It is the year 2058.
The Sino-American War has decimated several generations of men, and the Sterility Epidemic has made 90% of the surviving males sterile.
Electricity does not function in five western states. Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana are territories once again. Collectively, they are known as the Juniper.
It is the most dangerous place on Earth.
On a desperate post-apocalyptic cattle drive to save their family ranch, Cavatica Weller and her two gunslinging sisters stumble across a rare boy. Sharlotte wants to send him away, Wren wants to sell him…and Cavatica falls in love with him.
Little do they know that an inhuman army is searching for the boy and will stop at nothing to find him.
Welcome to the world of The Juniper Wars.
This is the last Colorado writer on this list, I promise! Aaron Michael Ritchey is an all-around good natured person and a pleasure to be around. He's been working on his "Juniper Wars" series for quite a while, wrtiting the novels as well as separate short stories to promote them. We've published the first three and are now working on the fourth, BINDWEED HIGHWAY. To get you hooked, though, we've decided to start you off with the first volume in the series. – Kevin J. Anderson
"Mr. Ritchey has woven a tangled web and I am not sure what to expect next. I do know that I will be anxiously awaiting the next addition of this story."– Big Al's Books and Pals Book Reviews
"The story has everything you need; lots of action, adventure and intrigue, leaving the reader eager to turn the pages. The author's excellent writing skills have put together a satisfying tale with great characters, a setting that tweaks the imagination, and dialogue that is suitable for the story line. While billed as young adult sci-fi, any lover of the science fiction genre will certainly find it enjoyable. Nicely done. I liked it a lot."– Amazon Review
"… richly drawn, beautifully complex characters …"– Kirkus Reviews
"One should grab a duster, sixshooter, and spurs before venturing into this creatively crafted steampunk tale of sibling rivalry, loyalty, and long odds...saddle up and settle in for an adventure of a life time!"– InD'Tale Magazine (Elite Review)
Wren was on her way to my boarding school with bad news and a gun in her hand. She'd been living wild in Amarillo.
If I'd known my sister was coming, I'd have run.
My best friend, Anjushri Rawat, and I were ditching history by hiding out in an empty classroom—just the two of us surrounded by school desks and wood polished to a shine. Dust motes floated in the sunshine streaming through the tall windows. Made the room smell musty, but in a good way. Between the windows were RSD screens embedded in the wall, each showing a different bit of video. Some were of famous alumni from the Sally Browne Burke Academy for the Moral and Literate in Cleveland, Ohio, women doing important things, flashes of their biographies. Others showed nature scenes, which supposedly were meant to soothe us, but no one paid much attention to them. I didn't.
Right then, all I cared about was making sure Anju went to the Sammy Hawkins dance with Billy Finn, so true love could win the day. Well, true love was going to need a lot of help. Anju didn't have a chance at all with Billy.
Her ethnicity wasn't the issue, nor was her religion, since she was a Catholic from Goa, a particularly Christian part of India. Anju and I went to Mass together.
No, the problem was Billy's parents, who were drooling over the wealth Becca Olson brought to the table.
Boys were rare, and I knew I'd never get one. I wasn't rich or pretty enough. My body betrayed me at every turn—too big, too tall, my face too round. My eyes were reddish-brown like Colorado mud, my hair as strawed and yellowed as Juniper grass in January.
Only about fifty boys attended the Academy, roughly ten percent of the student population. For some girls, the competition for a date could be brutal, but not for me. Most days, I accepted the fact that my true treasures were my dedication to the New Morality and Anju's friendship. I had my fantasies about boys like any sixteen-year-old girl, but I figured I'd die unmarried. There were worse things.
I'd grown up in the Colorado territory and I'd witnessed such worse things firsthand. Not that Mama sent me away to boarding school to keep me safe. She'd made it clear—safety was an illusion and God loved the bold. At twelve, I packed my gear and climbed aboard a train, eastbound. I'd only gone home once 'cause it's a long way from Cleveland to the Juniper, a long trip, dangerous and expensive.
No electricity in the Juniper. None at all. During the early years of the Sino-American War, the Chinese nuked Yellowstone and killed the buzz in five western states. Nearly thirty years after the Yellowstone Knockout and still no power. President Jack tried to govern those states, but it wasn't long before America was sewing flags with only forty-five stars.
In that classroom with Anju, I figured I was done with my home in the Colorado territory forever. Sure, I might visit the ranch now and again, to see Mama and my older sister Sharlotte, but I was learning electrical engineering and looking at fat jobs in big corporations.
Besides, could I live without the Internet and video? Not hardly.
But first, true love, Anju and Billy Finn, forever and ever, Amen. That was the only reason I would sin by ditching class. Anju, however, wasn't impressed with my plan.
"I know you're trying to be all heroic, but it's not going to work," she said. "Billy and I can still be friends, I guess, but we both know Becca Olson is going to get him in the end."
Everything she said was the truth, but my plan popped all hot and greasy in my head. Regardless of the odds, I'd win the day for love and get revenge on that no-good, stuck-up Becca Olson. "Come on, Anju, throw it in gear and think happy thoughts. How many seasons of Lonely Moon have you and Billy watched together?"
