Defenders of the Covenant by Angie Lofthouse--First Chapter

A big welcome to Angie Lofthouse for becoming a part of the Walnut Springs Press family. Her novel,  Defenders of the Covenant,  is an exciting addition to the LDS dystopian/sci-fi genre.

Learn more about Angie and Defenders of the Covenant at her website.

Hannah knelt beside her bed, curling her toes into the carpet. Her thick, honey brown braid thumped against her back as she bent her head to pray. She wrapped one hand around the locket that hung on a ribbon around her neck.
Father in Heaven, she thought, I thank thee for blessing and preserving me. The door opened, and someone sighed. Hannah kept her eyes closed. I thank thee for the refuge.
Something dropped onto the floor. Hannah opened one eye and peeked out under her arm. A pair of work boots from the farm lay at the foot of her roommate McKenzie’s bed, dirt sprinkled across the floor in front of them. Hannah wrinkled her brow. Such a mess. Beside the work boots sat an old backpack, full of something. She chewed on the inside of her lip and continued praying.
I thank Thee for saving us from the invaders. McKenzie’s bed springs groaned. Hannah frowned. No prayers? No good night? No nothing. Her chest tightened with sadness. They used to pray together and lay giggling in the dark for hours. McKenzie never giggled anymore.
Father, please bless McKenzie. Please let her heart be softened toward me, so we can be friends again. Help me to know how to help her. I’m so worried about her. A tear squeezed out onto Hannah’s cheek and slipped toward her chin. She sniffed as quietly as she could. Why did everything have to change like this? I want it all back the way it used to be, she prayed. Then she closed her prayer and rose.
McKenzie had the covers pulled up to her chin, her back to Hannah. McKenzie’s disheveled red hair lay across the pillow. She never went to bed with her hair in such a state. Hannah chewed her lip again.
“Why do you have work boots in here?”
“I forgot to take them off when I left.” McKenzie didn’t bother to turn around. “I’ll run them back in the morning. I’m too tired now.”
A lie. Hannah toed the boots and watched more of the dried soil crumble onto the floor. A stupid lie at that. Nobody forgot to take her boots off. Who would want to clomp through the halls in such heavy, restricting, dirty things? All McKenzie knew how to do lately was lie and sneak around. A wall had sprung up between Hannah and her best friend, a wall Hannah couldn’t penetrate no matter how hard she tried. A wall named Jeremy.
Hannah turned off the light and climbed into bed. She entertained the thought of marching straight down to Jeremy’s room and demanding he leave McKenzie alone, let her have other relationships again. But no. He would laugh at Hannah. She would stand there, arms folded, the picture of righteous indignation, and Jeremy would laugh until his golden curls shook, mocking her.
It made her so angry she quivered right down to her toes just thinking about it. She hated him. It filled her with guilt to think how she hated him. It was no way to feel about a refuge brother. But she could see a cruelty in him that the leaders never seemed to notice. McKenzie certainly didn’t notice.
Hannah could hear her friend breathing in the darkness, not asleep yet. She thought about asking her more questions. Why weren’t you at group prayer? What’s in the backpack? She kept silent. McKenzie would just lie again anyway.
Hannah rubbed her locket between her fingers. She had rubbed a groove in the tarnished metal that just fit her thumb. Her mother had given her the locket, she’d been told, on the day she was born, the last time her mother saw her. The locket held a picture of Hannah’s parents, and one of her older brother Caleb—all victims of the invaders. Strangers she had never met, but she loved them all the same. They’d died for her.
McKenzie’s bed creaked as she stirred, and Hannah sat up. “Kenz?” McKenzie stumbled toward the bathroom, and Hannah could hear her heaving into the toilet. Hannah got up and stood in the doorway. “Are you all right? Do you want me to get Sister Thayer?”
McKenzie shook her head. “I’ll be fine in a minute.” She knelt on the bathroom floor with her hands across her stomach. She groaned and vomited again, nothing but bile.
Hannah started forward but stopped, longing to put her arms around McKenzie, but unsure how she would receive the gesture. Instead, Hannah said, “Can I get you something from the kitchen? Toast?”
At last, McKenzie looked at her. Hannah could see the shadows in her eyes, eyes that were filled with fear and confusion. McKenzie appeared to consider, then nodded her head. “Toast. Sure. Thanks.”
“Okay. I’ll be right back.”
Hannah walked slowly to calm her nerves, caught in a battle between hope and despair. It’s just a piece of toast, she told herself. But it was a chance to break down the wall a bit. They’d talk. Maybe McKenzie would tell her what was really going on.
