Amelia, March 28, 2236
480 Kilometers from Carthage, NY
This last bit of stolen concealer would not last much longer. She dabbed the paste on two pinkish dots just outside the bridge of her nose, spread it outward, and worked it in until she was satisfied that no one but her could see them.
The first time she saw them a few months ago she tried washing them off, scrubbing at them with every kind of soap she could find in the compound, but they stubbornly remained just where they were. Something about them seemed so very foreign on her otherwise perfectly white skin that she was too frightened to tell anyone, even Laurel. And then one morning she simply woke up knowing exactly what they were: marks of impurity, an indication that something was wrong with her genes, her DNA, the very thing that made her and all the other girls here so valuable.
Of course she’d known what they were for as long as she’d been at the compound, which was exactly as long as she could remember herself, but just like all the other things she knew, these bits of knowledge surfaced like memories only when they were needed. She couldn’t control when they appeared anymore than she could erase the marks from her cheeks.
Stealing more of the concealer from the loft of the woman whose job it was to teach the girls how to apply makeup was risky, but she knew that the woman was not due to arrive for another three weeks, and nobody else had any business going up to the very last story of the compound, this dusty place right below the beams of the roof.
She found it by chance on one of her before sunup explorations of the place, something she did every time she couldn’t sleep, which happened more and more frequently of late. She took the stairs all the way up, two at a time, until she finally collapsed into this vast, empty space. It was hot and smelled the way she imagined a tree would smell on the inside, although she’d never seen one up close. The windows overlooking the yard were coated by a film of oily dust, and she felt compelled to draw patterns on them, but the thought of someone discovering her presence in this new hideaway kept her hands firmly behind her back.
Standing at the window now, she watched the birds flit above the wall of the compound and disappear on the other side. The side where all things were dangerous. The side where the people were genetically off. The side where those who killed her parents and the parents of all the other girls lived. As she watched what now popped into her mind as definitely a sparrow bounce on the aged stones, a body suddenly flung itself, or was flung by someone, over the wall. As it landed with a thud she couldn’t hear, she instantly calculated the chances of survival at 9.27%.
She knew it would be at least another hour until the first of the residents woke up to do their morning chores, and that Drake was likely asleep up in that cozy cabin he made for himself at the top of the watch tower. No one has ever broken into this place in all the years she has been here.
The lawn would have muffled the sound of the fall some.
Intending to wake the mistress, she raced down to the fourth floor where the staff were housed in their luxurious rooms with private baths and actual maids, dark and slender mutes who moved in and out of the shadows of the compound. Something in her hesitated. She knew what the protocol called for: raise the alarm, wake up the mistress, and in case of an actual invasion by Zoriners, grab one of the stun guns located in the alcoves throughout the compound, five meters apart, and use it for personal protection while the adults handle the rest. Instinctively, she reached into the closest alcove and pulled down a slick, gray weapon. It buzzed softly and felt warm to the touch, although it looked like it was made of metal, and she recalled just now that metal is supposed to feel cold.
She went past where the mistress was, following the stairs all the way to the bottom and raced outside towards the dark form splayed out by the wall, its arms akimbo, a tangle of dark hair covering the face. It looked Zorin. It also looked young. She stopped, breathless, just out of lunging distance of the lifeless body, had it been alive and capable of lunging for her. Staring at the torn shirt and streaks of blood covering what little she could see of its flesh, she could tell it was definitely a boy. Moments later, she could see that it was definitely breathing.
Stifling a scream, she jumped back a full meter and pointed the stun gun at the form as it tried to rise. And now it did, standing, shakily, staring back at her. The eyes were enormous brown circles that looked directly into her gray ones.
Nothing in her memory vault was helping her figure out what to do now. She aimed the buzzing weapon at his chest and waited. She could hear him breathing, hard, probably from the pain. They seemed to simply stare at each other, transfixed, for ages. Finally, he took a step forward and calmly took her gun-holding hand in his, moving her aim a little to the left, and pressed his chest to the barrel. He was still staring into her eyes, but it was entirely unlike that time Laurel stared at her when they were wrestling and she almost broke her arm. Laurel, who was too proud to beg for mercy, had looked at her with so much pain that she immediately let go and swore never to fight again. He wasn’t looking at her like that at all.
“Can’t remember which button to press?” His voice was soft, quiet.
He slowly raised his hand and put it on top of hers. Squeezing gently, he moved her index finger under the arch protecting the trigger, and the buzzing of the gun got louder. Suddenly, she was deathly afraid. Afraid that he would press the trigger. She jerked her hand down and threw the safety back on. The buzzing died.
“If you don’t do this, they might,” he said softly, pointing to the other side of the fence with his head, “so shoot me or help me get into the compound. You can do with me what you will afterwards. I’m in no state to run at the moment.” He said it flatly, quietly, as if he really didn’t care what she’d do.
She couldn’t shoot him. She knew that much.
“Can you walk?” she whispered.
He nodded. She turned around and started back toward the buildings. He walked with a slight limp, but was moving as quickly as she was. It only took a few minutes to get inside, but there was no way he’d be able to make it up all those stairs before the compound woke up.
As if he could tell what she was thinking, he approached the staircase leading up to the loft, “How many?”
“1,238 steps,” she replied.
He nodded and started up without looking at her. When she pulled up, exhausted, to the top landing and peeked into the loft, she could see a figure in the semi darkness hunched in front of a large mirror. His shirt was off and he was scrutinizing a multitude of oddly shaped scrapes and bruises on his flesh. There was so much blood and dirt and so much purple everywhere. She wanted to turn away, feeling sick to her stomach and a little embarrassed. He saw her in the mirror, but silently kept at his task as if she wasn’t there. His jaw was clenched and his breathing became strained when he touched something as he assessed the damage.
