The Walls of Freedom (The Changing Earth Series) by Sara F. Hathaway by Sara F. Hathaway - Read Online

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The Walls of Freedom (The Changing Earth Series) - Sara F. Hathaway

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"Mom, why are we headed north? Star asked. Shouldn’t we be headed south to get Grandma Nancy?"

Erika paused for a moment before answering; she'd always loved it when Star called her mom. Remembering the brutal assault that had taken Star’s mother from her after the Great Quake hit, Erika had never regretted the decision of taking the child as her own. She watched Star catch her golden hair out of the air and tie it back with a piece of material. Star’s hair had always been beautiful, but now her eighteen-year-old body had developed into that of a gorgeous woman, rippled with muscles. Her crystal blue eyes stared into Erika’s, awaiting a response.

No, Star. Grandma is safe in Texas, and that is exactly where the soldiers would expect us to go. We are headed north. Daddy’s mom and dad are there and if we keep our heads down and move swiftly, we may be able to live there, Erika answered calmly.

Every fiber in her body wanted to head south and find her mother, but it was Vince’s turn to find his family. Vince and Erika Moore had spent ten years in a refugee camp in Las Vegas after the Great Quake that shook the world. They had survived the catastrophe that befell California as its coasts flooded, but they were left landless and trapped. Although their love had always remained strong, their faith in their future did not. Everything changed when the couple found out that Vince’s parents were alive and in possession of their family land in Minnesota.

That’s right, Vince agreed. His brown curly hair bounced out from under his camouflaged hat. He had a smile across his face and his hazel eyes were alight in their deeply set sockets. My parents survived and made it to Minnesota. They’re looking for us. We have to let them know that we made it. That we’ve been held up in some damn refugee camp against our will all these years. It will probably give them both a heart attack to see us again! He chuckled softly at the joke.

Erika was tickled silly to see this much enthusiasm in her husband’s demeanor. Ten years ago when the Great Quake hit, Vince’s parents had been on vacation up in Washington, visiting with his grandmother. Instincts told Erika that Vince had worried continually about their well-being, but he had done his best to cover it up for all those years. She understood that communications across the country had been difficult to establish at first but the realization that the government had been detaining them in that camp for all those years while Vince’s parents searched for them made her blood boil. Someone should have made the connection, she grumbled to herself. When the man in charge finally realized the mistake, he’d attempted to have Erika and her family killed. He was up for a big promotion and wasn’t going to let any incidents blemish his record.

Good thing for Sergeant Bennet, Erika thought to herself. The Sergeant had been pivotal in getting her family out of the Las Vegas Refugee Camp. She smiled a little, thinking of him. She had hated the man but grew to love him and then hate him again. It was always complicated, but he had been a strong mentor who had taught her how to survive and become a better person than she had been. The last Erika had seen of him was when he arrested her so her family would not be killed by the FEMA camp soldiers. Erika had not known it was for her own good. She had cursed him fiercely, but he had saved her and her family and now they were running toward freedom.

Okay then, back to Tahoe we go! Star quickly agreed with Vince. She was excited to see something that had been familiar at one time.

We’ll see, Star, Erika replied. We have no idea what’s out there now. We have to move carefully.

Erika had taken off her hat and retied her long brown hair into a ponytail that she stuck through the back of the cap as she slid it back on. All of them had on their camouflage rescue team uniforms that they had worn so proudly not so long ago. Their job had been to go into towns that were abandoned or under immediate threat of disaster and salvage supplies before they were lost or destroyed. While on the squad Erika’s team had always worked hard and done a fine job. Her friends and family joined together to make one heck of a unit for the government officials they despised. It had all fallen apart they day the officials put two and two together and found out they had wrongly imprisoned landowners for ten years. They had not only been wrongly detained in the FEMA camp, but the classification as refugees combined with the new infertility law meant Erika, Vince, Star and her oldest son, Dexter, could no longer bear children. The Infertilization Law had made it mandatory for any refugee over the age of thirteen to receive a sterilization procedure, but it was an outrage to have landowners sterilized. Erika and her family were an accidental side effect of the system—and one secret that would easily be kept quiet if Erika’s family no longer lived. They did, thanks to Sergeant Bennet.