Pools of light from the nightlights lit the darkened hallway. One of them shone on a picture of the Salt Lake Temple. Hannah paused in front of it. It used to be world famous, she’d been taught. People came from everywhere to see it. She wished she could see it standing in defiance of the destruction of the invaders. Had she been told that, or did she just imagine it?
No one knew for sure what was outside. Hannah had been in the refuge since she was only a few hours old. Even the adults didn’t know the final outcome of the invasion. She grabbed her locket, then hurried toward the kitchen for the toast.
The room wasn’t empty. She stopped when she saw Derek and Paul there, eating bread and milk and laughing together. She moved out of view next to the door, suddenly embarrassed to be out in her nightgown. She’d made the dress herself from soft, undyed cotton, and had embroidered pink rosebuds along the front. It was a pretty nightgown, but she didn’t want to be seen in it, especially not by Paul.
Don’t be ridiculous, she chided herself. This isn’t the time for silly infatuations. She squelched her fears, took a deep breath to calm her fluttery nerves, and entered the kitchen with a smile. “Hi.”
“Hi, Hannah!” Derek’s smile nearly split his face in two, pushing up his too-large glasses.
Hannah smiled tightly back at him. “Derek.” She turned to Paul. He had sandy brown hair, freckles across his nose, and a dimple in his chin. She smiled at him and turned quickly away. Get the toast, she told herself. There’s no time for chatter.
She cut a slice off the loaf already sitting on the bread board. Behind her, the boys murmured and jabbed each other. She ignored them. She put the bread in a toaster and waited with her back turned.
“Hungry?” Derek said.
She pulled a face but didn’t turn around. “No, actually. It’s for McKenzie. She’s sick.”
“Ah,” Derek said, drawing out the sound, using his know-it-all voice.
“What?” Hannah asked over her shoulder.
Derek turned pink. “Nothing. Never mind.”
Hannah turned back to the toaster. She could hear the boys poking at each other again and was suddenly anxious to leave, Paul or no Paul. She put the toast on a small plate, and nearly ran into Derek as she turned to leave. Startled, she stumbled back.
“Oh,” he said, his face red. “Er, I’m sorry.” He cleared his throat.
Hannah took a deep breath and didn’t let her irritation show. She didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
“Um, I found some great duets in the music database,” he managed to say. “I thought we might learn one together. It’s been a long time since we played a duet.”
“Yes, it has. We’ll have to look at them sometime. But I’ve really got to get back to McKenzie now.”
“Oh, sure.” Derek stepped back, seeming dismayed. “Good night.”
“Good night.” She turned and left, her face burning. Paul hadn’t said two words to her. Maybe she could talk to McKenzie about it. Maybe.
In and out of the shadows, she moved through the deserted hallway. Silence swept around her, the silence of safety and calm. She opened the door to her room. Inside, all was dark. Hannah turned the lights on dim. 
The room was empty, the boots and backpack gone. “Kenz!” she shouted. No answer. She dropped the toast. It landed with a dull thud on the carpet, but she ignored the mess and ran through the hallway again, driven by a nagging fear. Boots. A backpack.
Soon she was out of the living area, and the halls had no nightlights. She moved as quickly as she could in the dark, her hands outstretched in front of her. She slammed her hip against an end table and recoiled back, slumping down to the floor, where she sniffed back tears.
A light came on further down the hallway. She used the offending end table to hoist herself up. “McKenzie?” she asked, hopeful.
The light right above her came on, and she blinked in the sudden brightness.
“Hannah?” Derek said. “Hey, I was just printing out the music I was telling—what’s wrong?” He set down the music and put his hand on her shoulder. “You’re crying.” His voice warmed with concern.
“It’s McKenzie, I think.” Hannah shook her head. It sounded so crazy. “I think she’s trying to get outside.”
Derek didn’t laugh at her. He didn’t tell her she was crazy. But of course, he never did anything like that.
“Why would she do that?”
“I don’t know. She never talks to me anymore. She had a pair of work boots and a backpack.”
“You should go get one of the leaders,” he said.
“No.” Hannah bit her lip. “She won’t listen to any of the leaders. But she’ll listen to me. She has to.” She felt her voice rise, so she took a deep breath. “McKenzie is my best friend,” she finished quietly.
Derek let his hand drop from Hannah’s shoulder as if he’d just remembered it was there. “I’ll help you find her.” 
They set off together down the hall, hurrying past the gardens and farm, past the waste reclamation pools and the big energy-storage cells, down to the last branch off the corridor to the unused hallway. The hallway without any pictures on the walls or end tables festooned with floral arrangements. “Oh, no.”
A flood light at the end of the hallway illuminated McKenzie and Jeremy in front of the tall silver doors of the elevator. Hannah could feel her heart slamming in her chest. Jeremy leafed through a stack of keys, slipping each one into the slot in the wall in turn. 