She remembered now that she had medical knowledge, if not training per se. If anything was broken, she’d likely know what to do to help fix it. But how could she tell this stranger, a boy likely born to the people who killed her people, that she wanted to help? How do you approach someone who had held your hand with the gun against his own chest, not caring if you pulled the trigger?
She turned her face away from the blood and waited. She heard him run the water at the sink, and after a while, heard him put his shirt back on. Now she could look at him again.
He turned around and looked her in the eyes for a long time, and then walked right up to her and planted a soft kiss on her forehead. “Thank you. For not shooting me. I’m Riley. I am Zorin-born, but you already know that. I don’t know what they’ve taught you about us or the world outside these walls, but we are not animals… I owe you a debt that I’m unlikely to be able to repay, but I will do what I can if the time comes. If there is any risk to you for my being here, tell me. I’ll turn myself in. If not, I need to hide here for a few days, just until my ribs heal enough for me to run. But I need to know if I’m putting you in danger.”
He said all of it very quietly, quickly, in a rush. Now he waited. His eyes remained calm, but his chest was moving much too fast for someone who looked as calm and unconcerned as he did.
She stood frozen, unable to move. There was a faint feeling of warmth spreading from the middle of her forehead to the rest of her face. She knew she was blushing now, and that he undoubtedly could see it. Looking down seemed safer than into those darkly intruding eyes of his. He was waiting patiently, silently, staring at her. She could feel him looking at her face, through it almost, forcing her to look up at him.
For some inexplicable reason she felt like crying. It had been a very long time since she cried but there was no mistaking the lump in her throat for anything else. She felt a solitary tear spill from the corner of her eye and run down her cheek, making a track through the milky paste she had spent so long working into her skin not an hour before. She turned to run, toward the stairs, toward the safety of her room, toward the welcoming smells of breakfast soon to be emanating from the kitchen, her favorite place besides the garden in this entire walled city of survivors and replenishers.
A not too gentle hand squeezed her shoulder and flung her around. He took her by the neck and walked her, stumbling as she went, to the mirror. He flicked the light on. She could see one of her marks, plain as day. She was shaking now, thinking of all the things that could have happened if she had been discovered. If they realized she was not what they thought she was. Thinking of being expelled into the world beyond these walls, living amongst the dark haired people with no knowledge of anything. The memoryless. People who lived as if they were truly savages and the centuries of civilization didn’t happen for them.
His hands traveled to her shoulders and held her in place. He was looking at her face in the mirror, waiting in that way he had. There was something about the way he stopped her from leaving… She knew that he knew she didn’t belong here; that he knew there was something wrong with her. She knew, too, that he knew a lot more than a Zorin-born outsider was supposed to.
He gently turned her around to face him.
“You have freckles… I know that’s not what you call them, or what they mean to you, but that’s what they are. If you spent more time outside, you’d have more of them. They come from the sun. It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you. I’m sorry if I scared you, Amelia.”
She felt a punch to her stomach on hearing her name from his lips. Nobody outside these walls even knew she existed at all. He drew his finger over the A.L. on her neck, the initials that were tattooed into the base when she was chosen to become a replenisher. Every girl in the same group had unique initials, and no two names started with the same letter. She’d be the only Amelia in this 16 year stretch at this compound, but she knew there were others out there, other Amelias that she would likely never meet. That’s how he knew.
“Breathe… I keep scaring you like this. I’m sorry. I really need to know if you are in danger for helping me. If there are cameras or if there is any chance anyone else saw me fall. If you were alone. I need to know if I can hide here for a little while…”
She looked down again, for safety from blushing.
“Please, look at me.” He put his hand under her chin, gently lifting her tear-streaked face up to his, and stared at her with such intensity that her face burned.
She didn’t know about the cameras, or even if there were any. There didn’t seem to be much need for security here, considering the impossibly tall walls surrounding the grounds. Not so impossibly tall. Anything that was not done according to protocol was risky – that much everybody knew, but having him turn himself in was not an option. They would execute him, or at the very least, beat him, torture him, and possibly trade him for one of the old guards captured by Zoriners decades ago, long before her time.
Looking at him now, she felt compelled to protect him, which struck her as odd as he was the one who seemed in control here. He knew far too much for one without an implant. It just didn’t make sense. She should hate him. His kind had killed her family. They made those like her into exiles. She should have shot him with no hesitation, and yet, she couldn’t do it. Not even with his hand pulling the trigger.
They had fought on the wrong side of the war and lost, hadn’t they? They were the one true enemy of the human race – savages, destroyers, at least that’s what her implant was telling her. Yet, this boy before her wasn’t adding up.
Turning her face away from him, she asked in a whisper, “Did your people kill my family? My mom and dad… My baby sister… My dog, my dog Blanche? I need to know…”
He stepped back from her then, giving her a little room to breathe, away from his warm, gentle touch. He lowered his eyes and hesitated for just a few seconds before blurting out, “I think so. It was before my time, all of it, but yes, my people may have killed yours, Amelia. I’m sorry.”
He looked up at her at this, as if knowing why she asked. He walked over to the sink, slowly, straight-backed, his hands fisted at his sides, and stood there motionless for a while. She couldn’t see his face in the darkened mirror.
She waited. Finally, he turned and walked back towards her, only now he held her stun gun in his right hand. She didn’t remember him taking it from her. She froze, too surprised and scared to scream. He closed the remaining distance, not quite looking in her eyes. She let go of the breath she didn’t realize she was holding when he handed her the gun, handle first.
The gun was buzzing softly, telling her that he had flicked the safety off. Still not looking at her face, he laced his fingers behind his head and nodded, calmly, “I’m ready.”
He turned his back to the barrel of the gun and walked towards the stairs.