Speaking of... Dexter said as he got up and wiped his hands on the sides of his pants. He was tall and lanky with steely grey eyes and sandy brown hair. He looked downwards to his mother as he addressed her. I think Star and I should go scout ahead.

Erika was still getting used to looking up to her baby boy. That’s fine. We can give Daniel a few more minutes of rest, then, she said, looking down at her youngest son. He looked so cute all curled up on one of their blankets with his brown hair resting on a backpack. His stocky build and never-ending energy supply usually allowed him to keep pace even though he was only nine years old, but they had walked far and had even further to go. He needed the rest. You guys be careful and take your guns and your packs.

We know, Mom, Star assured her, checking the magazine in one of the AR-15 rifles Sergeant Bennet had ensured they escaped with.

You need more ammo? Vince asked, watching his children gear up.

Nope, I’m good, Star said, popping the magazine back into the rifle.

The two teens headed off into the thick of the pine forest. Vince slid over closer to Erika as they finished their allotment of meat. His lips felt the gentle rippling of scars left behind on her body from her experience with the Great Quake as he kissed the nape of her neck, but he didn’t care. Every bit of her body was what made her perfect to him. Her small, muscular frame and take-charge attitude suited him just fine.

Really, Vince? Erika countered shyly.

What? he said, kissing her again.

She felt his warmth and nuzzled her face into his body. We can’t. Not now.

Why not?" Vince advanced again, knowing his soft touch was having an effect on her.

Because, she countered, shoving him away. Daniel could wake up any time, the kids could return at any time and, if you’ve forgotten, we are on the run.

I know...isn’t it exciting, Vince said, quickly backing off and regaining his composure.

If we make it through the next few days, then we’ll worry about that. Erika just wanted to think and plan. That’s what she had been trained to do. She was focused and knew they should be on high alert one hundred percent of the time.

Isn’t that why we should? What if we don’t make it through the next few days? Vince urged, trying to win her over.

Vince! I can’t believe you said that. Erika stared back at him. Of course we’re going to make it, and we’ll have plenty of time then.

See, if there’s no problem, then why not now? he questioned slyly, trying to touch her breast.

Now you’re just talking me in circles. Erika saw clearly through his plan.

Okay...okay, Vince replied, withdrawing his hand from her body. We’ll go north to check out Washington and maybe get some news about Canada. That should be enough time to get the trackers good and confused. Then we’ll head east to Minnesota.

Sounds good to me, Erika agreed. Distraught about what their future would hold, she trusted in the fact they were together and they would face the future as a family.

Erika watched Vince’s eyelids begin to flutter as he dozed off in the sunlight. She was on high alert, her ears rapidly analyzing every sound in the forest. Often times, she had marveled at how quickly Vince could fall asleep. She had spent many nights jealous of his ability while she lay awake tossing and turning with ideas racing around her head.

There was no time for both of them to sleep now. One of them had to stay on guard. The government soldiers were hot on their trail and just the thought of them tracking her family kept the adrenaline pumping through Erika’s veins. Even if she wanted to, there was no way she would be falling asleep anytime soon. Her eyes rapidly scanned the perimeter and she listened to the birds singing happily in the trees. When their songs turned into a warning call, she stood up with her rifle in hand and waited for the cause to come into view.

Dexter and Star crept along quietly through the tree line and gave a whistle that sounded similar to a bird chirp to announce their arrival to their mother. Star had felt that Erika was getting twitchy and she wasn’t going to startle an excited woman with a gun. When they heard their mother reply, the two young adults revealed their location. Seeing the surprised look in her mother’s eyes, Star knew they must have gotten much closer to Erika than Erika had realized. Star had so much respect for Erika’s ability to survive and adapt in any situation, she constantly honed her skills in hopes of one day surpassing her mother. She wanted to be able to care for the woman as attentively as Erika had cared for her all these years.

Vince bounced awake like he had never closed his eyes as soon as he heard the chatter of his family. So what’s out there, son? Vince asked Dexter.

A lot of trees, Dex declared as he set his pack down and plopped down on a gnarly stump. Most of them look like they’ve seen some fires in the last few years.

