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Cast Aside - Nicole Ciacchella

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Copyright

Cast Aside

Wasteland Trilogy, Book 1

by Nicole Ciacchella

Books by Nicole Ciacchella

Astoran Asunder, a Fantasy Series

A House Divided, book 1

Catalyst, book 2

Court of Illusion, book 3

Web of Deceit, book 4

Reckoning, book 5

Contributor, a Dystopian Trilogy

Creators, a prequel novella

Contributor, book 1

Infiltrator, book 2

Instigator, book 3

Fairytale Collection

The Eye of the Beholder (Beauty and the Beast retold)

Asleep (Sleeping Beauty reimagined)

From the Ashes (Cinderella reimagined)

Chaotic Beauty (Beauty and the Beast reimagined)

Romantic Comedies

Phoning It In

Committed (an 8-episode serial)

Derailed

Starstruck

Prejudice, Persuasion, and Sensibility

Romance

Overcome

Wasteland, an Apocalyptic Trilogy

Cast Aside, book 1

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Chapter 1

Hunger raked razor claws through Alessandro's stomach as he woke, making him aware of every aching muscle in his body. Running his tongue over his swollen gums, he winced as he prodded a loose tooth, his lips twisting at the metallic taste in his mouth. It was a typical morning, his hunger a beast that was never sated.

Covering his eyes with his arm to block the invasive morning light, he considered not bothering to get up. What was the point? Food supplies were running out, even if the Creators claimed otherwise. They didn't have to go without, so pretending nothing had changed was easy for them. Jobs, technology, money, resources, all were under the Creators' control. Severe deprivation for them was going without a cup of coffee to accompany their bacon and eggs.

Meanwhile, basic staples for those not fortunate enough to work for the Creators had begun to run thin months ago, rice and flour becoming as precious as sugar. Every time people asked, the distribution centers' workers said it was nothing more than a glitch, a systems problem, food intended for one distribution center mistakenly routed to another.

The Creators will clear it up in a few days, I assure you, one of the workers, safely tucked behind several inches of safety glass, had told Alessandro three days earlier, the last day he'd bothered to go to the center. She hadn't been one of the better liars. A sheen of panic had glossed her eyes, and her smile had been so brittle he had been surprised her teeth hadn't shattered. The guy two stalls down, on the other hand, had maintained an expression so neutral he had almost looked like an android.

Rage had washed over Alessandro, and he'd nearly started screaming at her.

She's just a cog too, he'd had to remind himself. A lucky cog, for sure, but a cog just the same.

Alessandro's family had once been a family of lucky cogs, but as resources had grown scarcer, his parents had found it harder and harder to secure the day labor that had once sustained the family. Alessandro had wanted to help out, but his parents had insisted he stay in school, their faith in the Creators' empty words so unshakable they had truly believed school would provide a way out for their sons.

Work hard, Ando, and you'll reap the rewards, his father had insisted, and the memory of the earnestness of his father's face still made Alessandro's heart ache. The Creators choose the most dedicated students. Remember that. Remember that they're always watching, that you need to prove to them you're worth a chance.

Worth a chance.

Grimacing, Alessandro dropped his arm to his side, his cheek twitching. His younger brother, Enzo, was still asleep next to him, so he bit back a grim laugh. It was better if Enzo slept. He'd feel the pinch of hunger less.

Moving carefully, Alessandro forced himself to rise at last. Enzo, he'd do it for Enzo. Their father had long since given up, disappearing into dirty jars of rotgut, and though their mother had held on for longer, life had ground her down until it had snuffed her out. When she died, Alessandro had finally dropped out of school, and his father hadn't said a word. Alessandro was all Enzo had left, and no matter how tempted he might be to cash in his chips, he'd keep scraping by as long as he could. Enzo deserved at least that much.

