My name is Rachel Clancy.
Thirty years before I was born, the world ended.
Unlike my father, I’ve never lived above ground. I’ve never seen the real sun.
I don’t miss it. How can I? Hard to miss something you’ve never known. My whole existence has been spent underground in our habitat, Genesis.
And yet today, on my sixteenth birthday, I will, for the first time, go to the surface and try my hardest to fight against the monsters still hunting there. It’s something I’ve always known I would have to do. My people identified me at birth as having the right genes to handle the battle. It’s not a surprise, I suppose. My parents had the genes, too.
A week after I came screaming into the world, my mother died. The monsters killed her when they breached our defenses. I wish I could tell you a big dramatic story about her sacrificing herself to save me, or something I could cling to on long nights, but it didn’t happen the way I’d prefer picturing it. No.
One second she was there holding me in her arms in our home, the next she wasn’t. Before they could kill me, the Warriors arrived to end the lives of the monsters.
I have no memories of her. I have no memories of that night.
Today, I might share her fate by performing a job I’ve never had a choice about taking. Life can really suck sometimes.
A mess covered the living room floor. My gaze followed the display of broken dishes, discarded food and disheveled clothes to the source. My father, Harold, lay face forward on the carpet, passed out drunk.
I trudged toward him, a sigh escaping through my clenched teeth. This wasn’t the first time. During his repeated drunken apologies, beginning with my tenth birthday—apologies for giving me his bad genes—he’d finally told me he couldn’t stand the idea of me turning sixteen. So, he drank to deal with it. If it sounds like an excuse, that’s because it is. He’d been drunk every night since my mom had been killed. For the record, that meant he’d been trashed nearly every night for over fifteen years.
I sometimes wondered how life would have been if she’d lived. Would we have been one of those happy families I see walking around? If he’d still become an alcoholic, would she have protected me from him? I didn’t know much, but I knew you aren’t supposed to raise children the way he raised me.
I don’t know why I thought today would be different. I guess in my heart of hearts, I hoped maybe he would send me off to meet my destiny with wisdom and fortitude. No such luck.
Couldn’t even one day go the way I imagined it should? Would it destroy some cosmic plan?
I knelt next to him and shook his shoulders to rouse him. I knew from massive amounts of experience shaking wasn’t likely to do the trick. If I really needed him awake, I would have to dump cold water over his head. Depending on his level of drunkenness, even an icy douse might only awaken him for a few minutes before he slipped away into his whiskey-drenched darkness. Those brief moments were usually filled with his yelling, cursing, slurring and telling me how much he missed my mother.
I bit my lip as I tried to decide whether the benefit of having him awake would actually be worth the effort of rousing him. It had been fifteen years since Dad fought the monsters. What could he possibly teach me that Keith and the other instructors hadn’t already?
Tears burned my eyes. Why think so rationally if my emotions were getting the better of me, anyway? Truthfully, why think at all? It wasn’t as though I had any control over my destiny.
I made my decision. I jumped, grabbed my backpack and ran out the door as fast as possible, not bothering to lock it behind me. Someone would have to be crazy to rob the house of a Warrior, which, as of today, I had officially become. I made my way onto the narrow street that formed the cul-de-sac of our particular subdivision. The houses all looked the same—one piece of track housing lined against another. They’d designed the habitats to fit as many people as possible into one space.
Forty-six years later, things were starting to look a little shabby.
The automatic lights, meant to simulate the sunlight aboveground, changed to their early daytime setting. I squinted as my eyes adjusted from the darker, geothermal lamps used inside my house.
It might have been my imagination, but I could have sworn even more people than usual stared at me. Curtains swayed as faces ducked behind them. As I walked, staring at the ground, their gazes rolled over me. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand in a weird, uncomfortable way.
The physical reaction isn’t something everyone experiences, and another example of how I’m different, why I’m a Warrior. The teachers at school explained we were born with pronounced instincts, something all human beings once possessed when we dwelled in caves and had to know when to run to survive. Over time, most humans lost those abilities. Since the monsters came and introduced us to true Armageddon, only the people with those skills still left in their DNA could fight them.
No one called out their window to wish me a happy birthday, though they all knew today marked my sixteenth birthday. The upcoming event had been published on the network announcement boards the previous week, as it is for all Warriors. It’s supposed to be a big deal when one of us gets to go to the surface.
