad away gently, not wanting to create a scene. He’d already attracted enough attention for one day. Jeff glanced over to where one of the coalition social workers was eyeing him with a distinct frown. “It’s not my fault Canon doesn’t know how to fight.”
“You’re bleeding again,” Dane said. He tossed him a towel that looked more likely to cause an infection than anything else, but Jeff caught it and
“Do you have anything we can use to fix his brain?” Chad growled under his breath.
“They’ll get over it,” Jeff said. He knew that might not be true. The Human Coalition took drastic and very public steps to solve problems of inequality before they even started. Jeff had been dangerously successful at fighting, and rising too far above the average at anything was a quick way to get yourself brought back down to the average in unpleasant ways.
“That’s easy for you to say, Jeff. You don’t have kids and a family.”
“They wouldn’t touch ’em,” Jeff said. He stopped rubbing his face and looked over at his brother. They were close—but in a way that usually involved slugging each other to solve differences. “I won’t let anyone touch them. I promised you that before, and I promise you now.”
“Are you going to fight off the whole coalition with your fists, brave boy?” Chad said.
“You know we ain’t got any more of that blood pressure medicine in these parts, don’t ya, Chadster?” Dane asked.
“Oh, let’s not even start on about you.”
“Look, it’s over,” Jeff said. “They aren’t going to let me fight again. The only reason they trotted me out against that meathead was because they thought he’d smash my brains in. End my little streak.”
“Well, he didn’t,” Chad said.
“Sorry to be such a disappointment.”
The crowd cheered in the background, signaling that the next fight was under way. The way they oohed and aahed back and forth made it sound like a much closer fight than Jeff’s had been a few minutes ago. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the social worker scribbling furiously on his notepad. It likely contained a report for the mayor of Fifth Springs, but Jeff had talked his way out of trouble before. He figured he could do it one more time.
“I haven’t been a top farmhand in months,” Jeff said. “And I’ll get into a scuffle at work or something—let someone think he’s a hero for knocking me down. It’ll blow over, and like Dane said, they aren’t going to let me fight again, so that’s the end of it anyway.”
Chad looked over to the social worker and back to Jeff.
“See that it is,” Chad said. “Everett is getting some grand ideas, thinking you’re some sort of vagrant.”
“Cute kid,” Dane said. “Too bad vagrants have to do more than break their knuckles across a blacksmith’s face. I hear you have to be willing to suck out your enemies’ souls, and Jeff doesn’t know the first thing about having a soul, let alone stealing them.”
“Even worse,” Chad said, ignoring Dane like usual. “You’re inspiring him. The poor boy is starting to dream about his future.”
He was only half joking when he said it. They had never been fans of the coalition, but living in a world with Apostles didn’t allow for any alternatives. Despite its shortcomings, the coalition had provided some stability for the decimated and fractured human race. Jeff had grown up in worse times, when men had waged wars over what little the Apostles had left behind.
“Wouldn’t want that,” Jeff said. The sad thing was that he was starting to believe it himself. Survival of the species required sacrifices from everyone. That’s what the coalition said, so that’s what everyone did—they sacrificed their time, food, and dreams. “The sooner the kid accepts that there isn’t anything in this world to dream about, the better.”
“Don’t talk like that,” Chad said.
“I thought you wanted me to be more realistic. Quiet things down. Stay grounded.”
“Well, it sounds worse when you actually go along with it. Frankly, it makes me feel uncomfortable when you agree with me.”
The crowd roared as the next fight ended. A sterling redheaded man had defeated a bald man who didn’t have much muscle on him but had an extraordinarily long reach. Jeff shook his head as the redhead danced around like a boy on the day a trade envoy returned.
“I’m headed out,” Jeff said. “I’ve got work to catch up on.”
Participating in the fights didn’t give him a pass on any of his labor. He’d taken the afternoon off to prepare, and now he had the promise of a long night trying to figure out ways to squeeze some life out of the oldest energy cells in the community. The only good news was that once he fixed the first one, he’d be able to listen to a book while he worked on the rest.
“When are you going to find a girl?” Chad asked when the cheers of the crowd were starting to fade behind them.
“It’s not because he ain’t trying,” Dane said. “Poor chap just don’t have much to work with, although getting his face rearranged today should help.”
“I told Charlotte I’d ask,” Chad said. “So don’t be mad at me. She wants the kids to have cousins.”
“There aren’t many Charlottes out there,” Jeff said.
“And they wouldn’t be interested if there were,” Dane added.