Pulling on his ragged clothes, Alessandro flattened his palms over his raw, burning eyes, trying to find some relief. The dust blanketing the streets made them stream, the crud accumulating in the corners, cemented by his tears, but he didn't have the scratch to trade for a pair of goggles. Most of the scrappers didn't, so they learned to tolerate the discomfort.

His threadbare bandanna was still damp as he tied it around his face, but he didn't bother feeling thankful for it. A wet bandanna was better at filtering out irritating particles, but water was so scarce he couldn't afford to dampen it every time the dry air sucked the moisture from it. Washing it each night was an extravagance, but it was the one luxury he afforded himself. Otherwise, the bandanna grew so foul he couldn't bear to wear it, and he'd spend the night curled in on himself, trying to muffle the coughs that wracked his body as his inflamed lungs worked to expel the foreign invaders within.

Ando? Enzo murmured, his lids heavy as he struggled to pull himself from the depths of his dreams. He blinked at his older brother and tried to sit up.

Hey, buddy. Why don't you sleep more? Prima won't need you for another hour or so, Alessandro said. He hated that his brother had to work. He was a little boy who should be playing, kicking rusty cans and clods of dirt down the street as other kids did.

Yeah, kids who can't find jobs, so they have nothing but time—and also nothing to eat.

Enzo, on the other hand, got lunch from Prima each day as part of his pay, and often it was his sole meal. Alessandro had no idea where she got her supplies, but she somehow managed to ensure a steady flow of grain—albeit moldy and infested with weevils—for her illicit distillery. The abominable quality didn't stop many people from drinking the searing turpentine she called alcohol, making her one of the wealthiest, most powerful women in the district.

The bitter irony of the fact that the drink that was killing his father kept his brother fed didn't escape Alessandro, and though he hated Enzo being around the drunks that frequented Prima's establishment, at least he knew his brother was safe there. Prima was as tough as cracked leather, and she was guarded by her well-paid thugs, making her bar one of the safest places in the city. Plus, despite the illegal nature of her work and the people it attracted, Prima had a touch of softness in her heart. She never beat Enzo, unlike some of the other adults who exploited the local kids, and the work she gave him, though demanding, wasn't harsh or backbreaking.

Acid flooded Alessandro's mouth at the thought that this was the best he could hope to give his brother.

'Kay, Enzo said, his voice a sleepy mumble that caused a painful lurch in Alessandro's chest.

He had to go, but his feet carried him back to his brother first, and he ran his palm over Enzo's bristling, unkempt head. Have a good day, he said, dropping a kiss on his brother's forehead.

Enzo's only response was to snuffle. Alessandro wanted to linger, but if he was late, Toyun would give his job to someone else.

Hauling his tattered pack over his shoulder, he stepped out into the suffocating morning.

Chapter 2

Five-thirty in the morning, and the day already promised to be a scorcher. Valeria adjusted her wide cloth headband, wound her hair up, and secured it with a plastic clip missing three teeth. Soon it would be worthless, but the clips, once a staple of the collective's long-haired workers, had become increasingly hard to come by, so she would make do with it until it no longer worked.

See you tonight, her father said, kissing her cheek. He was always the first to leave. He was responsible for the heavy farm equipment and had to run through his maintenance checklist before anyone so much as started an engine.

Don't forget to double-check— Valeria's mother began, but her father interrupted, smiling.

Yes, yes, I remember. You fuss too much, corazón, he said, kissing his wife.

Mmm. And you're not even worth fussing over, she said, pulling a face at him.

He swept her up in another playful kiss and then was gone. Valeria cast a sidelong glance at her mother, noting the dewy smile Ximena Lagunes still bore whenever she looked at her husband.

Pressure built inside Valeria, making it even harder to draw in a breath of the stifling air. If anyone were to find out it was her, she wouldn't be the only one to suffer.

Ready, baby? her mother asked.

With a mental shake, Valeria managed to muster a smile. Let's go.