He must have stolen them from Brother Asay or Bishop Carrier, she thought, shocked. 
McKenzie fidgeted beside Jeremy. She wore the work boots and had the backpack slung across one shoulder.
“McKenzie?” Hannah said.
McKenzie and Jeremy both turned. “Hannah!” McKenzie’s pale face contrasted sharply with her red hair. Her eyes were wide with what looked like fear and apprehension.
“Don’t do this,” Hannah pled. “It’s dangerous.” 
Like a trapped animal, McKenzie looked at Jeremy and then back at Hannah. Jeremy only smirked.
“The invaders aren’t just some fairy tale,” Derek said. “You’ll put us all in danger if you do this.”
Jeremy’s face reddened. “Why don’t you go run for some leaders, encyclopedia boy? I’ll bet Mr. Smarty already knows which one is the right key.”
Hannah found herself angry on Derek’s behalf, but he stayed calm. “As a matter of fact I do,” he said.
Jeremy scowled and continued sliding keys into the slot.
Hannah stepped forward and touched McKenzie’s arm. “Why are you doing this?”
Her friend smoothed her tangled hair and tried to smile her old, easy smile. “Don’t worry so much. It’s just for fun.” But her smile was forced, her eyes uncertain.
“Yeah,” Jeremy said. “We’ll come right back.”
Another lie. Hannah knew it was a lie. She could see it on their faces, feel it in the tension that hung between them. This wasn’t just one of McKenzie’s crazy schemes. Hannah’s throat tightened. Some unseen hand had reached through the darkness to snatch her best friend away from her, to rip through the comfort and security of her life. She couldn’t just stand by and let it happen. “Then I’ll come too,” she said impulsively.
“Hannah!” McKenzie and Derek both spoke at once. 
Jeremy laughed. Deep dimples indented his cheeks.
Hannah’s face flushed, but she didn’t back down. “I’m going to make sure you come back. I am your best friend, after all.” She put her hands on her hips.
McKenzie opened her mouth, but shut it again without speaking.
“No,” Derek said. “No one’s going. It’s too dangerous. For everyone in the refuge. Don’t you understand? We can’t run the risk of being discovered.”
Jeremy snorted. “Dangerous? How could you know that? No one knows what’s out there.”
“The leaders know. They were there, remember?”
Hannah held her breath, watching the boys glare at each other. Jeremy with his golden curls and ice blue eyes, gripping his stolen keys. Derek with his dark hair, his too-big glasses, his wide nose flared. He kept his hands on his hips.
“Nobody’s been out there for eighteen years,” Jeremy said. “The leaders don’t know anything. But I intend to find out what’s going on out there.” He turned around and crammed another card into the slot. The elevator doors slid silently, ominously open. Hannah’s heart almost stopped. Jeremy crowed in triumph. “You see? How’re you going to stop us now, Derek?” He swaggered into the elevator. “Come on, McKenzie.”
McKenzie had her hand over her mouth. Hannah grabbed her arm. “You don’t have to do this,” she said. “Please stay here.”
“McKenzie!” Jeremy barked.
She laid her hand on Hannah’s. “Goodbye,” she said, then stepped inside with Jeremy.
Hannah stood frozen. Please help me to help her, she had prayed. To go with McKenzie seemed like the only option—to go and bring her back. Swallowing her fear, Hannah followed them onto the elevator and turned to Derek.
He stood there in his loose cotton pajamas in front of the elevator. His brown eyes flashed, and he clenched his fists. Hannah had never seen him look so angry.
“Well, go get the leaders, angel boy,” Jeremy said. “We’ll already be gone.”
Derek’s face went red, but he didn’t look at Jeremy. He caught Hannah’s eyes instead, and she was taken back by the fire she saw there. The door began to close, blocking him from her view. Her heart leaped into her throat. Derek’s hand reached out to stop the door, and in two angry strides, he was on the elevator. “I suppose someone has to keep you fools alive.”
Jeremy snorted. “Sure. Suit yourself.”
For a moment, Hannah wished it was Paul with them, but that thought passed as quickly as it came. The doors slid shut, and the long-unused machinery groaned into life, hoisting them up.
Hannah rubbed her locket for courage. Her heart fluttered in her throat, but a measure of calm she didn’t understand asserted itself against the fear.
The elevator was small, with bare, metal walls. A sign hung near the doors: “Operate the elevator only with direct permission from the First Presidency or in extreme emergency. No children allowed in the elevator.” I’m sorry, Heavenly Father, Hannah thought.
Beside her, Derek ran his fingers through his hair. “This is a very bad idea.”
“Shut up!” Jeremy said. “No one asked you to come anyway.”