Doctor Sandra Groning
February 4, 2107 Manchester, UK
The orderlies no longer broke for lunch. The clinic has been frightfully understaffed for too long now to keep track of who clocked in and who didn’t, so Sandra Groning took all the help she could get from whoever felt like helping these days. She looked ragged herself. She had lost weight, her eyes seemed to have sunk in deeper than when she was fighting cancer. Even as a doctor she was surprised at the physical manifestations of exhaustion.
She walked over to the fountain and put her face directly over the stream of clean cold water, one of the few luxuries that were still available to everyone. The cold was just bearable, but at least now she was awake enough to go to her lab. Over twelve hundred tests and no closer to finding that magic bullet. Something had to give. She couldn’t take it for too much longer, especially with all the newly homeless replicating themselves. Something had to just work at this stage, so that she never had to pull a frozen corpse of a newborn from the snow bank on her way home. That was too much to ask of anyone.
She almost ran into Jason, lost in thought as she was, who seemed out of breath, but had an uncommon smile on his face. He didn’t seem to have aged much in the decade they worked together. Somehow he retained his youthful, almost childish face, and the few lines drawn symmetrically across his forehead didn’t make him look ragged or aged in the least. He was gesturing wildly towards the lab, not saying anything, just pointing, so they sprinted, he casually, she gagging on spit, lungs unable to quite keep up like they used to. God, she felt so, so old now. Ancient, even. Chronology be damned, she’d seen far too much death for her 26 years to ever feel young again. And far too much of that death were babies, so the mere thought of being with a guy in that way was a turn off.
The doors to the lab were wide open, and her staff moved timidly against the wall while Jason caught his breath enough to explain: “The extra dose of AlterX in the bonobos seems to have worked, when combined with half the Ovix pill. Twenty three of the bonobo females have been thoroughly taken care of by the males for weeks now, and yet, not a one has the CRH in their system. It’s like it just didn’t take. Basically, not a one of them is pregnant…” He slumped into his swivel chair and stared at the techs, then at her. Nobody said anything. It was as if this news itself was too fragile to acknowledge fully, to speak of in anything but a whisper.
She grabbed her notes, stuffed them unseen into her briefcase, and bolted out of the lab, not bothering to close the door behind her. She needed a drink. Someplace quiet. And a bit of time. A tall Gin and Tonic, single in a double, a bit of time to process what she, what they may have just accomplished by accidentally mixing related meds in a single sample.
The technician responsible for dosing this group of bonobo females left unexpectedly and the new kid, and he really was a kid, didn’t bother to read the notes before medicating the girls with AlterX. It was an accident. She was furious the day she found out and fired the kid. Jeremy, or something that sounded like Jeremy, just out of college, eager blue eyes through the specs, decent smile, too young to see bodies of dead babies.
The pub was warm and smoky. She beat the snow off her boots on the stoop at the door and walked to her favorite spot in the darker corner of the place, farthest space away from the door where the bartender could still hand her a drink. She felt far too weary to walk to get the refill if she’d need one. Charlie, who’s been tending the bar here for as long as she could remember, could always tell if she needed to talk or be left alone. He sensed immediately that it was her alone night, made her a drink she didn’t have to ask for, slid the payment token silently across the counter and walked away, quiet as a ghost.
She had always admired Charlie for that bizarre ability to read people’s moods. Or maybe it was just her moods he read so well. She never quite got the hang of paying attention to people around her. Not Jeremy, Jerry… Jerry Stiles. Single mom raised, smart kid, scholarship to Cornell or some such, a quiet, decent sort. She pulled out her phone and dialed 2 for Jason, “I need you to call Jerry and hire him back with my apologies. I want him on my team. Tell him I was in a lousy mood. Estrogen deficiency, whatever. I want him back… Thanks.”
She was distractedly doodling on a napkin with her immaculately un-chewed pencil. Jason chewed all of his, to barely centimeter-sized nubs. She always razzed him about that lousy habit, telling him that it was impossible for him to ever hide his DNA, constantly wearing gloves notwithstanding. She giggled to herself at the thought of Jason ever needing to hide anything from anyone. That man-child was an open book. A very thorough and efficient open book. And not altogether bad looking. But he was far too taken with her fame, such as it was, and her reputation as an anti-sexer to ever see her that way. Just as well, she thought. Just as well.
She looked up at the sound of ice clinking. Charlie refilled her drink without asking if she’d wanted one. She did. She had allowed Jason to look into him once, years ago, when it seemed everyone was trying their damndest to make her stop her research. They were all afraid for her then, and walking home alone, going to a pub, none of these seemed safe.
She needed her alone time then more than ever, and so she conceded to Jason running a background check on Charlie, and her doorman, and the occasional flower delivery boy when she had to send flowers to the parents of the kids she couldn’t save. That was when you could still send flowers. And when there were doormen, she thought wryly.
But Charlie was still here, and he checked out alright. A wife of 23 years who died in a car crash, two boys fighting in one god awful place or another. Two lost boys he thinks about all the time but can’t touch. Two boys whose faces are frozen in the only not-dusty frame behind the beer kegs. A smiling red-headed chap of about 20 and a somber looking younger kid, standing on some beach next to a cold looking sea or ocean, staring directly into the camera. For some reason she’d always wanted to ask Charlie who took the photo, but never quite got the courage to. Somehow she always knew that it wasn’t Charlie. That even in that photograph they were already lost to him.