"All of them," she admitted.
"All of them. And do you think Becca Olson ever watched even a single episode?"
Anju shook her head. Her hands were wrapped up in her New Morality dress, lots of gray fabric from throat to ankles. I'd seen her in a sari, all that brightly colored fabric contrasted beautifully with her dark features and darker hair, but she was New Morality, like me.
"You get to class," I said. "I'll be the hero. Just you watch."
"Okay." Anju moved to the door then turned around. "You know, odds are, we'll both die alone."
I rolled my eyes. "Thank you, oh voice of doom. I woke up with a little headache. Prolly brain cancer, huh?"
Anju dropped her eyes. She wasn't laughing.
I laughed for both of us. I was used to doing it. "It's gonna be okay."
"Thank you, Cavatica. Thank you for being my friend."
Anju disappeared out the door, leaving me alone with my Hayao 5 electric slate and my plan, two things I loved as much as any girl ever loved a cute boy or the season premiere of their favorite show. The first thing I did was text Becca Olson to invite her to come chat with me, face to face. Kept it vague and real mysterious so she'd come. Then I checked the audio cables plugged into my slate, checked the server connection, checked the microphone. Everything was ready.
A flicker on one of the RSDs caught my eye and I had a moment of wonder. One screen showed Canadian geese on the wing flying in a V during migration. Outside the window, I caught a glimpse of the same species of geese, flying through a sky blackened by clouds. The downy white of their breast feathers gleamed in contrast to the gray storm, both on the video and outside the window. For a moment, strong memories of the ranch took me away—feet in stirrups, a restless horse under me, listening to the honking racket of geese on the wing.
I didn't feel nostalgic, only grateful. If I wanted to hear geese, all I had to do was Google the noise. Reality is oftentimes overrated. Case in point, Lonely Moon, the Juniper-based TV drama Anju and Billy loved. That show was a whole lot easier to understand than the reality of those states turned territories.
Since my trap was ready for Becca, I had a chance to pray. Eyes closed, I asked for forgiveness for ditching class. Next, I prayed God would shine His all-powerful light upon my righteous cause—true love.
Before all my adventures, Becca Olson was my favorite villain—rich, pretty, and mean. On the first day I met her, four-and-half years prior, I hadn't bowed before her royalty. She took it as a snub, since I was just some Juniper girl, about as precious as a rusted penny, and she was an Olson, of the Shaker Heights Olsons, don't you know?
Becca was a young woman on a mission—to conquer every bit of the world she could. Starting with Billy Finn. She'd dismissed both Anju and me as immigrants from foreign lands and adversaries not worth her time.
Becca flounced through the door along with three of her flouncy friends, petticoated up. All that fabric rubbing together sounded like a rainstorm had entered the room.
Officially, New Morality dresses were supposed to be of a neutral color and cover as much skin as possible to let the natural beauty of a young woman's soul shine. The New Morality wardrobe guidelines also opposed any sort of accessories—bracelets, rings, necklaces, headbands proclaimed a woman not only frivolous but also vain. Vanity shadowed pride, one of the seven deadly sins.
Bangles layered the wrists of Becca and her friends. Every finger sported jewelry except their left ring fingers. The neon colors of their dresses gleamed bright enough to hurt. Only their hands and faces were visible, which was good enough for the dress code. However, the colors let everyone know they were only paying lip service to the New Morality.
I felt sorry for them. Such clothing and rebelliousness displayed a lack of moral character. But wealth and privilege often inflicted spiritual damage of that sort. The staff frowned on Becca and her entourage, and the administration did too, only the huge donations prolly softened their outrage.
"What do you want?" Becca demanded right off.
I eyed all the faces. It felt like a gunfight, like the ones my sister Wren was always getting into. Wren used semi-automatic pistols. My weapons were far different, but just as powerful.
"It's about Billy Finn," I said. Hand in the pocket of my gray dress, I pressed the execute button on the remote control of my slate.
The overhead speakers out in the hall popped and hissed for a second, but I was confident Becca and her crew weren't bright enough to pay attention to such a small detail. I had patched into the audio cables in the wall. I could've hacked into the router and transmitted the signal wirelessly, but the IT department would've shut off my broadcast right away. This way, they couldn't stop me until they got to the server room. I had five minutes easy.
"What about Billy?" Becca's face radiated contempt. "He asked me to the Sammy Hawkins dance. I accepted. End of story."
I cleared my throat. I wanted everyone in the school to hear me real well. "Well, Becca, everybody knows Anju and Billy are in love. I was thinking you should be a darling and step aside and let them be together. Remember what Sally Browne Burke said about—"
"Oh, please." She scoffed. "Billy Finn is viable, which makes him a commodity, which means only those who have the money will get him. Anju doesn't have the cash. I do. Where do you think he got his new frictionless car? Who do you think is going to pay for his college? Why else do you think he asked me to the stupid dance? Don't be naïve."
Becca Olson was doing exactly what I needed her to do—turning up skank cards at the poker table. Aces high.
