SAINT’S ASTRAY CHAPTER ONE
The world was a very, very big place.
That was Loup’s first impression as the sun rose over northern Mexico. By the time it had cleared the horizon and begun to cast strong light over the landscape, they’d been driving for an hour. Still, the road stretched before them, empty and endless.
And except for Pilar, fast asleep with her head on Loup’s shoulder, everything and everyone in the world Loup had ever loved was behind her, behind the vast concrete wall that sealed off the U.S. border and sealed in a town once known as Santa Olivia, known in Loup’s lifetime only as Outpost; Outpost 12.
The thought made an empty space in Loup’s heart. In the light of day, the thrill of their daring escape through the excavated smugglers’ tunnel had worn off. If she were capable of feeling fear, she was fairly sure she’d be feeling it now.
Pilar yawned and lifted her head. “Are we almost there?” she asked sleepily.
Behind the steering wheel, Christophe laughed. “Not even close.”
Pilar’s hazel eyes widened. “Seriously?”
“Oh, yes.” He glanced over at the girls. “It’s over a thousand kilometers to Mexico City. Over six hundred miles,” he added, seeing their perplexed looks.
“Wow.” Loup tried to think about what that meant and couldn’t. She knew miles as units measured on a treadmill, going nowhere, not as actual distances to be traveled. It was only the third or fourth time she’d ridden in a car, and never farther than a few blocks before. “So a few more hours, huh?”
“More than a few.”
|The cousin-of-a-sort she’d only just met squinted at the convertible’s speedometer. “I drive fast. We ought to be there by late afternoon.”
“Shit!” Pilar said in dismay.
Christophe slid her a laughing glance. “Big world, eh?”
“Yeah, no kidding.” She turned to look at the empty highway behind them. “So we’re safe? No one’s after us?”
“I imagine the army is tearing Santa Olivia apart searching for Loup, but no one has the slightest idea she crossed the border, and it is quite possible they do not even know you are missing, bonita. Go back to sleep,” he said kindly. “Both of you, if you like. It will make the time pass faster. I don’t mind. You had a long night.”
“No kidding,” Pilar repeated, but she closed her eyes and nestled her head back on Loup’s shoulder, worn out with terror and happiness. “You okay, baby?”
Hot wind whipped all around them. Loup studied her Mexican-born sort-of-cousin. Aside from the soldier who had killed her brother in the boxing ring, he was the first person Loup had ever met that was like her; not entirely human. He was the only one she had met who was truly like her; conceived naturally, not created in a laboratory like the father she had never known.
It had been dark when they’d escaped from Outpost. By daylight, she could see him better. He was young, not much older than her. Seventeen, eighteen at the most. Well, that made sense. He couldn’t have been conceived much earlier than her. His hands were steady on the wheel. His skin was darker than hers, brown instead of caramel. He was taller, lanky. But he had the same high, rounded cheekbones, the same wide, dark eyes, wiry black hair and sweeping lashes that she did.
“You knew my father, didn’t you?” Loup asked him.
“Tio Martin? Yes, of course.”
“What was he like?”
“Quiet,” Christophe said, concentrating on the road. “Very intense. All of them were, the original kin. My father, too.”
“Henri,” he agreed in acknowledgement. “He was the leader, the smart one.”
“He died, too?”
Christophe spared her a sympathetic glance. “They all died, Loup.”
He sighed. “Because they burned too bright, too hard and too fast. You know?”
“I know,” Loup murmured.
After a lifetime of hiding her true nature and pretending to be something she wasn’t, she’d burned bright and fast and hard in Outpost, in the town known as Santa Olivia before it was cordonned off from the rest of the world and occupied by the U.S. Army, creating a buffer zone to protect the country from a pandemic that had decimated a generation, from a threat of invasion that may or may not have been real.