She looked down at her doodles. Symmetrical, yet sloppy. She crumpled the napkin and flicked it into the ashtray, watching a small spray of ashes or dust rise quickly and fall back, slowly. She turned away. They needed to find a way of testing the compound on human subjects now. They would need to sell it to the board, of course, but they still had plenty of money for the meds, and the research part of it seemed to be almost over. She’d be willing as a subject, but that would mean her actually having sex, and she had nobody to do it with. They would need a sample of at least a hundred healthy, appropriately aged females, preferably between 20-34, of different races, in case there is an immunity that’s genetically based, all willing to go on record about every intimate experience, preferably with multiple partners, or they would have to test the health of every man in the sample as well, which likely won’t be feasible.
Charlie was staring at her, intently. Asking without asking what was bothering her. In an uncharacteristic and likely Gin and Tonic fueled looseness of tongue, she looked him dead in the face and blurted out, “I need to find about one hundred healthy, youngish females willing to have lots of sex on the record for my research,” and she broke down laughing. It was the most unlike her thing she’d ever said in this place, or most places outside of her lab, and it was strangely liberating. She was collecting her things when Charlie, rather gravely, responded, “Prostitutes?”
That’s it. Prostitutes. They do the sex thing for money every day. For very little money, nowadays. And birth control is rarely an option, as it costs far too much for the girls and the men don’t particularly care if they impregnate a prostitute… This could indeed be the most perfect drink she’s ever had at this pub.
She ran back to the clinic and then to her lab only to find it deserted and the lights off. She looked at her phone: 3:21 a.m. Everyone was asleep, at home, and would remain so until at least 8:00 in the morning, when Jason would come in bearing a thermos of coffee and a pair of nutro-bars. He was always worried she’d forget to eat to the point of starving herself to death, so at the very least, she was guaranteed this bit of tasteless but highly nutritious breakfast, all 940 calories of it.
She pulled out her cot and folded her winter coat under her head for a pillow. She needed a blanket. She’s always needed a blanket, or anything really to pull over her body to be able to sleep, even in the summer. It wasn’t a warmth thing, it was a comfort thing, this needing to feel the weight of something covering her. The pillow she could do without, so she unfurled her coat over herself and curled up, arms over her head, and flicked the light switch off. Tomorrow, she would task Jason with finding the human test subjects. Anything that happens after that she didn’t yet want to think about.
For all these years, all she wanted was to find a way of making pregnancy be a choice that required a physician’s intervention, not the other way around. Making it so that parents never had to bury their young because there was simply not enough food and warmth to keep them safe past breastfeeding, and at times, not even then. She was saving the dead babies from ever been born accidentally, thinking that if pregnancy did not almost automatically follow sex, she’d see fewer corpses of newborns on the streets, or starved, obviously abandoned toddlers breaking into old apartment buildings just to keep warm for one more night, subsisting on snow water and god knows what else. This, what they may have just discovered, would cost almost nothing to make. It would fix this. They could make these pills available for nothing with the freely donated meds and still have enough research funds left over to use for distribution. They could put up automated dispensaries in all the cities where one could anonymously take one pill and have no chance of having babies from simply being intimate with someone, or maybe, they could work it into a routine vaccine protocol.
They would have to come up with a reversal procedure of course, for when someone genuinely wanted to have a child, but now that they know what compounds work, it would be something as simple as putting together one shot or pill that negates the initial effect. This would take a little bit of the cash they have left, and maybe a few months to perfect the delivery method. It would be a small price to pay for giving people this kind of control, a very small price to pay for not having to bury so many babies.
She closed her eyes and for the millionth time she remembered when she learned what she would end up doing with her years of med school and pathology training. She drifted much against her will to the one dream she wished she never had again and couldn’t stop herself from dreaming, knowing the whole time it was a memory. It was all far too real, and after all these years, still far too close, too intimate, too detailed to not wake up screaming in the middle of. And far too personal to ever share with Jason or Charlie or her thankfully now-dead mother… She was drifting into it yet again.
The snow had just began to melt, not enough to turn to slush, but enough to feel uncomfortably slidy underfoot. It was the tail end of the first week of April, and the trees and shrubs on her street seemed to eye the world with curiosity again. She could almost smell the promise of green steaming off the trunks and branches, and the rare plush buds appearing here and there drew her to them with their impossible new softness. She’d take her gloves off and timidly run her fingers over the sides of the buds, inhale their still stale, almost mildewy scent, and spend far too much time imagining what the next week or month or year would bring, and she’d have to run to not miss her train to school.
This was an every Spring occurrence and as much as she wanted to tear herself away from this examining, from this prying into the secret world of newness, she couldn’t pull away in time to not be late. So she ran, through the slippery snow, pulling her hat and scarf off in the process for suddenly feeling hotter than the weather report indicated she should, and still hoping to catch that very last car of the train, even if she had to hitch a ride on the outside ledge. Sometimes she made it. More often than not, she did not, and on those days, as there was no longer any point in trying to get to school, she’d wander the streets of Manchester, following whatever streets caught her attention phonetically.
On that day the street that appealed to her was called Madeline. She always thought of that word as indicative of some mysterious female, certainly not something as commonplace as a type of pastry. It drew her, and she walked for what seemed an inordinately long time. The hat and the scarf went back on. She was chilled to the bone now, and nothing on this street promised a solace of a well heated hearth. The entire street seemed to be abandoned. The apartment buildings, shops, pubs – everything was boarded up, closed, deserted. Not even stray cats or dogs were roaming this street.
She felt the urge to turn around and run back to the main stretch, but as she looked back towards the road she came from, she suddenly saw it: smallish hills, inorganic, too similar in size and too evenly spread not to be man-made. They were dotting the snowbanks in almost straight lines, the snow now melting, tiny crosses made from sticks in the top of each. So many of them, lining both sides of the street.