We smelt the stink of the coast, which means we weren’t too far off, Star added to the conversation. Water dripped off her chin as she drank from her canteen.

Yeah, but here the wind blows in from the west a lot more, carrying the marine layer inward, or at least it used to, Erika retorted to Star’s assumption.

So, what do you guys think? Vince asked. Should we use the coastline as our guide and assume not many people are over in that mess or should we pick our way north along the eastern slope of the mountains?

There was an eerie silence as the sound of the wind blew through the tall pine trees. No one knew what to do. They were all guessing at what the world was now. The quiet grew heavy in the air as each one of the family members fidgeted with their gear and considered the possibilities.

Where do you guys think we’ll find food? Dexter queried his parents, finally breaking the silence.

They had been traveling for days now, sleeping as little as possible and covering ground as quickly as they could. It had burned a lot of calories in each of their bodies and they were running very low on supplies.

I’m not sure, Dex... Vince considered the question carefully. The ocean will be of no use to us, but the mountains have lots of resources your mom studied before we were locked up.

All eyes turned to Erika. That’s true, Vince, but it has been a while since we’ve been here, and who know how much the geography has changed due to the quakes? Plus, you know as well as I do they guard the east side of the of the badlands pretty well. I don’t know how we would avoid the thermal scans.

The family shook their heads in agreement. Daniel was still sleeping peacefully, snuggled under his blanket with his head resting on his small pack.

We need to keep moving, Mom, Star said impatiently, nudging Erika to rouse her little brother. She had seen her mom’s eyes on him, carefully watching him breathe.

I know, Star, Erika replied, not wanting to wake Daniel when he looked so angelic lying there.

Which way then, coast or mountains? Dexter wanted finality. He stood back up and grabbed his pack. I’m good either way. We’re free and what an adventure this is going to be!

Vince looked at Erika, wishing he shared the young man’s enthusiasm. He looked over each one of his family members. Dirt from the long trek coated their faces and rings from sleepless nights outlined their eyes.

Let’s go along the coastline. We have our water filters and hopefully we can scrounge some food along the way. What do you think, baby? he asked Erika.

I think it’s a plan, then! Erika declared, forcing herself to bounce joyfully to her feet. She wanted to help spread the positive energy Dexter was projecting to the family. She went over and softly roused Daniel. He sheepishly stood up, and his muscle memory caused him to instinctually grab his pack and his rifle and fall into line behind his older siblings. Vince and Erika always brought up the rear so they could be certain nobody fell behind and no one was following them.

Carefully, they changed direction. They had to make sure they were not breaking too many branches or leaving too many slug trails. Both Erika and Vince knew any drag marks would immediately show the trackers which way they had gone.

Chapter 2

It took two more days for them to reach the coast, which was actually much closer than it had been ten years ago. The ocean’s constant assault on ground that had previously been vast mountainside had eroded it drastically. Ships, old and rusted, smashed into the side of the hill and mixed with the cars and building debris as the toxic ocean tide pushed the remnants of the past in and out.

The family was completely exhausted by the time the coastline came into view. The last time they had stopped to rest Vince had been complaining about the skin on his butt hurting from the constant grinding of cloth on skin, and Erika was starting to feel the pain of the constant rubbing as well. Watching Dexter’s legs wobble underneath him, Erika could feel the blisters on her feet and knew her family members were probably feeling the same swelling in their boots. No one had any patience left and they snapped angrily at one another. Vince tried to calm the situation and keep them all working together, but his efforts were futile as the extreme exhaustion set in deep.

We have to stop for a while, Erika exclaimed, watching her small son move like a zombie across the dirt.

We have to keep going, Mom, Star insisted. Poor Daniel is just going to have to buck up. We’re free and I want to stay that way, she snapped angrily.

Listen to yourself, sweetie. Vince stepped in as he watched the fury well in Erika’s eyes. He wasn’t going to have a catfight on his hands. Mom’s right, we have to make a camp and rest. I mean really rest and heal our feet. Then we can keep going.

I hate to say it, Star, but I think Mom and Dad are right. My feet are killing me and who would have thought we’d come all the way out here or make it so quickly, anyway. Dexter was beat.