A tense silence fell. Jeremy slid his arm around McKenzie’s waist and pulled her close to him. Hannah wanted to scream at him to let her go, but she held her tongue. McKenzie leaned her head on his shoulder and kept her eyes closed. Hannah glanced at Derek, who rolled his eyes at them and mouthed, “Stupid kids.”
Hannah felt her stomach drop as the elevator stopped. The doors opened, revealing a solid wall of light-colored stone. Hannah laughed in relief. “We can’t get out.” She couldn’t stop the smile that spread across her face. “We can’t get out.”
Jeremy swore, then moved away from McKenzie so quickly she stumbled. Hannah reached out to steady her. 
Jeremy pounded on the wall of stone and swore again. “Did you know about this?” he asked Derek.
Derek shook his head, his face expressionless. “I know the inside of the refuge, not the outside.”
“There must be a way to open it.”
“Let’s go back,” Hannah said, and Derek nodded.
“No.” Jeremy ran his hands over the wall.
Hannah turned to McKenzie. “Tell him to stop. We should go back.”
But McKenzie only shook her head. “I can’t go back.” Her voice was desperate. “I can’t.”
“Why not?”
“Because we came to see the outside,” Jeremy said, “and we’re going to see it. We’re not going back, McKenzie.”
“We’re not going back,” McKenzie repeated.
Hannah ground her teeth in frustration.
Derek leaned against the back wall. “I think it’s a moot point anyway. You’re never going to get through that.”
“Oh, no?” Jeremy turned around, smiling, and stuck the key into a crack. The stone moved silently upward, and cold night air swept into the elevator. Hannah shivered through her thin nightgown and coughed.
The air smelled different—wild and sharp. The light from the elevator illuminated a square of dirt and rocks, but Hannah could see nothing in the darkness beyond that. No sounds broke the stillness. She could see no invaders waiting to snatch them.
Jeremy raced out with a whoop, pulling McKenzie behind him.
Hannah cringed at the noise. She looked at Derek, who was scowling. 
“Why doesn’t he shut up?” he whispered.
Hannah hesitated, squared her shoulders, and followed. Derek walked behind her. They were in a shallow cave. The rocks bit at her bare feet, and she shivered again.
“Night,” Derek said. “I guess it makes sense. They’d try to keep our circadian rhythms as close to normal as possible.” He whispered, but still his voice rang against the walls of the cave.
It was a typical Derek-like comment. Hannah didn’t have any idea what he was talking about, but she murmured a response. His rambling bits of useless knowledge were almost comforting out here in the night. Neither of them ventured beyond the light from the elevator doors. Hannah strained to see Jeremy and McKenzie in the darkness beyond the mouth of the cave.
“McKenzie?” Hannah called quietly.
“You’ve got to come and see this, ” McKenzie called back. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Hannah looked up at Derek. He shrugged. “I’m coming.” She made her way out into the darkness. Outside. A thousand stars cast across the black sky greeted her, took her breath away.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” McKenzie said.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Hannah whispered.
“It’s amazing,” Derek spoke behind her. His voice seemed small, swallowed up in the vastness. “I can’t believe I’m really seeing this. Look. There’s Orion, and Taurus and the Pleiades. And over there is Cassiopeia and the Big Dipper. Do you see them?”
She didn’t. She could find no order in the riot of the heavens. The stars extended forever outward into gaping emptiness. The wind swirled around her, ruffling her hair and tugging at her nightgown. The world was so big, so endless. She wrapped her arms around herself to block out the cold. “Let’s go back.”
“Back?” Jeremy said too loudly, his voice cutting through the reverence of the stars. “After two minutes? You notice there aren’t any bogeymen out here. We’re free, kids.” He laughed. “Free!”
Derek spoke. “She’s right. We have to go back.” Hannah thought he sounded a little wistful. “We have no idea what’s out here. It’s pitch black, for heaven’s sake.”
“I’m not afraid,” Jeremy said. “I’m not going back.”
“Then just give me the elevator key,” Derek said. “You can do what you want.”
Hannah turned away from their argument to look back at the cave. The light had disappeared. The door had shut without a sound as they watched the stars. It frightened her, to be cut off from the refuge like that. She turned around to demand the key, but a shriek from McKenzie cut her short. She followed her friend’s shaking finger up to where a dark object blotted out the stars as it moved across the sky.
“What is it?” McKenzie whispered.
No one answered. The object hovered in the sky, and Hannah could hear the quiet hum of a motor.
“Okay,” Jeremy said. “Let’s go back.”
Hannah ignored the pain on her bare feet as she ran back into the cave. They all ran, but there was no trace of a door. Hannah ran her hands over the cold, rough stone, but could find no place for the key to fit, and the hum of the flying machine outside grew ever closer.