To me, it reminded me of a game show I sometimes got to see on the network when they broadcast old-fashioned television. A sick, deranged game. “Come on down, Rachel Clancy! Let’s play ‘Will You Live or Will You Die?’ We know it sucks, but to make it better, we’ll pretend it’s a special privilege instead of a pre-destined service you get to perform for all your so-called friends and neighbors.”
I once asked the teachers why none of the people who lived near me were very friendly. My fellow Warrior students didn’t share the same problem, since they all lived in the neighborhoods assigned to Warrior families. The teacher sighed and took off her glasses. As though battling a headache, she rubbed her head, then smiled and showed more gum than most people do when they grin.
“When your father left the Warriors, he did something no one else has ever done.”
I knew the stories about him, about what he’d done. I really didn’t need the reminder, but I nodded as though she’d given me some new piece of information. I knew better than anyone else what his betrayal meant.
“He had to move you away from all of us.”
I knew that, too. “Yes, ma’am. I know about what happened.”
And I didn’t enjoy thinking or talking about it either. If I’d known asking the question would open that particular topic for discussion, I would have kept my mouth shut.
“And it means you live with the people we protect, which makes things complicated. The others, the people who are non-Warriors, they depend on us to keep them alive and to beat the monsters so someday we can return to the surface. No one likes to feel obligated to be grateful, which is what you make them feel, or disappointed, which is the problem with what your father did.”
As if her explanation cleared away any confusion, she patted me on the hand and then resumed grading her papers.
Grateful for the reprieve, I left her to it. Personally, I thought it more likely the neighbors didn’t want to get attached to a person who had a one in four chance of dying on her sixteenth birthday, rather than it being some great weirdness caused by what my father had done. Maybe they hated us because he was drunk all the time. Couldn’t be easy to live next to the mess…
Shaking off the past, I crossed the bridge, and some of the tension in my shoulders relaxed. As she did every morning, Tia Lyons waited for me with an extra brown-bagged lunch in hand. She grinned and walked to the edge of the street. No rule stated she couldn’t cross and enter my side of the habitat. In fact, once she turned sixteen, she might have to if her assignment meant patrolling there.
Even so, she never did.
I walked to her, smiling at her flawless beauty. How did she manage to look perfect at barely seven in the morning? I hadn’t even looked in the mirror before I left the house.
Tia’s smile was bright and sweet. She didn’t act entitled by her attractiveness, not like so many of the other girls did. In the gene pool of life, she had gotten the top ranking. At five-foot-seven, Tia’s athletic build left her slim everywhere she should be and stacked in the boob department—a feature I sorely lacked.
She possessed blonde hair, with brown eyes one of our classmates had called chocolate-honey-colored, and high cheekbones to finish off her perfect look. I had red hair that practically glowed in the dark and freckles covering most of my body. My lips were thin, my eyelids slightly different shapes, and my nose pointy and too big for my face. I’ve already mentioned the boob problem. Let’s say what I lacked in boobs, I made up for in rear end.
Tia narrowed her eyes. “What? Do I have something on my face?”
“No, of course not.” She never had anything on her face. I smiled, and she handed me a brown bag. “Mom made something called tuna sandwiches from the fish the guys brought back from aboveground last week.”
I never cared what Carol Lyons made. If she hadn’t started feeding me eight years before when the authorities had come to my father and demanded he send me to Warrior school or go to jail, I might have starved to death. At the regular academy, where the other kids went, they’d fed us lunch. At Warrior training, the parents were expected to feed us. My one parent never had. I was old enough now to make my own lunch, but Carol said she liked to do it. So I let her.
And I liked it.
“Is it any good?”
She threw her hands into the air. “What do you think? Is it ever good?”
I loved my lunches. I had no idea why she complained. We walked side by side down the street. Unlike my subdivision, this area of town seemed alive and hopping, but not because everyone had just woken. No, most of the people there were ending their day and finally getting to sleep.
“Did Dad wish you a happy birthday?” She said Dad with such derision I wanted to smile; yet I didn’t. Whatever else he might be, he was the only family I had, and I had this thing about loyalty.
“Did he wake at all?”