The threats were gone, but the safeguards remained. The only way to win a ticket out of Outpost was in the boxing ring, defeating one of the general’s hand-picked fighters. No one ever had ever done it. Only Loup’s brother had ever come close. She had dedicated her life to a single cause; redeeming her older brother’s death, making it turn out right. Reliving Tom Garron’s destiny. A tight canvas square hemmed by ropes. An opponent like her, like her newfound cousin.
Not quite human; strong and fast and fearless. Truly fearless.
“How many of us are there?” she asked Christophe.
“Of us kids?” He grinned. “Only seven here, but it seems like more when we’re all together. We’re not so quiet. All boys, too.”
“What about in America?”
“I don’t know.” He shook his head. “The army did a lot of genetic experiments before the program was shut down, there are maybe a hundred soldiers like that guy Johnson, maybe more. There are a lot of rumors, and no one knows the whole truth. But as far as I know, we’re the only natural-born ones. And you’re the only girl.”
“Is it true you beat him in a fight? Johnson?”
“Yeah.” Loup rubbed her right eyebrow. The gash had healed cleanly during her confinement, leaving a thin pink scar. “Yeah, I did.”
Christophe whistled. “That must have been a hell of a fight.”
“It was.” She replayed the moment of victory in her memory. The crowds roaring, John Johnson climbing to his feet before she knocked him down for the third and final time. Still fearless, but surprised and rueful, knowing himself out-boxed and beaten. She had trained long and hard for that fight. For one shining moment, before the soldiers put the handcuffs on her, Loup had given hope to a town that had none. “You know he killed my brother?”
He nodded. “Yes, I am sorry. Your half-brother, was it not?”
“I guess. I mean, we had different fathers, but Tommy was my brother. He was the one who taught me to be careful all the time. It was an accident,” Loup added. “Johnson didn’t do it on purpose. It was his twin that Tommy was supposed to fight. A normal guy like Tommy, not like us. The army was afraid he’d lose. They pulled a switch and Johnson took his place in the ring.” She was quiet a moment. “Tommy seemed okay at first. Afterward, he collapsed. They did try to save him at the army base.” Her eyes stung, making her blink, though there were no tears. There never were. “It’s just weird to think, you know? Johnson killed Tommy, then I beat him. Then he helped me escape.”
“We’re not like other people.”
“No.” A thought struck her. “Hey, Christophe? What do we call ourselves? Do we have a name for us?”
“No.” He looked surprised. “We’re just us.”
They began to pass through towns and villages, seeing more traffic on the road. It felt strange to see so many non-military cars, but the towns didn’t look so different from Outpost except that all the signs were in Spanish. Christophe stopped in one town that looked much like the others, parking the convertible and turning it off.
Pilar woke with a start.
“Are we there?” “You think you slept for eight hours?” He smiled. “No, but in about ten minutes, we’ll be getting on the toll highway. Best to get some breakfast before we do.”
“Okay.” She stretched, breasts straining against her t-shirt.
Christophe eyed her. “You’re going to have seven very envious cousins,” he said to Loup.
Despite everything, Loup smiled.
“Better believe it,” Pilar said amiably.
They ate empanadas filled with potato and chorizo at an open-air diner. Pilar finished long before the others and watched with awe as Christophe devoured enormous quantities, fueling a metabolism as heightened and unnatural as Loup’s. “Wow. He’s worse than you, baby.”
He swallowed. “I am a growing boy.”
“I’m just happy to have food,” Loup commented.
“Aww.” Pilar’s voice softened. “You eat all you like. I’m not making fun. It’s just kind of amazing that we’re here, you know?”
Loup had always known the army would take her into custody after the fight, once she had revealed her true nature. If it was just that they’d discovered what she was, it might not have been so bad. As Father Ramon had once observed, it wasn’t illegal to be the illegitimate offspring of a genetically altered soldier.
But there was the Santa Olivia business from years earlier, when Loup and the other Santitos, the Little Saints of Santa Olivia, had administered what the Father called vigilante justice to a couple of soldiers. Although it was never proved, the orphans under the church’s care had succeeded in helping Loup impersonate the town’s patron saint.