She stood there, frozen, and watched the bits of white powder slide off the tiny bodies buried underneath. So, so tiny. She screamed then, but it didn’t matter. She was alone with dozens of corpses of babies defrosting into the new Spring, one that should have been their first, by the looks of it. She ran then. Fast. As fast as her feet and lungs could take. Only this dream, this memory was always just behind her. Even now when she may have just solved this entire mess. After the 20-hour days, and death threats, and no one to share her bed with, this street still followed her.
She sat up and pressed “2” for Jason. She was still his boss, and if she needed to wake him up, so be it. She needed a bloody hug, and for the first time in all these years of working with him, she was not ashamed to ask him for one.
Riley, March 16, 2226
Riley was fuming at Brody for getting him in trouble with Mr. Sanders again. He knew that by the time he got home, his parents will have been pacing the small yard out back for an hour, thinking of a suitable punishment. In that regard, Brody was lucky. His parents were gone, and his uncle had no stomach for discipline. Maybe that’s why he did it. Always talking back to Sanders, laughing at his stuttering, without even trying to hide it.
But he had no right to drag him into his stupid fights with the headmaster. None whatsoever. And yet, every single time Brody did something stupid, he stuck up for him, played along in whatever game Brody had concocted, so that he wouldn’t be alone in it. Ever since he’d lost Ella, Brody was it. The only person he could talk to about stuff that actually mattered, things that were never assigned as homework, and things his parents would never ask him about or talk about in his presence.
After his performance in school the last few months, he was pretty certain he’d be severely beaten and then grounded. Locked up in their shack of a house for a month maybe, unable to even coax them into letting him walk Samson. Curse you, Brody, and your stupid big mouth.
It would start to warm up soon. The air he was sucking into his lungs no longer pricked, and the metallic smell of coldness was almost gone. The snow would be melting by the end of the week, he thought. His favorite time of year, and he’ll miss most of it. The newness of the buds, the first flies and bugs spreading their little translucent wings, shaking off the long sleep of winter. Or maybe they weren’t alive in the winter at all and will just be born with the Spring – he didn’t know. Biology was not something he’d be allowed to touch for a few years yet. But it didn’t matter. The bugs mattered. He liked watching them. In some of them, you could see their insides if you were lucky enough to get that close without spooking them.
Brody stuck a dragonfly on a needle once and brought it to him. By the time he saw it, the dragonfly was not moving. It had just sat there, the dead wings extended out, the big black eyes still, not seeing anything anymore. He’d cried then, right in front of Brody, and Ella had comforted him, had gotten him to stop crying. He hadn’t talked to Brody for six months after that.
But Ella was gone now. He slowed down at the end of Willis, buying himself a few more minutes before the inevitable. He could see the corner of their roof just beyond the trees now. He could almost see his father, chewing on a sprig of something or other he picked up from their little herb garden, or at least that’s what mom called it. It was really just a dozen old pots with dirt in them, and just a few always struggling plants craning their necks to the sun. Mint and rosemary and something else whose name always escaped him were the only things that ever took.
Father always told mother to put the plants inside for the winter, but their house was so dark, mother knew that even in the midst of the coldest winter, the plants would be better off outside, feeding on light as they did.
The days when she’d spot new growth in one of her pots were the happiest. She’d sing to herself while cooking supper. She’d tuck him and even Ella to bed at night. She’d hug father, unprovoked. She’d even laugh at something silly Samson did on occasion.
He remembered coming home the day they’d taken Ella, only that would happen later, and mother found a new sprig of thyme or something that smelled just as awful growing out of a pot. She ran out to meet him in the street, something she hasn’t done in years, and she was beaming. Her eyes were sparkly and all the sadness was gone out of them. He let her hug him and kiss him right there in the street, hoping nobody was watching. But he was happy to see her like that.
That was almost two years ago now. That night Ella was gone. His mother’s sadness came back into her eyes and stayed there, even with the new greens in her pots. He could feel the sadness leaking out from under the unfixable space in the corner of their roof, like smoke from father’s old pipe that he still kept even though there hasn’t been any tobacco to put in it for years now.
He turned the corner and picked up the pace to his house. He was suddenly eager to get it all over with. The door was wide open. He wiped his boots on the torn up mat in the mud room, knowing that it wouldn’t really do any good, but mother always insisted on it anyway. The house was eerily silent. His parents were not in the kitchen or the yard. He could see all of the back yard from the small kitchen window without even needing to turn his head. Something was wrong. He felt that wrongness that night their parents fought with the strange men and they lost Ella. It made it hurt to breathe. Samson… Where the hell was Samson?
That was the wrongness. The dog was always there to meet him at the door, his ears up, tail wagging into the walls of the narrow hallway, and his soft whimpering noises. For some reason, Samson never barked. “Samson!!! Come here, boy!” Screaming into the silent house made it feel worse that no one replied. And that there was no sign of Samson. He took his coat off and hung it up on the rack, only now noticing that all the other coats were gone. Hats and scarves too. And Samson’s collar was lying opened at the link on the floor by the mat.
He should have noticed it earlier, but he wasn’t looking down then. Stupid of him, not to notice. It was a habit of his to analyze everything he’d done wrong. As if it would bring Samson running through the mud room. Or his parents. Or Ella. He knew then, knew for sure they were all gone. Not a temporary out for a walk gone or an emergency visit to the only doctor who’d still take them gone, or to barter for a small quail gone. Ella kind of gone.
He threw his coat back on and ran to where Brody’s uncle worked on old boats, all the way up the road to the railway station that hasn’t seen a train on it since before he was born. That’s where Brody went to every day after school. He said Andy needed his help, but he knew Brody just stood there most days staring at these ancient bits of machinery and imagining what it was like to live back when the trains carried people and machines to any place they wanted to get to. That was the stuff he and Brody talked about. He and Brody have never been outside of Waller. There wasn’t any point in going anywhere much these days.
