DULL THUDS AND other muffled noises awoke a grumbling Atlas, already missing the general peacefulness he’d grown up with in White Cliff, and then had continued to experience when camping out between there and here. He’d been reluctant to leave the old campsite, but it wasn’t as if he, his sister, and her husband could rebuild — and repopulate — an entire camp themselves. So, it had been moving in a fairly straight line for the two days since. Until they’d come to Meedra.
It had looked only a bit larger than White Cliff on the outside, but the appearance had been deceiving. For in fact, upon entering even without the sun blandly illuminating every dip and corner, they had walked for at least half an hour before finding a short, fat building with “Inn” spelled in chipping paint on a wooden slab leaned against the wall. Inside, it was mostly one long room with warped planks of wood and thin linen held together as movable dividers, one or two cots between each. There were actual solid walls between it and rooms for baths and sewage, and for the kitchen. The building was awake now, as was the camp town, and so were they.
The three stepped outside and looked about. They were on the edge of what looked like a market, with stalls lined up and a thick crowd oozing about, voices yelling and even animals squawking to a volume that indicated the lack of fear of the outside. The whole place was a mismatched jigsaw of people in full leather or in sunbleached rags, dirty from the single day’s dust or as if they’d never even seen water, and some attempting to move quickly through the crowd while others contributed to its significant lack of speed. The wares, too, were a variety–Atlas saw chickens, tarnished silver jewelry, dirtied knives, plain used clothes and ones of colors that once were bright, and small packets of food wrapped in cloth. He even saw a few dogs darting about, some with scraps of leather or string around their necks but more with no hint of identification.
Octavia hissed beside him, and he turned in alarm to see her standing alone at his side, unharmed but grimacing, her shoulders hunched nearly to her ears under her messy rust-colored tresses. He followed her gaze until it landed on two girls, one leaning against another squat building while the other stood a few steps in front of her, into the street created by the buildings’ placements. That one held her body squarely upright, her dirty blonde hair carelessly pushed on top of itself as she moved it from her face and let only the back touch her shoulders. She looked tall, even from this distance, and thin. Both girls wore short, pink dresses that fell less than halfway down their thighs and precariously hung on the edges of thin shoulders.
The girl against the building looked far more like their trade. This one was shorter and curvier, despite the obvious undernourishment that was common now, the gold of her long hair only slightly muffled by the street’s dusty air. She looked angelic, like the mermaids in the book Octavia had had when they were little.
“Fucking Meedra,” Octavia grumbled, pulling Atlas out of his staring. He looked around quickly, suddenly noticing four more girls in similar short, faded pink dresses. His sister’s eyes burned with anger, but her mouth was tilted in a nervous grimace. Meedra was largely known for its success at profiting instead of merely surviving, prostitution as large a factor as its marketplace. It was uncommon, either because the rest of surviving humanity frowned upon it–unlikely, judging by how several men and women flocked to each one–or because most other camps didn’t have the stability to advance their societies beyond keeping their own residents alive. White Cliff had a class system, and small opportunities for education, but even Atlas’ home had only had its own people trading amongst each other. Atlas saw the gate they’d come through, open and a twisting crowd in front of it.
“We have to do something,” Octavia growled, surprising Atlas. But looking into her eyes, hard with resolve but wavering at the edges with fear, he felt himself nod. “You said you wanted that camp to be a new home. A new home to who?”
Atlas struggled not to shrink under her tone. Despite how he towered over her, his older sister had always been able to tear him down with one accusatory look. Her words flipped over in his mind, as did the last few weeks. Rayne appeared in his mind, smiling shakily as she sat quietly while he poked and prodded at her, standing in the corner of a building she was allowed but not welcomed in.
“Rayne,” Octavia answered her own question, her face softening slightly. Atlas nodded, the noise and bustle of their surroundings fading.
“I reduced it down to science, O,” he said quietly. “They’re not humans like us, but hating them the way we do is like hating an animal because it has four legs. We could make a home for them.”
“Just for them?” Octavia asked, eyes narrowing. She tilted her head in the direction of where the mermaid-like girl was still standing, now with an equally young woman who blushed as the mermaid’s fingers played with the dark hair.
“For anyone,” Atlas amended immediately. Octavia nodded once.
“Then we ought to make a better entrance,” she said darkly, her eyes lighting.
And she was right. They needed people for the abandoned camp. But they needed to make those people mobile first. And then they had to yell loudly enough that people heard them and moved to them. Atlas looked around, his gaze connecting briefly with Greyar’s as they shared similar thoughts of how to upend one of the most advanced camps known in old California.