Jeff gave Dane a weak shove, knocking him off step but not strong enough to push him over. He was Jeff’s oldest friend and current roommate. They had lived together since Chad had gotten married seven years ago, just a few months before Everett had been born. Although the crumbling apartment building they lived in wasn’t the nicest place in Fifth Springs, it felt more like home than anywhere ever had.
The sun was setting, coloring the sky a deep orange. Ahead of them, small lights began to pop up behind the walls of their community as families activated the energy cells that powered the remaining amenities Fifth Springs had to offer. There were fewer lights than usual because many people had gone to watch the fights. It was one of the only forms of entertainment that the coalition allowed. And it was the only one that Jeff liked. He was horrible at basketball, and he was too slow to win races.
“I need to visit the kids more,” Jeff said. “There’s just been lots of stuff needing to be fixed lately. And they expect me to get just as much done even when they make me take a shift on the farms.”
“But Chad told me earlier that they were just getting over their nightmares—” Dane stopped as the sirens cut him off.
Chills raced up Jeff’s back as he looked around. The sirens were often an accident or a drill, but the way the stadium had gone silent made this time feel different. He met Chad’s eyes as they turned around to look back at what was left of the old stadium, their feet already backpedaling toward Chad’s house.
When threats arrived, Jeff had one responsibility, the one thing that kept him from leaving the community or joining the braves: keeping his family safe. He didn’t have children of his own, but he had sworn to protect Chad’s family long ago. He refused to let anything rob him of his family; he’d sworn it to himself after the warlords had swept through Fourth Springs.
The ground rumbled, and Jeff knew this wasn’t a drill.
“Not good,” Dane mumbled distantly.
The small earthquake stopped just in time for the screams from the stadium to start. A brilliant light stung Jeff’s eyes as it streamed from the center of the old stadium—a new sun was forming where they had stood just a few minutes before. The cries stopped as the new sun suddenly burst. The shockwave hit them before Jeff could move, sending him flying backward into the ground, grinding his body across the remnants of the long-destroyed city.
Jeff managed to cover his face from the cloud of billions of tiny pieces of aged concrete, steel, and humans reduced to dust. His head buzzed, and his body felt like Canon had punched him in the face a hundred times over, but he pulled himself to his feet.
The dust parted, and a metallic god stood where the stadium had been. Its 150-foot-tall body pulsed with energy, and its wings flexed in the air nearly twice as high. The birdlike features of its wings and head were combined with six long, humanlike arms; it was straight out of a nightmare. Except it was worse than a monster from a dream. It was an Apostle, the first Jeff had ever seen. And people didn’t live to see an Apostle twice.
“We’re dead,” Dane groaned.
Jeff ripped his eyes from the Apostle; his body was covered in cuts and bruises, but he was still alive. Chad had landed not far from him, but his brother was already on his feet, running toward the barriers that surrounded their community. Jeff made his way to Dane and pulled him to his feet. The Apostle’s wings detached from its massive body and shattered into a thousand autonomous pieces.
“Run!” Jeff shouted. He pushed Dane forward, turning his back on the Apostle as the pieces of its wings scattered over the landscape, shooting red lines of deadly lasers toward the ground as they searched for humans. Jeff didn’t need to see them coming to know that at least one of those leeches was tracking him. They passed through the unguarded gates and ran for the center of the community.
Dane was smaller than Jeff, but he kept pace as they sprinted after Chad. The screams of people dying filled the air in all directions as the Apostle’s leeches flooded the community.
“Where are we going?” Dane shouted.
“Chad’s! We have to save the kids!”
Jeff growled and pushed himself even harder, forcing his feet to move faster over the rubble, and sprinted past scenes of chaos. He saw Chad leap up the stairs ahead of him as they closed in on the old two-story home where Chad’s family of five lived. Chad ripped the door off the entrance and dove inside just as three of the wing shards from the Apostle slammed into the building from the side. Chad’s home exploded, spewing fire and brick in all directions. Jeff was blown backward and slammed into a wagon across the street, crushing the wooden frame beneath his body.
He tried to scream to Chad, to Charlotte, to his two nephews and his newborn niece, but nothing came out.
JEFF HAD STAGGERED TWO STEPS forward, toward his brother’s tomb, when a red laser seared a running man in half a dozen feet in front of him. He pulled back by reflex, and the rumble of the approaching giant ripped through his mind, shattering his rational thought.
He scrambled back, over to where Dane was slumped in a pile of debris, and fished his friend out of the rubble. The Apostle was getting closer, its crunching steps louder and more horrifying as they briefly obscured the screams of people being hunted by the mindless wing-piece robots under the Apostle’s control.