I smiled, because she knew the answer. She’d practically lived through my childhood with me from afar. Like me, Tia always hoped it would get better. I guess we’re both really dumb.
“What do you think?”
She laughed at me stealing her phrase. We rounded the corner toward the school, and the lights above us increased in brightness.
“Well. Even if he didn’t say anything, I’m proud of you. My whole family is. Micah and Chad say they’re personally picking out your tattoo tomorrow morning.”
I stopped breathing for a second. Micah wanted to pick out my tattoo? Tia’s older brothers, Micah and Chad, were rapidly becoming legends. Micah was seventeen. They said he didn’t even get scared anymore when he faced them. Chad—silent, deadly—had been fighting for two years.
“You’re so quiet today.” She pulled me close like the sister she was in all but blood. “I’m trying to distract you. I told you Micah wants to pick out your tattoo, and you didn’t say a word.”
Heat flushed my cheeks. The day Tia discovered my infatuation with Micah had been amongst the most humiliating of my life. That’s saying a lot, considering I got my butt handed to me on a regular basis in training.
“I haven’t thought about the tattoo yet. I have to not get killed first.”
Tia waved dismissively. “Micah and Chad are never letting you get anywhere near any danger. You’ll be lucky if you even see one of them. Between my brothers and Keith, you won’t see any action. You may never see any.”
I loved Tia. I couldn’t have gotten through the day without her friendship. But her complete lack of understanding about my situation irked me a great deal. Her family—all six of them—included some of the best trainees and Warriors in the world.
No one in any habitat could match their abilities. Dying didn’t concern Tia. Why should it? Her parents were legends. Her brothers were legends. She ranked at the top of our class, and she had six more months before she even had to face the possibility of travelling above ground to fight.
Not to mention Tia couldn’t possibly understand the damage my father had done to the Warriors when he’d betrayed everyone fifteen years before. There was every possibility they planned to make me pay. Tonight. Someone needed to settle his debts; that had always been clear. Why I was to be held accountable for his sins was beyond me. If it’s true that you have to walk in someone else’s shoes to really understand them, then it seemed to me everyone deliberately avoided spending time in mine.
We hurried up the three steps of the school, and I turned to look at the elevators I would be entering later for the first time. Swallowing, I ignored the shivers travelling across my spine.
The metal doors dinged as they opened, and I stopped walking. Like avenging angels, the Year One and Two Warriors walked out of the elevator. No surprise, Chad and Micah were out in front of the group. Dirty, clothes slightly torn, with a bloody scratch marring the skin on his lower arm, Micah looked fierce.
I wouldn’t look fierce with a mark on me—I would look dead. They’d be hauling my still, cold body from the elevator as I became one of the statistics. Something might be wrong with me, something maybe a psychiatrist needed to fix. I could think about my own death more dispassionately than anyone I knew. It seemed a given.
Chad nodded in our direction before he turned the corner without looking at us again. He was Year Two. When he reached Year Three, on his nineteenth birthday, he would move past designations. He would be considered a full-fledged Warrior—one of the few who’d lived through his first years. Forget the fact that one in four died on their first night. It only got worse from there. Three out of four wouldn’t make it three years. However, if Chad lived through the horrible time, his statistics would change. If he made it to twenty, he had a ninety percent chance of living to be thirty, even forty years old. Warriors who survived the terrible years were that good.
I’d always found him intense, but lately Chad had grown colder, more removed from life down here, as they all did. We knew them, or at least we knew of them, the older kids who graduated and went above ground. Then, over time, it was as though they didn’t know us at all. It wasn’t only their bodies changing, becoming stronger, leaner, and more muscular; their souls trimmed, too. They could only care about things they had to care about.
Micah walked to us. Every step he took in our direction made my pulse quicken. At the rate it was increasing, I’d die of a heart attack before I ever made my trip Upward.
He mock-saluted Tia, who rolled her eyes at him. I tried to match her stance. Micah thought of me as a little sister, as if there were no difference between Tia and me. I’d been at his dinner table almost every night since I was eight years old. My feelings for him had never been sisterly.
Not at all.
He narrowed his eyes at me in the same way Tia could. The eye narrowing was a family trait. Other than their ability to give a glare, they didn’t look much alike at all. Standing at six-four, he towered over my five-foot-ten. We were both unusual. Humanity as a whole was shrinking in height the longer we stayed in the habitats, but Micah and I were tall.
