In the rust-filled Miranda valley, fourteen-year-old Bex Hardy and her friends are more concerned about the start of their divisions at Miranda Technical Division School in two weeks than the poisoned river running through their town and fuel rations from the war on the eastern horizon. One night, they stop to help a girl who’s been hurt in the woods, assuming it’s a good deed before they head back home, late for curfew again. But what started as a simple encounter turns more serious when they learn that the girl is a wanted fugitive from the war. With the militia hot on her trail and her story becoming more complicated by the hour, Bex and her friends have to decide whether to turn her in to the authorities for arson and murder, or follow her story of vengeance, conspiracy, and lost love until its end, risking their lives and their town along the way.
Genre: Alternate history western
Word Count: 82,000
Similar to: the kick-ass heroines of Legend by Marie Lu and Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman, the twist on the western in the Gold Seer Trilogy by Rae Carson, the sepia tones and faraway war in Royden Lepp’s Rust, and groups of kids who find secrets bigger than they imagined in Brian K. Vaughn’s Paper Girls and Stranger Things
Tentatively titled. Images for inspiration, credit for left illustration to Chris Riddell.
An orange sun sets in front of us as we speed west. The light turns the whole valley as red as rust, makes our skin look that same color of decaying iron, and I shiver at the sight of it, deep in my blood.
A few days ago, a sunset like this might have bowled me over with its dazzle of color, but now it just makes me glower. I glare at the sun, which does what it’s supposed to every day, no matter what goes on in the world it shines down on. I frown at the open-top truck and the speed that we’re traveling, my three captors and me. I scowl hard at them in the front, one on either side of the car, and the one in the backseat to my right.
Three men— boys, really, not much older than me— were lucky enough to have caught up to me on the road yesterday. All by their lonesome, when a whole troop of soldiers have been after me for months and they all never even got close. I should’ve known that a truck slowing down on that highway wasn’t looking to help a girl fill up her gasoline tank, no matter their innocent grins.
Before I knew it, they’d pulled over, asked my name so quick I couldn’t hide the flinch of truth, and hauled me into their truck, leaving mine sitting by the side of the road where I’d stopped to pee. I watched out the back window as the old rusted thing got smaller and smaller, then disappeared when we went over a hill and far away, into the night and toward the Unified Territories.
Luck, they said it was, that they run across a fugitive from the conflict.
Luck? I don’t think so. They knew exactly where to find me. Haven’t said it, haven’t said much of anything, except that I’m sunk, that my running days are over. Maybe they’re right— I haven’t figured out how to make my escape. And I got a bad feeling I know exactly who they’re taking me to see.
The truck jounces hard into a pothole in the barely-marked highway. I slide in my seat even though my left wrist is cuffed to the door, right into the trooper sitting next to me. We both glare at each other, and I pull myself back to the other side of the truck. The busted highway is more proof than the ragged sign we passed half hour ago that we’ve entered the rough, untamed part of the Unified Territories. There ain’t much good along the borders. Not much good in the Bellows, where I’ve just come from, and not in Keeler where I grew up. Not anywhere, not anymore.
I stare out the window at the hills, see a town up ahead nestled in the crook of the valley next to the river we’ve been following. It’s all scrubland here, stubby bush-like trees and grasses crisp and red from summer. Bulging, tall silos dot the riverside, and it’s a strange sight. I’m not sure where we’re headed anymore. I was on my way to the City in the Unified Territories, close to the heart of the rot, trying to find someone trustworthy enough to take the story I got and run with it. Maybe there’s no hope for that.
Should’ve known I couldn’t do it on my own. I was told as much, over and over again, and I kick the side of the truck hard, angry all over at myself for not listening when I could have.
“Lighten up, girl,” says the driver, glancing at me in the rearview mirror. “We ain’t far yet.”
“You never said where we’re going,” I say. “Y’all realize how it looks, doncha? Kidnapping a girl and all?”
“Don’t know that it matters much, if the girl in question is wanted for arson and murder,” he says, and I shut my mouth. “You’re lucky we ain’t supposed to take you all the way into the City, with that big reward on your head.”
My ears perk up. “You been hired to find me?”
“Didn’t have to look so hard,” the trooper next to me says. “Not when we got the intel right from the Major’s own camp.”
My blood runs cold, starts to pound hard in my ears. “What’d you say?”
But they button up, and in their quiet I make my own decisions and finally listen to what my sorry, stupid heart was saying.
All this time, in all this running, after the mineland and the chase and the explosions, and even though he acted as my friend, I got played for a complete fool.
As the truck bounces in and out of another hole in this sorry excuse for a highway, as the town in the distance gets closer and closer, as the three troopers give me the silent treatment, I feel the anger build up in me fresh anew, cuz this time I know— by the rain, rust, and blood— that there ain’t no getting out of this one.