By the time he got to the warehouse, his hands were frozen and he had to hold them under his coat for a bit to warm up enough to be able to pull the door open. It creaked metallically, letting him in to the barrage of voices, all adult, all stopping abruptly as he came in. Brody was leaning on the back wall, not looking at him. This, too, was full of wrongness. Why wouldn’t Brody look at him, or run up and put him into a headlock like they always did with each other? A woman separated herself from the others and slowly walked over towards him. She was smiling at him, not unpleasantly, but there were no sparkles in her eyes.
He wanted to run away from this smile and from what he knew she needed to tell him. The ugly thing that would make this wrongness permanent. He just needed some time to unthink it all. To start his walk back from school over again. Only now he’d take a different route. He’d think different thoughts. He wouldn’t kick the rocks from under the coal dust. He’d stop by the fence and erase the thing he wrote on it, the thing that would have got him in trouble if anyone saw him do it. Maybe that’s what it was. Maybe somebody saw him write it and now they took his parents and Samson away as punishment. He needed to know if he’d done this.
The woman was saying something to him, softly, but he didn’t hear her. He didn’t want to hear her. He turned around, his wet boots squeaking on the tiles, and bolted for the door, only he couldn’t push it open now. And so he banged his shoulder against it, putting all of his weight behind him, over and over and over again. Nobody stopped him. He knew nobody would stop him then, not even Brody. He knew then nobody could undo any of this. Slumping against the wall next to the electronically locked door, he looked up at the strange woman and nodded. He was ready now. He was not going to let himself turn into a whimpering little boy like he did when Ella was gone.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Andy carrying a steaming thermos to him. He knew it was tea. Andy always drank tea, usually spiked with moonshine he bartered some part for. He had a feeling this thermos was spiked and he didn’t want it. He and Brody had snuck plenty of the stuff when Andy had to run an errand and they were left alone in the warehouse. He kept it in the little cupboard behind the tool rack. It had a lock on it, and Andy always had the key on him, but the lock was so old and so simple, Brody figured out a way to pick it with a penny nail years ago.
He caught himself shaking his head at the offering of a cup of steaming brew. It was too quiet in this room, too quiet for so many strangers being in it. They were all looking at him. As if waiting for him to do something. Something as stupid as bruising his shoulder against a sealed door. Or maybe they were waiting for him to cry.
The morning he woke up when Ella was gone, he cried. He cried for so long that he missed breakfast and then school. Brody came to see him afterwards but he refused to see him. He didn’t want Brody to ever see him cry again. But he needed to then. He could either cry or stop breathing, and his body wasn’t letting him stop breathing. His parents let him be that day. They let him skip supper too, and that night his mother came to tuck him in, but he could tell from the sadness in her eyes that he couldn’t ask her to comfort him.
The woman was speaking again, less softly now, “Riley. I don’t know how to begin to tell you this. Any of this, really. I don’t know how much you know about the wars and what’s been happening here for the last four decades or so. We don’t tend to discuss things like this with little kids much…”
He cringed. “Where are my parents?” He hoped his voice wasn’t of a little kid. She walked a pace closer to him and crouched, so her no longer smiling face was in front of his, “They are gone, Riley. The Alliance took them. Your parents knew this might happen. They asked me to look after you.”
The words seemed so detached from him. It was like she was describing someone he didn’t know, other people, strangers, not his parents, not him. He stared at her, waiting for her to tell him that she made a mistake, and it wasn’t his family that was now lost. She didn’t. “Where is Samson?” almost a whisper, that. Brody ran up to him then, tears in his eyes, and flung his arms around his neck, sobbing into his coat, “Samson was barking at them and they shot him, Riley. They shot him to keep him from barking. I’m so sorry, Riley…”
Samson, who never barked, was shot for barking. This was the thing he could hold on to. Samson never barked. Everybody knew that. They’ve had him since Riley was a toddler and he never once barked at anything or anyone. He laughed in relief. He knew now this was about someone else’s family, not his. Couldn’t be his. Samson never barked.
He needed to go home. They would all be there, waiting for him, worried that it took him so long to get home from school. Mom and dad and Samson. All but Ella. He stood up, looking Andy in the eyes. “I have to go home, Andy. I have to go home, and you have to let me.” Andy nodded and reached for his coat. Brody was already at the door. They were going with him, and there was no arguing this point, he knew, so he didn’t. He just needed to get home, and they’ll see that everything was okay.
Mom would be just starting on supper. Dad would be chewing on a piece of mint or whatever he was in the mood for today. They’d be very angry at him for what happened in school today, and his father would very likely beat him and then ground him, and he wouldn’t argue with any of it. He could whip him with that old skinny belt if he wanted to until his back was bleeding, he would smile through it all.
He was running now, Andy and Brody barely keeping up, just past Mrs Olden’s house with her perpetually littered yard, and four more houses till the last turn. From here he’d normally already see the thin sliver of smoke from the chimney. Maybe mother didn’t want to start supper until she knew he was home and safe. Maybe they were out looking for him at Brody’s. Just a few more steps, and he was there. Staring at the very words he wrote on the fence written in yellow paint across the front door of his house. The door was left ajar and was swinging lightly, creaking as it went, the words turning into a blur at the arcs.
He stood there staring, unable to take another step, as the three words came swinging in and out of view, edges blurring more and more now, as blurry as Ella’s face has become, and saltily running down his frozen cheeks. Brody was handing him a thermos, nodding for him to take it. The cap was already off. He drank from it, greedily, not stopping until he was done, burning his tongue and then the rest of him, all the way down to the pit of his stomach, burning through the blur of words on the fence, words on the house, Ella’s face, until he finally felt warm and the distance between where he stood and the swaying front door was suddenly too great.