He had dark hair and green eyes, which sparkled when he laughed. Though he didn’t laugh very often, which made his rare bursts of humor even more precious. I wanted to reach out to him and smooth his hair. I wanted to bandage his wounds. Instead I did nothing but smile.
He poked me in the shoulder. “Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”
Tia interrupted. “I asked her the same question yesterday, but she insisted she needed one more day of school to prepare for tonight.”
Why did I need to talk? I had Tia to do it for me.
“Anything you don’t know, you’re not learning today. You’ll make yourself tired—too tired to handle yourself up there.”
I looked at the ground. “I need one more day.”
One more day to be a student, a teenager who could spend at least part of the day thinking about how unfair it was that Tia was flawless while I was so terribly messed up. One more day to look into our teacher, Keith’s, kind eyes and know he cared whether I lived or died. One more day to wonder what Micah dreamed about during the day while he slept.
Anger made me want to kick him, forgetting about my intentions to fix all the problems in his life. I placed my hands on my hips. I might be in love with him, but I didn’t need him lecturing me. In exactly twelve hours, I would be riding an elevator just like the one he’d gotten off, with the same privileges and obligations to protect the Genesis habitat.
“Look, I want one more day.”
He opened his mouth as though he would say something and then closed it. He smiled instead, a wry grin, which lit his eyes with amusement. He found what I’d said funny?
“Have you thought about your tattoo?”
“No.” I shook my head. “Wow, you guys are all really focused on the tattoo.”
Micah looked at his sister. “Did you tell her we wanted to pick it out for her?”
“Yes, I did.” She put her hands on her hips, daring him to complain. I’d seen her mother look at her father the same way. “Do you have a problem with that?”
“We kind of wanted it to be a surprise. Chad’s going to be really pissed.”
I shifted onto the balls of my feet, feeling very uncomfortable. I hated it when they fought. I didn’t have siblings, and I knew the Lyons fought—regularly. The whole family did. All the time. It didn’t seem to mean much, and mostly it was affectionate. Still, it made me cringe. Nothing could happen to this family. Ever.
And why would Chad be pissed? Why did it matter to him? My head whirled.
So I said the first thing I could think of. “The surprise will be if I live to get mine.”
“Yeah, well.” Micah nodded. “Do your best—it’s all any of us can do.”
“Hey!” Tia hit him on the arm. “Say something else. You’re supposed to tell her she’ll be fine.”
“It’s Rachel’s first day. She knows what she’s getting into. You don’t.”
The way he answered warmed away the cold in my soul. He understood. He actually got what I was going through. Suddenly, I was less alone. Maybe it was only the electronic lights intensifying again, but the day seemed less bleak to me.
Tia rolled her eyes. “So, what? You’re all part of the club now, and I’ll be on the outside?”
Micah shook his head as he turned to walk away. He laughed as he called over his shoulder, and the sound thrilled me. “Who would want to be in any club you were in, Tia? See you tonight, Rachel.”
“Forget him. He doesn’t want to tell you he’s planning to protect you. That’s all.” She grabbed my arm. “All I keep thinking about is after tonight you can move out of your house if you want to. Mom says you can have the extra room in our house or she’ll have Dad get you a room in the Warrior dorms.”
“I can’t leave Dad.”
She squeezed me tighter. “What do you mean? He doesn’t deserve to have you there.”
To me, it had never been a question of whether or not he deserved to have me. I was his daughter. It was simple. At four years old he’d lived through the Armageddon. He and my mom had created me. Who would feed him if I left? Who would clean the house? I had to fight the monsters during the night, and I had to take care of Dad during the day. That was my job. For now. Eventually I would have to figure out a better way, but today I couldn’t think past what I had to do.
“Don’t you want to have fun?”
Tia was six months younger than me. Never before had the difference seemed like such an insurmountable gap.
Three Warrior students pushed past us, then opened the door to the school. They called out their hellos, and we waved. We were no longer early—we were officially on time. If we lingered on the step any longer, we would be late.
Through the window I saw Keith, my favorite teacher, laying out the weapons he would teach us to use. It was my last chance to learn something. I needed to make it count.