Fine, whatever. Star stomped around in a pouty demeanor.

Come on, Star...You know you need a rest too, Erika said softly to her daughter. She knew why Star was such a machine. Her whole life had been cut short at eight years old and she had to work every moment of her life to survive. It had been no different at the refugee camp, looking the way she did, in that place. Erika had spent long hours of the night training her in self defense and killing techniques so Star would never be vulnerable like her mom had been.

Your right, I’m beat, Star confessed, relenting to her exhaustion.

The family began to search for an ideal location and after some arguments over the perfect spot, they chose one. It was a rocky area not too far from the ocean. There were two flat rocks that formed an L shape, and the family decided it was worth the risk to build a small fire here. The shape of the rocks would reflect the heat from their fire back onto them, giving the tiny fire an enhanced heating effect.

There were fallen trees laid randomly around the rock formation and some old lodge pole pines, now looking pretty sickly, still standing. They were perfect for tying the tarp off to. The tarps would help the fire keep the family warm by shielding them from the ocean mist that hung heavy in the air.

The afternoon was wearing on as the camp was finally finished and all the sleeping areas had been designated. Vince and Dexter decided to go out on a small hike to see if they could find something to eat. Erika sat with Daniel snuggled up next to her, watching the flames dance in the fire. Erika finally felt at peace, relaxing by the cozy fire with her baby next to her. She gently rocked his little body as she hummed a song from her past.

Star paced around nervously. The stress of the situation was lying heavily on her shoulders. She was so tired but knew she had to stay attentive until her brother and father got back. Her golden blond hair swished furiously as she turned to pace back over her footsteps. Her boots dragged heavily over the ground and she tripped over a rock. Turning to curse it, suddenly she froze.

Did you hear that, Mom? Star whispered to Erika.

Hear what? Erika was so tired and so content she didn’t want to hear anything right now. She was guessing Star was just overreacting. It’s probably just Dad and Dex, Erika replied, dismissing her.

You’re probably right, Star replied. She wanted it to be true. She was so exhausted. Slowly she continued her pacing, keeping her ears perked to any sound.

As she turned to walk back to her mother she felt the cold steel of a gun in the back of her neck.

Well, y’all look what we got here, two girls with one small boy. It must be our lucky day, the man behind her said with a thick southern accent.

Told you I could smell a female a mile away, said another young man, stepping out from the bushes.

I heard those sweet voices on the wind way before y’all smelt them, the man with the gun argued with his comrade.

Two more teenage-looking boys appeared with machetes. Erika was frozen, hugging Daniel as he shook with fear for his sister.

Let’s not get crazy here, boys, Erika said, finding her voice behind a lump in her throat.

Oh we’re gonna get crazy here, ma’am, the man with the gun said as he hopped with joy. You two are a couple of lookers for sure. Sweet as a Georgia peach, I bet.

Star looked at her mom. Erika slowly reached for her pistol but did not find it. She cursed herself, realizing she had left it in her pack. Star and Erika were surrounded now, and even though it appeared that the attackers only had one gun, it was wedged into the back of Star’s neck.

Bucket, come over here and hold this gun, boy. I need to get a look at this one. The man was itching to enjoy the spoils of his ambush.

One of the other teenage boys went and took the gun from the man behind Star. Feeling powerful, he pushed it hard into the back of her neck and caused her to lurch forward.

I’m not scared to use it, trust me, he whispered to Star.

Erika watched Star roll her eyes and knew that Star would take him in a second, but with the gun at the back of her neck and Erika seated, unarmed, on the ground they couldn’t make a move, yet.

Oh yeah...she’s a real Georgia peach, said the southern man as he stepped around Star to take a look at her.

Erika jumped as Daniel yelled, Don’t you touch my sister! The boy tried to get to his feet, but Erika jerked him down and glared at him.

That’s right, boy, you best listen to yo’ momma, the man hissed.