It had made the general very upset… and when Loup was imprisoned, it had given the army an excuse to discover what it would take to break the will of a subject unable to feel fear, pressing her to give up her allies.
As it transpired, the question remained unanswered. Loup had confessed freely to playing Santa Oliva, knowing it was a foregone conclusion from the moment she stepped into the ring. She had refused to admit to having help.
Loup shook her head in wonder. Half a day ago, she’d been stuck in a hot, stifling cell, half-starved and deprived of sleep, resigning herself to years of wondering whether she’d get the hose and conspiracy questions or another smarmy bribe attempt.
Then her unlikely savior John Johnson had arrived, breaking her out of the cell, smuggling her off the base and leading her through the derelict tunnel beneath the wall to find a new cousin, a new life, and the unexpected gift of Pilar’s presence, reversing the hardest choice Loup had ever made, undoing the hardest sacrifice.
As grateful as Loup was for it, the thought of everything and everyone she had left behind and the promise of hope unfulfilled still made her heart ache. She might not be able to cry, but she could still hurt.
“You okay?” Pilar asked.
“Yeah.” She smiled at her. Pilar had left everything behind, too; and in many ways, she’d lost more than Loup. Life in Outpost wasn’t easy, but it was better than a jail cell. “I’m glad to be here. And really, really glad you’re here.”
Pilar turned pink. “Me, too.”
“Okay!” Christophe said cheerfully. “Time to drive!”
The world was big and the road he called a toll highway was huge. Four wide lanes filled with whizzing traffic.
“Holy crap!” Pilar said the first time they approached a city. “Is that it?”
“No,” Christophe said patiently. “We’re still five hours away.”
“But it’s so big!”
“Mexico City is much, much bigger.”
They drove and drove and drove. After countless miles of concrete unspooling like a ribbon, Pilar wore out her sense of awe and went back to napping. Loup fought against a rising tide of exhaustion and stayed awake. She was pretty sure she trusted her newfound cousin, but Tommy had conditioned her to be careful all her life, to be mindful of the dangers she should fear, but couldn’t.
“She feels safe with you here,” Christophe observed.
Loup raised her eyebrows. “She is.”
“Yes, of course.” He gave her a quick sidelong smile. “You beat Mister John Johnson, you don’t need to remind me. I guess you can… what do you call it? Kick my ass. No, but when we were waiting for you to come through the smugglers’ tunnel, she was so scared. So scared. I never saw anyone so scared, not in real life. Only in the movies.”
“Yeah.” She stroked Pilar’s wind-tangled hair, brown silk streaked with blonde. “But she did it. You ever wonder what it’s like?”
He hesitated. “Finding someone like the two of you did?”
Loup shook her head. “Being scared.”
He smiled wryly. “Not really, no.”
They ate cold empanadas and kept driving and reached Mexico City by late afternoon. And it was big, bigger than any city they’d passed. It went on and on, sprawling in every direction.
“Whoa,” Pilar said, awake. “Does it ever end?”
“Yes, in time,” Christophe said. “But the old people say it used to be you could not even drive in the city. Too crazy, too much traffic.” He made a turn. “Then so many, many people died of the influenza.”
“Yeah,” Loup murmured, thinking of her mother’s death. “We had that, too.”
“Everyone did.” He was quiet a moment. “The worst had passed here when I was born, but I think it must have been a very terrible time. Only now are things beginning to return to the way they were long before us.”
The buildings grew taller, awesome in scale. Everything was taller and vaster than anything Loup had ever imagined. Fine and elegant, like pictures from the pages of fashion magazines worn as thin as onion-skin that Pilar and Katya used to pore over for hours at the orphanage. Christophe pulled into the entrance to one of the most elegant of them all, a huge building with outflung wings and rows of arched windows.
“Are you serious?” Pilar asked, wide-eyed.
He grinned. “Oh, yes. I told you, you are guests of the Mexican government. And there is some American senator who wishes to talk to you, too. They are paying the bill for most of this. Tomorrow, I will take you shopping for suitable clothing so you may make a good impression.”
