Riley hasn't seen her boyfriend Clay or her nine-year-old brother Ethan for two months. Between violent road gangs and ongoing clashes between the Breeders and the Free Colonies, are they even still alive? But Riley will never stop looking. Her search takes her to Kirtland Air Force Base, where she finds the remains of a battle and one glimmer of hope: rumors of the boys heading toward the Free Colonies and a man who can help her get there. The only catch? He nearly murders Riley the first time they meet.
Meanwhile, Clay, Ethan, and Betsy struggle to steer clear of bandits, thieves, and slavers. Their water is gone, along with Clay’s memory and Ethan's patience for Betsy, who only makes things worse by trying to convince Clay they're in love. With Clay's mind muddy, it’s up to Ethan to keep them alive long enough for Riley to find them.
The route back together is paved with trials—and how many more have to pay for their freedom with their lives?
He’d seen flashes of Seven in the rearview, racing along the roadside behind him, ducking in and out of debris, cactus, and brush. He’d stunned it, that much he knew for sure. Zapped it good from six feet away with his Taser, a killer shot by anyone’s standards, but it had recovered so quickly. It was then Beetle realized he never should have come alone, or this late in the day. Now, with no sun to charge the solar car and no juice in the batteries, he was a few minutes away from having to run.
And that would be a problem.
He’d tracked the damn thing all afternoon. The crumbled city was a veritable labyrinth of places for it to hide. Every collapsed building hid dark basements and closets. Each alleyway had piles of bricks and trash, perfect hiding spots for a being as disgusting and ruthless as the one he was tracking. Then he’d found the lair. Both terrified and excited, Beetle had waded through nests of shredded fabrics, dirty sweaters, blue jeans, and kids’ blankets, all culled from the abandoned storefronts and dragged into the basement of one of the collapsed buildings on Main Street. But Subject Seven wasn’t in the nest. Satellite technology wasn’t what it used to be. That could explain the error in Dr. Washington’s calculations, but as he climbed through chunks of the abandoned town the thing called home, he had a feeling Seven was setting him up.
The damn thing knew he was coming and had laid a false trail. One he followed until it nearly took his head off.
It was smarter than they thought. And more brutal.
They’d jumped him in an alley, Subjects Seven and Eight working in tandem. He hadn’t even considered Eight could be a threat. He’d nearly had his head separated from his body before he was able to get the Taser in his hands and zap them both. Once they were on their backs, he’d given Seven a swift kick, not that he would tell anyone. Then he’d grabbed Eight and ran.
Now he glanced in the backseat at the mound beneath the blanket. Eight—unconscious and safe. If he brought Subject Eight back, he’d receive a hero’s welcome. Dr. Washington could continue her experiments and “set the world straight again.” And if he failed? He didn’t know who he was more afraid of—the other doctors or Subject Seven.
His foot pressed the acceleration pedal to the floor, but the car continued to creep along, lurching like a drunk toward home. Only minutes left until the juice ran out. Until he was stranded.
“Come on, you bastard,” he said through gritted teeth. He pressed his foot down until it hurt, but the car continued to slow.
“Oh God,” he breathed, his fingers trembling as he glanced into the rearview. Where was Seven?
The solar car meant safety, a solid steel-alloy frame with giant all-terrain tires. What would he do when it finally died? How in the hell did he think he’d get away on foot carrying the nearly seventy-pound cargo? He couldn’t leave Eight behind. Dr. Washington would banish him to the desert.
The Taser should’ve laid Subject Seven out longer. Beetle thought a zap that powerful might’ve killed the thing. That one error might mean the end of his life.
The car slammed to a stop. Beetle’s chest rammed into the steering wheel, shooting pain up his sternum. Eight rolled off the seat and banged into him from behind. He hoped it was okay. He pressed the accelerator once more, but nothing happened. His wheels were stuck, and the car’s battery was almost dead.
“Sonofabitch!” he screamed, pounding the steering wheel until it hurt. Why wasn’t he paying attention to the road? Goddamn it, he was not going to die. He was not!
Glancing out the windows and seeing nothing but buttes and scraggly cactus, Beetle swung open the door and stepped out. The concrete in front of him had fallen away, tumbling into a broken pile on the bottom of a three-foot crevice that cut jaggedly across the road. It had probably been created by those earthquakes they’d felt a few months ago. His front wheel had gotten lodged in the crack. If he had seen it, he probably could’ve dodged it, but he was preoccupied with looking in the rearview. He leaned down and considered his predicament. The tire dangled into the open space, and the car was resting on its frame. If the batteries weren’t on their last legs, he could gun it in reverse and probably get free, but the car had given up the ghost.
“Shit! Shit, shit, shit!” he yelled, and then regretted it, swinging around to look for Seven. So far, nothing. Dear Christman Jesus, he had to hurry.
God, how far was he from the base? In the distance, he could see the dip in the road that led home. Why had Dr. Washington sent him alone? Why wasn’t the team watching on the satellite and sending help? Maybe they were watching and didn’t care. This could all be part of Washington’s plan. To see what Subject Seven would do when provoked. As sweat poured down Beetle’s face, he decided to hell with Subject Eight. To hell with Dr. Washington. He didn’t want to be torn to pieces and left on the pavement for birds to pick at his guts.
He heard heavy breathing behind him. The hairs stood up on the back of his neck.
From his periphery, he saw the huge shape just before it clobbered him.
He fell hard. His head jarred against the pavement with a smack that radiated through his body. Blackness.
When he came to, everything was blurry, fuzzy shapes in brown, yellow, and green. He couldn’t remember… Subject Seven. When he turned, pain shot up into his head sharp enough for his consciousness to fade. He blinked his eyes into focus.
Subject Seven was tearing the solar car apart in a frenzy. Beetle heard the creak of complaining metal as the door was bent back.
“Ssstop,” Beetle slurred. Where was the Taser? His trembling hands crept down his sides, searching for pockets that seemed miles away. The pulsing pain at the back of his skull threatened to end him, but he couldn’t take his eyes off Dr. Washington’s greatest achievement. And her worst.
“Don’t take it,” he managed.
Subject Seven turned and pounced.
Beetle’s breath chuffed away as Seven slammed both hands into his chest. He gulped for oxygen, but there was none to be found. His eyes opened to see Seven’s face above his, evaluating, calculating. There was no mercy in that gaze.
The last thing he felt was the blow to his skull.