He knew then, knew for sure, that the wrongness was permanent. And that he would never again walk through that door.
Drake, March 25, 2236
Female Replenishers Compound
When Drake saw them bring Ella in, his heart sank. He would have rather he never saw her again, than see her with the slave band on her hands, and those eyes, her always alive and watching everything eyes now so timid, all the fire gone out of them. People didn’t change like this, he knew. His Ella would have fought them, even with the stun gun jammed between her shoulder blades. She would have at least screamed, to let them know that her voice was still hers. That they didn’t own her, not yet anyway. But this Ella didn’t do any of those things.
This Ella looked half-asleep, as if she didn’t know what was happening to her. As if she didn’t know what they would take from her, but everybody knew that. They’ve been doing it for so long, and didn’t even try to hide it. It was as if they wanted everyone to know. Maybe they did. Just another way for them to keep them afraid, to keep them from fighting. He laughed at the thought of anyone fighting anymore. They were all half starved now, and far too broken.
That was a week ago, and he hadn’t seen her come out of the compound once. Most slaves didn’t though. He didn’t know where they put her, and the few notes he passed around the slave kitchen went unanswered. Nobody seemed to know anything about her.
He was hoping Riley was gone, not dead gone, not Brody gone, but gone some place far enough away from this compound. There were rumors he’d been looking for her everywhere he could get to for years. Maybe his search took him well out of range. He couldn’t see her like this. Not ever. He tried looking after him when they took Dave and Anna, but he didn’t let anyone in, not really. He just didn’t seem to want to talk to anyone, not to him, not even to Brody.
He was like a ghost of the old Riley, sleepwalking through the mandatory school years, doing okay enough, from what he heard, and then, as soon as it was over, he was gone. He should have told him about Samson. He never could get over that the bastards shot his dog, that sweet mutt who loved on everybody. He buried him when he heard what happened, before the kid got home, so at least he didn’t have to see him like that, to remember him like that, with the hole in his chest, and all that blood coming out of it. He wanted to tell him so many times that he’d buried his Samson, but just couldn’t bring himself to do it, to remind him of it.
He filled up his large thermos with steaming hot tea at the slave kitchen, and grabbed a few bars that tasted like sawdust, but would keep his belly from growling for the six hours he’d spend in the tower. He didn’t know why they trusted him to guard the place or what he was guarding it from. The damn walls were too high to scale anyway. Maybe that’s why they let him do this. They didn’t have boy slaves and probably didn’t know what the hell to do with him. Just as well. He liked being alone, and the tower was as good a place as any for that.
He climbed up the ladder to the door without counting the steps. He’d done it so many times, he hardly paid any attention to it anymore. Maybe people did change. He couldn’t even climb to the roof of their tiny house when he was a kid, and they had a kitten stuck up there. The poor bastard was making the most pitiful noises too, screaming in its tiny voice. He tried to, he really did, but his hands just wouldn’t listen to him when he was just a few meters up.
It wasn’t that he was afraid of hurting himself, he got hurt plenty. It was that the world moved and swayed down below making him feel shaky and wrong everywhere. His insides just weren’t where they were supposed to be when he was up there, making him too dizzy to climb, or to think, and so he slid down, and ran across the street to get Ella, and he was so ashamed. But she didn’t even ask. She went up to the roof quickly, without once looking down and then sat there for a long time holding the frightened kitten, petting it and talking to it in that way she had. And the next morning she told everyone in school how brave Drake was, how he had saved that poor kitten, and he was even more ashamed.
He heard a branch snap somewhere outside the fence. They didn’t have any trees on the inside for some reason. Another crunch and snap. Something was off. It wasn’t windy enough for the branches to snap like that. He walked over to the open window and pointed his ray at the fence. He adjusted the spread of the ray to cover a larger slice of the wall and waited. The light lit up a tall tree just behind the fence, so tall it must have been there for centuries. He always liked looking at this tree, swaying lightly, the leaves making a swishing sound, soft, always soft.
It was all alive with leaves now, earlier than last year, he thought. This winter was gone in a flash, as if in a hurry to leave this sad place. Something gray moved in the trunk of the tree, like a shadow, but there was nothing to make shadows this high up. He couldn’t find it now, so he waited, the ray starting to fade some. He’d have to remember to charge the damn thing tomorrow. There it was again, only now he could see the ghost of Riley in it. Didn’t so much see as felt it, the thing he was afraid of. Riley not being gone after all.
He knew the guards at the compound would have seen the light, and that they would come to see what he was shining the ray on for so long. Stupid of him to have done that. He had to tell him to run, somehow, without screaming it, without alerting the guards, but there was no way to do that. He flicked the ray off completely, and slid down the ladder of the tower as fast as he could, letting go with still a few meters left and landing hard. Nothing was broken. Lucky, that.
He started towards the compound at a brisk walk, hoping to intercept the guards before they crossed the lawn, trying to make up something about a squirrel running up and down the trunk in his head that he could jot down on his pad quickly enough for them, nothing to worry about, just him being stupid or scared. They’d buy it too. Slaves were supposed to be stupid and scared. They’d laugh at him and go back inside to their drinking, or games or whatever they did when not bringing new slaves in.
He made it almost all the way to the door of the guard house, when he saw from the corner of his eye the three shapes running along the wall too far to the left for him to be able to catch up. They were almost at the tower. He stood there, mortified, hoping Riley saw them and ran or hid up in the tree. Hoping he hadn’t try to climb over the wall. He knew he had screwed up, running out here like an idiot, cutting across in a straight line, not thinking clearly enough. Guards wouldn’t run across the lawn. He should have known that. The wall was safety. Of course they’d use the damn wall, the cowards. He, of all people, should have known that.