Breakfast was cornmeal mush again, without even a speck of butter or a bit of salt to make it more palatable. Valeria caught her mother frowning at it, but when she noticed her daughter looking, she rolled her eyes and screwed her mouth up in exaggerated disgust.

Be nice when they get that distribution issue fixed, won't it? her mother asked.

There was no distribution issue. There was a supply issue. Neither of them acknowledged the fact aloud, as if pretending it didn't exist might make it cease to be real.

They joined the Nassars at their usual table. A few people tried to maintain casual, pleasant chatter, but pretending was becoming increasingly difficult. Valeria didn't bother anymore. Putting on a good face with her parents exhausted her, and she had no energy left for anyone else.

Fifteen minutes later, the tone sounded and everyone began shuffling out into the fields. Off in the distance, she saw her father and tried to wave at him, but he didn't see her.

Looks like it's still giving him problems, her mother said, studying her husband as he bent over a tractor engine. Her battered wide-brimmed hat shaded her eyes and obscured the expression on her face, but Valeria heard the worry her mother tried to bury under the light tone.

Zhang isn't supplying new parts. They say it's a temporary production issue and that we should jury-rig what we can in the meantime, but… her father had whispered to her mother several nights ago, his voice trailing off. His low tone hadn't concealed the strain in his words. Had he known his daughter wasn't sleeping, Valeria doubted he would have voiced his concerns out loud.

It didn't matter that she was seventeen; she was their baby, and they didn't like worrying her. She found this both touching and frustrating. Protecting her was no longer within their control, now that she was old enough to see the situation clearly, and she knew it wore on them to pretend that things were the way they'd always been, so she wished they wouldn't bother. She had tried talking to them about it but they refused to hear her. After multiple attempts, the realization that putting on a show for her was all they had left had struck her. Though she didn't mean to, every time she asked them she provided them with further proof they couldn't take care of the daughter they adored, that all their hopes, dreams, and wishful thinking would never suffice to shield her from reality.

She hadn't argued with them since, instead letting their false cheer strike at her like grains of sand, wearing away what little remained of her self-possession.

Nothing he won't be able to fix, she said with feigned confidence, maintaining the ruse. As her mother turned to attend to her work, Valeria caught the relief on her weather-lined face.

Just as she'd suspected, the sun was brutal. Her hat was in better shape than her mother's, but the glare bounced off the hard-packed earth, making her eyes sting. The sweat pouring over her brow further exacerbated the problem, her sodden headband too saturated to collect any more moisture.

Zhang claimed they continued to water the fields every night with their sophisticated irrigation system, but she knew better. She hadn't seen a drop of moisture coming out of the pipes in days, but even if Zhang had watered the fields, it wouldn't have provided the plants much of a defense from the sun's intense light. Marta had once claimed she heard the water sizzling on the plant stalks, and though she was often prone to embellishment, Valeria had believed the words to be a rare instance of the truth. Leather work gloves had once sufficed to protect the workers' hands, but over the last month or two the hardened cornstalks had become sharp as blades, stabbing and slicing clear through the protective layer. Those who picked the crops spent the bulk of what free time they had mending their deteriorating gloves, while mechanics and technicians like Joaquin Lagunes spent most of their time scrounging for bits and scraps for their increasingly creative repair efforts.

Yet there was still food, which prevented Valeria from giving up entirely. Most nights her stomach felt hollow, and though she was whip-thin and corded with muscle from long hours working in the fields, she knew she was one of the lucky ones.

Lucky. Right, she found herself thinking as she rubbed her aching back before bending over to attempt to wrestle another semi-fossilized ear of corn from a stalk. The superweeds had proved so prolific that the heavy equipment that once did the picking clogged within minutes, and the occasional need to hand-pick the crops had become the norm.

Innovations were right around the corner, Zhang promised. They would soon have the hydroponics technology necessary to grow all the food needed.

Staring at the desiccated cob in her hand as her stomach grumbled, Valeria tried to ignore the persistent voice that wondered, Who's going to get that food?

