Veronica spilled the contents of her purse onto the kitchen table. She’d pilfered a handful of acetaminophen samples and a few pregnancy tests, but the day’s pièce de résistance was a handheld ovulation scanner.


    “Not bad for a day’s work.” She shrugged, grinning to herself, altogether pleased with her acquisitions.

    Veronica picked through the items on the table and packed the everyday essentials back into her handbag. She walked over to the coat hooks near the sliding glass door, hung her bag up, and grabbed the backpack hanging next to it. Veronica placed it on a kitchen chair and unzipped it to reveal a collection of free samples and whatever else she’d taken from her job at the fertility clinic over the last couple of months. Anything medical she could take back to Freedom’s Landing was incredibly valuable. After she loaded the backpack with her stolen goods, she returned it to its hook.

    “All right, here we go.” Veronica grinned, rubbing her hands together with enthusiasm as she eyed the paper tote sitting in the center of the table, a baguette peeking out at an odd angle.

    As she drove home in her microtransport, the air had filled with the aroma of freshly baked bread. The interior of the single-occupancy vehicle was small and had cocooned V in a cloud of mouth-watering delight. She was surprised she hadn’t torn into the baguette on the ride home. But now that the aroma permeated her living space as well, the temptation was too much to resist.

    Veronica pulled out the bread and twisted off a piece from the end. It was still warm to the touch, and she took a bite. It was better than sex. Veronica had bought the loaf from Marquette’s, a boutique bakery, on the way home, along with a container of locally churned butter. Both items had cost her a pretty credit, but sometimes one just had to splurge.

    “Mmm,” Veronica moaned, savoring another delectable bite. Her eyelashes fluttered closed as she absently dug around in the cutlery drawer until she found a knife. She cut into the butter and smeared it onto the bread. The creamy texture melted and ran down the spongy dough until it was either absorbed or ended up on her fingers. Veronica licked the savory liquid off, not wanting to waste even the smallest drop of the costly condiment.

    Fresh bread always reminded her of being at home at the Landing, and oh, it was so much better than the food replica chili they’d be eating tonight along with it. Veronica expected her visitor to arrive in the early evening if all went well. Frankie—the resident general navigator for the Network and their tech genius—anticipated the runner would arrive soon.

    Veronica had done her utmost to make her guest feel comfortable, thus splurging on real bread and butter. But he was unlikely to appreciate the gesture. Elite Breeders were accustomed to only the finest things in life. Being an e-breeder also meant having easy access to real food on a regular basis. Mainstreamers could only hope for replicas, which were quick to eat but far from tasty.

    Veronica took another bite of the still-warm bread, humming in appreciation and licking the butter off her lower lip and the tips of her fingers. So maybe she’d really bought the bread for herself, to soothe her nerves. Tonight was going to be out of the ordinary. It wasn’t every day an Elite Breeder showed up at her door.

    E-breeder absconders weren’t common. In the Coalition, these men lived lives of luxury and privilege and rarely wanted for anything. They were kept by the upper class and shared among the elite. Veronica pensively twirled a strand of her long brown hair around a finger. But this was the second e-breeder to do a runner in the past six months.

    Shadow had been the first in a long while, but he was an anomaly of sorts. Like a wounded puppy who’d been kicked one too many times. He’d endured immense suffering at the hands of a cruel Keeper, leaving him with an understandable, deep-seated mistrust of the opposite sex. Despite this, many of the resident-born women of Freedom’s Landing still hoped that Shadow would one day open his heart. However, he seemed determined to remain closed off from the ladies and doggedly kept them at arm’s length.

    It was unfortunate because potential partners who could produce offspring were as sought after in the Dead Zones as they were in the Coalition. But in the Dead Zones, they got to decide who they wanted to be with, instead of who society dictated. The Dead Zones were all about choice. Of course, as with all things, there were gray areas. Especially for those men who were virile.

    Veronica smiled sadly as she thought of Mack. He’d been strong, smart, and beautiful—not to mention virile to the extreme. Veronica felt she hit the jackpot when he’d chosen her as his partner, and for a time, she’d lived the dream.