“WE BEEN HERE for days,” Gerred hissed, halting his storming pacing long enough to glare at the rest of the group as he spoke, before continuing his finite path. Arriel bit back a reaction, agreeing with him but knowing better than to allow agitation and restlessness cloud her perception.
Nicotey sighed. They had been in Meedra for days, four exactly. A long time in one place when on a mission. They were all on edge, not used to these conditions–sedentary, and lost. Nicotey looked back down at the sketches of maps and notes sprawled on the floor in front of them, his fingers making his hair spike up like dark, jagged peaks on the edge of a cliff. They had no leads whatsoever, not even a hint of where the hybrid could be. Arriel had never had so little direction, and never felt so useless.
“He got to be here, or near here,” Sky grumbled. “I feel it,” he added, almost desperately. His twin huffed and turned his head away, towards the wall next to Arriel’s head. She carefully angled her head so that their gazes would not accidentally touch. But Sky looked directly at her.
“Arri?” he tried in a soft, sweet voice, periwinkle eyes peering up through ash blonde hair. Arriel swallowed and looked down, feeling an unreasonable amount of shame wash through her. Sky had always been able to turn on the big, sad eyes and the sweet little voice, pleading her to hesitantly use her unique skills for their use. When they’d been younger, he’d managed to convince her to play pranks despite her discomfort, successful every time.
“She can’t help locate something, idiot,” Day snorted, but his brother scowled. Arriel lifted her head and glared at him, insulted.
“We need to find something to do,” he retorted, which in turn only fueled Gerred further.
“Well Nico rathers we sit on our asses ’til he just comes strolling in,” he sneered. “Now if Arri like to reveal whatever freak radar they’ve all got for those–”
“Enough,” Nicotey said harshly, not changing his position. He didn’t even look up, but his voice held enough authority and force behind it that there was immediate silence.
Arriel silently glanced out the window she stood beside, uneasy at the increased voices. The window was just a square of open space in the stucco wall, a scrap of fabric nailed to the top to provide a bit of privacy, but nothing blocked the sound. The narrow dirt street outside wasn’t the main one, but the sounds of Meedra’s yards and central marketplace were still quite clear. Enough people filled this street that Arriel was sure they minded their own business, until her gaze halted on one who stuck out.
The man was large, seemingly even more so than Gerred. His hair was as dark as Nicotey’s, but longer and more jagged as if he’d taken a knife and slashed until it wasn’t in his equally dark, sharp eyes. He stood off to the side of the street, across and down several meters from her, leaning against a building lazily, but Arriel could see the tension and knew his eyes did not slide aimlessly but scanned intently. In a crowd of moving people, he stood still. He stuck out. Arriel snorted mentally before dismissing him and turning back to the room of men.
Who had gone quiet and were looking at her. She raised an eyebrow.
“We need a quiet way to figure out who the hybrid is, and grab him,” Nicotey said, and Arriel was sure it was for the hundredth time. But she bit back a sigh and nodded. “You alright?”
Gerred was looking at her with his lower lip between his teeth, his jaw working. She nodded again.
IT WAS FUNNY to watch his sister’s husband as the man watched her talk to a boy who couldn’t be older than Atlas. Even from their distance of five small buildings down the street, Atlas could see the boy’s wide eyes, making him look even more childish with his lanky frame and the coal black mess on his head. Greyar shifted beside him, and Atlas bit down his smirk from being too obvious. The man had been shifting and glowering for the next three minutes, as soon as Octavia had suddenly stopped walking and they’d turned to see her with one hand on the boy’s shoulder and the other reaching up as if to touch the back of his head. She hadn’t, though, instead her arm had fallen back to her side and her hand had slipped from his shoulder to loosely grip his elbow. And the boy’s eyes had rivaled the moon and he seemed to be hanging onto every word.
Greyar had urged Atlas to give them some space, but now regretted that. Why, Atlas hadn’t an idea. The more he looked at the boy Octavia seemed to be lecturing, the more he realized he was an Other. The tall but thin build, as if his bones had lengthened but he’d never been able to keep the muscle on. The hunched way he carried himself, whether out of fear like Rayne had or in effort to keep out of notice. Appearing a weakling, but so very not. And the skin. The boy wore sleeves and a hood despite the warm sun bearing down on the camp’s streets, making Atlas feel warm in his thin t-shirt. Against the black hair, his light skin looked translucent.
“An Other just out in the open? Here?” Greyar grumbled, making Atlas frown. He was right. “Wonder if her actions are really so good for the kid.”
Atlas swallowed. He’d tried to do something good for Rayne, and it had ended up hurting her more. But then Greyar shrugged, and his tone was lighter as he clapped Atlas’s back.
“But hey, another recruit for utopia?” he grinned.