Chapter 3

We got us some snow! Serena crowed as Bobby pried open a wall with a rusty crowbar. Dust billowed out in a cloud, an aerosolized mixture of old drywall, rodent droppings, and a substance Alessandro had once dreaded but to which repeated exposure had rendered him indifferent: black mold. It furred the inside of the wall, and he knew invisible spores were floating all around him, that he'd inhale them into his nostrils, suck them into his mouth, because his bandanna was no match for the particles. He had worried incessantly about inhaling the mold when he had first started scrapping, ducking whenever a spray went up and making sure to head outside to breathe the clearer air whenever he got a break, but he no longer bothered.

You're kidding yourself, Jonas had told him. You can't escape it. That shit's coating your lungs no matter what you do.

It would kill him one day, probably, but in order to do that, he would have to survive long enough for it to do its worst. Mold inhalation was much lower on his list of worries than dehydration and starvation.

She's loco, Maria told Alessandro in a whisper calibrated to carry across the room. She crossed her eyes for emphasis.

Breathe it in, Serena said, tugging down the rag covering her mouth and nose. She planted her fists on her hips, closed her eyes, and inhaled deeply. Make you that much crazier that much sooner.

Loco, Maria said again, but this time she didn't sound so much like she was kidding.

Serena's eyes flashed and she bared her teeth in a broad grin. Life's so much more fun when you're loco.

So much more fun when you get something to eat and drink too, Kim said, which none of you will if you don't get it in gear and get moving. I couldn't buy a square of toilet paper with what we've cleared here today. She shook a cracked plastic bucket, the scrap metal inside giving a feeble rattle, as if it too were tired of it all.

Turning away from the show, Alessandro started digging inside the walls. He didn't bother saying what they all knew: most of the copper, aluminum, steel, and other non-ferrous metals were long gone, stripped away by another scrapper crew just like theirs. Common people couldn't buy scrap anymore, but the Creators certainly still did, now that they were too busy trying to figure out how to stop the famine to have time to continue manufacturing the metals.

Why do they need so much? Alessandro wondered. Yeah, they lived in fancy mansions high on the hill, their precious property encircled by a high steel fence topped with wicked spikes, guard towers looming over the regular denizens, but he didn't think any of them were doing renovations.

Rumors abounded, but he tried not to pay them too much mind. Lots of people believed the Creators were building a refuge somewhere, and they traded stories about late-night sightings of vehicles loaded with construction materials and equipment, headed out of the city. While it was true that the regional alliances had become increasingly insular, transport between them all but grinding to a halt, the higher-up Creators still needed to go to other alliance zones from time to time. Inter-alliance trade and the farming collectives, which always needed materials to repair their equipment, had to be the source of the demand for metals.

Yet he didn't really believe his own explanation. No one other than Creators had access to vehicles anymore, the price of fuels having become much too high for the average person, not to mention the unavailability of parts to fix the broken-down clunkers littering the streets. This meant no one was able to follow the Creators, find out what they were doing.

Even as he told himself he was dismissing the stories, part of Alessandro acknowledged they didn't strike him as far-fetched. Retreating seemed like something the Creators might well do, especially if the food situation got much worse. Sure, they had guards with high-tech weapons, but if there was one advantage the people in the city had, it was sheer numbers. Maybe the Creators were starting to think running away would be better than facing an angry mob.

What's the point of speculating about it? he asked himself, angry his thoughts were wandering in that direction again. You won't know what the truth is until it's too late to do anything about it. Focus on the present.

Wasn't that what everyone was doing, though? Wasn't that what they always did? Wasn't it just what the Creators wanted?

Sucking in a breath, Alessandro yanked at a decaying stud, and the wood crumbled in his hand. He had to grab hold of his anger, his frustration. Images flashed through his mind, pictures of the angry people who had begun to form gangs, roaming the streets and looking for a fight. He would not become one of them. He had a job to do, and he had to do it for Enzo.

Every window in the building had long