    Ever since they met as kids at the Landing’s rusty old relic of a playground, they’d been inseparable. At six years old, Mack would puff up his chest whenever any of the other children tried to pick on her or even make her “it” in a game of tag. Nobody messed with Veronica because they’d have Mack to contend with. Veronica remembered how his dirty-blond hair flew around his face as he pummeled another kid in her defense. Her hero. She couldn’t help but smile at the memory. In Mack’s arms, Veronica had felt safe, until suddenly, she didn’t.

    After a few awkward kisses and clumsy embraces, eventually, their friendship blossomed into something more. They grew into childhood sweethearts and married at the tender age of eighteen. Friends and family said they were too young, even for the Landing, where life was short and precarious, but they were determined to prove everyone wrong.

    They were happy during the first years of their marriage, each cherishing the other. They held hands when they walked, shared meals and stories around their small wood-burning stove in the evenings, and kept each other warm in bed at night.

    When they were ready to start a family, Mack’s semen sample produced excellent results. Yet, despite years of trying, Veronica never conceived, and after a while, they’d quietly given up hope. It wasn’t too soon after that Mack, feeling a sudden sense of responsibility toward the perpetuation of the species, began to wander. All to ensure the survival of humanity.

    Like he had something to prove.

    Many of the women Mack messed around with already had significant others. Across the Dead Zones, this was known as doing a “favor.” When an infertile pair couldn’t get pregnant, they might ask a male who was virile to sleep with the female. It wasn’t out of the ordinary. That was why the ovulation scanner from the fertility clinic had been such a great snag. It enabled women to determine their optimal window for conceiving, thus increasing their chances of becoming pregnant without putting an extra strain on their relationship. However, not all of Mack’s children were born to infertile couples.

    It was why, after he passed, Veronica vowed never to get involved with a virile male again.

    Never. Ever. Again.

    It just hurt too much, seeing him look back at her from the eyes of another woman’s child. Always someone else’s baby, but never her own. Veronica knew life was complicated. Even so, it didn’t make Mack’s betrayal hurt any less. She tolerated his infidelity but had finally mustered the courage to end their relationship when he became ill.

    Veronica exhaled loudly and shook her head, trying to rid herself of the painful memories because she stupidly loved Mack to the very end, despite everything.

    She still loved him—even now, two years after he’d passed away.

    But that was enough ruminating about Mack. She had a guest to focus on for the evening. Veronica couldn’t know what kind of e-breeder was walking into the safe house tonight. But whoever he was, whatever his reasons for running—they were his own.

    It made sense to keep her in the dark. The less Veronica knew about a runner, the safer it was for them both, in case things went sideways. Everything was on a need-to-know basis because one couldn’t share what they didn’t know.

    With a new chunk of bread in hand, Veronica walked over to the guest bedroom and gave it another once-over. She’d put down fresh sheets the night before and thrown on an extra comforter because the February nights were chilly. On the bedside table, she’d placed a towel and some toiletries. It was enough. This wasn’t a hotel after all. It was a safe house, one stop on the way to the next. Veronica’s only role was to ensure the e-breeder was ready for the next leg of his journey.

    Leaning against the door jamb and munching on the rest of the bread, Veronica activated the AI, Avox, short for artificial voice box. “Hey, Avox. Make sure all security systems are active around the perimeter.”

    “All security systems are active,” Avox responded in his modulated synthesized voice.

    “Place systems on silent,” V instructed the unit. She didn’t need the neighbors waking up while she greeted her male guest in the middle of the night. Men didn’t just wander around the streets anymore. Those times were long gone.

    “All systems are silent,” Avox confirmed.

    Veronica exhaled loudly and glanced out the window in the room’s corner. It was already dark outside at four o’clock in the afternoon, and she needed to stay vigilant.

    She popped the last morsel of bread into her mouth, walked over to the window, and scanned the garden outside. She could barely see anything past her own reflection, but there were plenty of dense bushes where an e-breeder could hide.

    “Hey, Avox.”

    “Hmm?” the AI responded in his most humanistic manner.

    “Darken the windows.”

    Before her eyes, the glass blurred and grew totally black; no need for any do-it-yourself curtains here. And now, all she could do was wait.