I played stupid. "Oh well, you know, I was just trying—"
"I know what you're doing. You're just trying to butt into my business. Well, I can't believe Anju is in love with Billy. I mean, he's such a fat little toad, but then again, he's viable, and we all know what that means in this day and age. The boy could have hooves and a tail and we'd all still be falling over ourselves to get to him—every one of us. It's a competition I'll win."
I should've stopped there. I really should've. But I was sixteen, I had my enemy in my gun sights, and Becca's sneer made me want to empty the clip on her.
"As I was saying," I said so innocently, "Sally Browne Burke declares that now more than ever, romantic love is required for the betterment of our species. It's an idea that our own Mrs. Justice embraces. Natural romantic attraction will bring together boys and girls whom God has destined for each other, which will result in strong, God-fearing children. Why, just the other day, Mrs. Justice—"
Becca erupted. "Mrs. Justice is probably gillian."
Gillian, as in tong xing lian, as in same sex love.
I gasped, and though I couldn't believe how well my plan was coming together, part of me felt bad for both Becca and Mrs. Justice. Such an accusation could kill a career, especially at a school like the Sally Browne Burke Academy. That year we'd lost two students and a teacher 'cause of gossip. The New Morality insisted homosexuality was a sin. Liberals disagreed. I felt caught in the middle.
"You don't mean that," I said, a little out of breath.
Becca seemed to enjoy my shock. "But I do. I mean, she wants us to call her Mrs. Justice. How old-fashioned is that? And there's no Mr. Justice, never was, which makes me think she has some girl on the side. Gillian or not, she's just a parrot, and not a very pretty one at that. Sally Browne Burke says something and Mrs. Justice repeats it. Whatever. Romantic love is dead and gone. Now it's all about money. Are we done?"
Standing by the door, Marcy Bauer, one of Becca's friends, cocked her head and knit her brows. She was the closest to the overhead speakers in the hall, which had just broadcast our entire conversation to every room in the school, including Billy Finn's classroom. Including Mrs. Justice's office.
"Becca, I think everyone can hear you," Marcy said with awe in her voice.
I let my smile shine.
The truth hit Becca like a punch. "You filthy piece of trash!"
I thought to run, but Becca and her friends blocked the door.
Dang. Hadn't thought of an escape route. Silly me.
I scooped up my electric slate, yanked out the audio cords, and got ready to run that petticoat gauntlet.
"I'm going to make you pay!" Becca clattered toward me. She hooked her fingers into claws.
"You really don't wanna do that," I warned her, but she wasn't going to listen. She threw herself at me, telegraphing her attack.
I dodged her. Four years in civilization had civilized a little of the dodge out of me, but twelve years of growing up with two cowgirl-tough older sisters had left my reflexes spring-loaded.
Becca sped past me, but the other girls rushed forward.
Marcy Bauer grabbed my dress, and I stomped her foot. She screamed. I socked Ethel Walters in the stomach, bending her over. Priscilla Carrington reached for me, but I swung a hip and knocked her flat. Becca, had turned and rejoined the fight. She caught my face with her nails, blazing a scratch across my cheek. The pain raised my shakti. I punched Becca right in the nose, prolly breaking it. Dropped her to the floor like a bag full of rags.
I felt a little bad, but only a little—she could afford the plastic surgery. And it gave me an escape route. Rich girls in Ohio generally don't get punched in the nose. Shocked them all as still as stone.
I strode through the perfume and sniffling like Moses through the Red Sea.
"Don't you walk away from me, you filthy piece of Juniper trash," Becca snarled.
I stopped at the door. I felt proud to have grown up in a house my mama had fought to build and bled to keep. Before I knew it, I had turned back around. Two princesses lay on the floor of the classroom and two girls stood frozen.
"You don't know how ridiculous you are, with your country talk and bumpkin manners." Becca's face was tearful and bloody and every ounce of pretty was gone, swallowed up by her cruel, mercenary heart. Her neon dress swirled across the floor and her thin arms shook, holding her weight. "Only stupid people live in the Juniper. Stupid or criminally insane. Which one are you?"
I grinned, letting her know nothing she said could hurt me. "Well, I'm criminal enough to have knocked you down. Stupid enough to stand here listening to your nonsense. If you come after me, well, I'll show you my crazy." Dang, that was something my sister Wren might've said.
"Do you know who I am? Do you know how much money my family gives to this school? You'll be sorry, Cavatica Weller. You and that Anju, you'll both pay! Billy Finn is mine. I bought him."
"You can't buy people," I said. "Billy and Anju are meant to be together."
Becca lowered her head. Blood from her nose dripped onto the floor. She laughed hard, cried harder. "You're so stupid. You're so jacking stupid."
"Prolly," I said, "but I'd rather be stupid than heartless."
Overhead through the speakers, Mrs. Justice called out, "Cavatica Weller, please report to my office immediately." She sounded bitten. Like something was chewing on her. Which would've been my sister Wren at that moment.
"See," Becca said, "you're in trouble. Not me."
I was in trouble, but I had no idea how bad it was going to get. If I had, I would've called.