As Star and Erika stared at one another in disbelief a shot rang out. A surge of adrenaline rushed over Erika’s body as concern for her daughter flooded her mind, but to her surprise the boy behind Star and one of the others fell dead as their brains exploded out the side of their skulls. Erika scrambled for her side arm concealed in her pack, but before anyone could think, bang, the other boy fell dead. The southern man who had originally had the gun looked at the gun lying on the ground but didn’t approach. Star followed his line of vision and snatched the pistol up as soon as she saw it. She wheeled around and pointed the gun at the man. Without hesitation, she pulled the trigger. Click, click, click. It was empty.

Vince’s and Dexter’s boots stomped heavily into the camp. Vince had three squirrels and a rabbit slung on a rope over his shoulder. They carefully entered, never letting their rifles drift off the stranger. Fury burned in Vince’s eyes. He was just about to squeeze the trigger, but Erika jumped up.

Wait, wait, Vince... she yelled hurriedly. Information...we need information.

That’s right...y’all need information. The man saw a chance for survival and jumped on it. I can help y’all. Obviously y’all ain’t from around here.

And obviously you aren’t either, Dexter spat out hatefully as he approached the man and knocked out three of his teeth with the barrel of his gun.

Guess I deserved that, the stranger said quietly as he spat out a mouthful of blood and teeth.

No, you deserve a whole lot more, Vince seethed as he approached.

Look, mister, you got every reason to hate me. I knows that...but I can help you. Just give me a chance. I’ll tell ya’ whatever y’all want to know, he desperately pleaded with Vince.

What’s your name? Vince questioned.

My name? The name’s Clint, sir. I’m awful sorry for upsetting your womenfolk, the stranger stammered.

Well, Clint! That’s my wife and my daughter and you’re not sorry for upsetting them, you’re just sorry you got caught and your friends are dead, so let’s not play any more games. Are we clear? Vince was furious. He face glowed red in the moonlight.

I hear ya’, mister. Wouldn’t want any men pressing on my family. If I still had any, Clint replied, trying to play the sympathy card.

Just shut up for now. Vince was so tired he didn’t even want to think anymore. Dex, Star, get some of our extra line and tie him to that tree, right there.

Right there, Dad? So close to camp? Dex wasn’t sure that was such a good idea and wanted to assert his opinion.

Just do it dammit! Vince snapped back at the adolescent male. He wasn’t open to suggestions at this point. Make sure it’s tight. You keep your friends close and your enemies closer, son. That way if he has any more friends out there we can kill him before they reach him.

Dexter saw the sense in this, and he and his sister quickly snapped into action. Vince went over and hugged Erika and Daniel.

You okay, baby? he softly whispered.

Yeah, we’re fine. No rest for the wicked, Erika teased with him, kicking herself for having let her guard down.

He kissed her and handed her the animals he and Dex had shot. She had always been better at gutting and skinning than him, and he no longer had the strength or the patience for it now.

Clint winced in pain as Star and Dexter wrapped his hands back around the tree and pulled the rope into place. The rope burned into the tree and Erika was sure that man wasn’t going anywhere.

Star approached with the Colt 1911 pistol she had secured off of Bucket. What should I do with this, Mom? she asked Erika.

Keep it, toss it, I don’t care. It’s a 45 MM pistol and our ammo is 9mm. It’s no better than a club to us, Erika commented, looking it over. It’s a shame because it’s a nice gun too.

Handing the 1911 back to Star, Erika called Daniel to her side. She handed him her pistol and grabbed the limp, dead animals to go skin them. Daniel’s silence was awkward and Erika could feel a question burning in his mind.

Mom? he finally asked as they climbed over the boulders along the trail.

Yeah, she answered.

Dex and Dad killed those men, Mom. Daniel had tears in his eyes. When we were out on mission those soldiers killed those people but dad and Dex aren’t soldiers.

Erika had never tried to shield her children from this horrible nightmare of a world they were now living in. But Daniel had somehow been different; he was so innocent. Having been born in the refugee camp, Erika didn’t tell him all the details of the life they had to survive after the quake. There was no time for sheltering the boy now. They were back in survival mode, a kill or be killed reality. For better or worse, decisions had to be made and there could be no hesitation.

"No, Daniel, they aren’t soldiers, but out here we don’t have the soldiers to protect us. We have to protect ourselves. It’s all about the family and taking care of