Loup frowned. “Why?”
Christophe shrugged. “Does it matter?”
Before Loup could reply, a man in a crisp uniform opened the car door on Pilar’s side. She looked at Loup in a sudden panic. “Ohmigod. Loup, we can’t go in there. I look like I crawled through a tunnel, then rode six hundred miles in a windstorm. ‘Cause… I kind of did, you know?”
“Pretend you are a rock star, eh?” Christophe suggested, handing his keys to another uniformed man. “A rich and famous rock star who does not have to give a damn, yes?”
“Oh.” She thought about it. “Okay.”
It was enough for Pilar. She got out of the car and tossed her wind-blown hair, then sauntered past the doorman with a considerable amount of attitude. The doorman smiled and surreptitiously checked out her ass. Loup followed, amusement fighting with bone-deep weariness and the haunting empty sensation of apprehension she couldn’t feel. They waited in the lobby while Christophe talked to the woman at the registration desk. It was amazingly opulent, with rich lighting, gleaming wood and elegant gold-hued furniture. Beyond they could glimpse marble floors and a huge, curving staircase. Everything was hushed, not even the familiar hum of a generator to break the silence.
None of it seemed real to Loup. A part of her wondered if all of this was just a dream, and she would wake to find herself in the stifling cell, waiting for the next in a series of endless interrogations.
“Look at those flowers!” Pilar whispered, nodding at a massive arrangement. “Jesus! I’ve read about places like this, but I didn’t really believe they still existed.”
Loup blinked, wavering. “Yeah.”
Pilar gave her a sharp glance. “Loup, how long has it been since you slept?”
“I don’t know.” She shook her head. “Not much in a couple of days. Maybe three. Not much for weeks, really. I never knew what time it was in prison and they kept waking me up to ask questions or hose me down.”
“You’re dead on your feet.” Pilar grabbed her hand. “C’mon. I’m gonna tell Christophe to hurry up, then I’m putting you to bed. And not in a fun way.”
Five minutes later, all three stood in the elevator. It seemed like something out of a movie. The gleaming doors closed and there was a strange sense of moving that both Loup and Pilar found disorienting. It stopped and the doors opened onto a posh hallway.
“Here you are.” Christophe led them to a room and showed them how to unlock the door with a plastic card. He carried in the satchel full of Pilar’s crumpled second-hand clothes. Loup, sprung from a military jail cell, had nothing. “I’ll be two doors down in Room 223. I arranged to have the bathroom stocked with extra toiletries. Anything else you need, charge to the room.”
“How?” Pilar asked.
“Just put your room number on the bill and sign it.” He stifled a yawn. “Call room service or the concierge. Or call me, though I will probably sleep very hard for a long time. It was a long night and day for me, too.”
She examined the phone. “Push the buttons where it says to, right?”
“You’ve never used a phone?”
“There haven’t been working phones in Outpost since before we were born,” Loup said mildly. “Only for the army guys. No phones, no TV except old movies that were all shot to hell.”
“Right.” Christophe nodded. “I keep forgetting. We think of America as being a sophisticated place despite the troubles.”
“We weren’t in America,” she said. “We were in Outpost.”
“Not Outpost,” Pilar said adamantly. “Santa Olivia.” They exchanged a glance, both of them thinking of the only home they had ever known, the home they couldn’t return to.
“Santa Olivia,” Loup agreed.
Christophe showed them how to use the phone. “Okay. You call me tomorrow when you’re ready. No hurry.” With that, he left them.
“Okay.” Pilar gave Loup a gentle nudge in the direction of the bathroom. “Go take a shower, baby. Then go to bed.”
“What about you? You slept almost all the way here, Pilar. You’re probably not even tired.”
Pilar picked up the remote control and hit the power button. A vast screen filled with vibrant images. She pushed different buttons, changing channel after channel, and smiled. “Oh, I’ll be fine.”