He was nearing the tower when he heard it first, the faint buzzing of the stun gun, or rather three stun guns. He could tell by the sound that they were set to lethal. There was nothing he could do to help him now.
“Hey, you bloody dumb mute, get your lazy ass over here. We found us a wannabe rapist while you were asleep at your post,” the one with an ugly mustache was glaring at him. He looked like he’d been drinking. They probably all were, but not enough to give him any kind of an edge. He lowered his head and walked over. The three guards were standing over the boy, spitting on him, and occasionally kicking him in the ribs. His hands were banded in front of him. His head down, knees digging into the lawn. He didn’t make a sound when they kicked him, and there was nothing he could do about wiping the spit off, with his hands the way they were.
“I have half a mind to shoot you, mute, for good measure. What do you say to that?” The mustache walked up to him, and stuck the barrel of the gun under his chin, “Here, or should I aim for your dick?” The gun travelled lower, “You still even have a dick or did they cut that off too?” The other two were laughing now, holding on to their crotches, pointing at his. He had to let them, he knew. So he stood there, head still down, not looking the mustache in the eyes, trying to make his face look calm. They wanted their entertainment. They wanted their dumb, mute, maybe dickless slave. At least they stopped kicking at Riley’s ribs. That was something.
The jacket of the mustache beeped in short bursts. He took his comm out and pressed it to his ear, “Yes, of course. On our way. Apologies. Yes. But… I understand.” He flicked it off, and he noted with not a little satisfaction that he was no longer laughing. None of them were.
“Hassinger wants him, apparently alive,” the mustache spat towards the other guards, “and you too, although I’ve no idea what she could possibly want with a dumbass dickless mute. Let’s move it.” The gun was now pointing at Drake’s back, and the commotion behind him let him know the boy was dragged to his feet and walking. At least he could still walk.
He’d never been in this part of the compound before. He didn’t even know it existed. He always thought all the floors here went up, but they just went down, using an old service elevator at the end of a hallway you could only get into with a fingerprint scan. He knew he needed to remember this, if he had any hope of finding his way back here. He didn’t think Hassinger would execute him. Male slaves were far too rare for that. And she seemed to genuinely feel sorry for how dumb Zoriners were. It made it easier for her to convince the girls of their inherent gifts, their purpose.
The guard with the ugly mustache pointed at a large metal door with his comm and it slid open, as if running on gears, the grinding metallic noise making his teeth hurt. The room looked like he always imagined old prison cells looked. Bare concrete walls, a tiny bed, a sink, a toilet, and two metal stools in the middle. That’s it.
Hassinger was standing with her back to them when they entered. Without turning around, she lifted her hand and beckoned them all in, “You are dismissed, all but Drake and the boy. Leave.” Her voice was colder than when she was giving her speeches, but still not unpleasant. There was a huskiness, a softness to it, as if she had spent her whole life never needing to raise it to be heard.
The guards shoved Riley into the middle of the room, pushed him onto one of the stools and left, silently, but for the grinding of the opening and closing of the door. She was still standing with her back to them. “I will need help guarding this boy, and I need it to be someone I can trust not to talk.” She turned around then, looking him over, as if he were an especially interesting species of pig.
“Nice to finally make yourself useful, isn’t it, Drake?” He nodded, hoping his face didn’t betray the dread he felt about the boy, about what she wanted him to not talk about. She seemed satisfied with her inspection, as she took his hand and programmed his print into the door’s id pad, and handed him a comm, “You’ll need these two to get in an out of here. Do you know how to use them?” He nodded again, and moved to stand by the door, as he thought she’d want a guard to do. She walked over to where Riley was, slowly, as if time was of no concern to her.
“Name. Do you have one, Zoriner?” She sat down opposite him, staring at the top of his head. He watched her reach out and roughly grab Riley under the chin and jerk his head up, “You will look at me, Zoriner. I want your name.” He was looking at her now and shaking his head. Why wouldn’t he lie? Make up a bloody name. She had no way of knowing what his actual name was. What could it hurt? He wished Riley wasn’t sitting with his back to him, wished he could talk to him in some way, even if just by shaking or nodding his head.
Abruptly, Hassinger got up and walked over to the wall behind the bed. She was pressing her fingers into the wall, as if she were typing something into it. The wall slid open and a slick metal tray came out. She picked up what he now saw was a small thin-bladed knife and walked over to Riley, “Stand up.” He did. She shoved the chair out of the way, walked around him and with one move, sliced his shirt open.
Drake flinched, and noted with dismay that Riley did not. He was playing a dangerous game, Riley was. He was being defiant. It wasn’t smart of him, and if anything, Riley was smart. That couldn’t have changed in the few years he hadn’t known him. He needed to find a way of helping him somehow or this was going to end badly. He couldn’t do that to Ella, not this.
Hassinger was back at the tray, calmly going through a variety of white handles. He couldn’t tell what those were. She finally seemed to have found what she wanted. It still looked like a handle to him, something that you’d put on the end of a whip maybe, but there was no whip part. “I don’t care about your name anymore, Zoriner. So don’t tell me. I want to know which of my girls you came here for. That I will make you tell me if it kills you. I don’t expect anyone to miss you where you come from and Drake here – he doesn’t talk. We are far enough underground, where nobody will hear you scream, kid. Oh, and I forgot to tell you,” she leaned in close to Riley’s face, “I will enjoy getting that name out of you.”
She was standing in front of Riley, her hand on that weird handle thing, fingers tapping on the plastic of it. She must have pressed something on there, for suddenly, a long, thin, razor sharp piece of metal sprung out of it. He heard it vibrate through the air. It made his insides hurt.
She pulled out a small silver screen and pointed it at the ceiling. A metal rope flew out of an invisible opening, with a wide cuff on the end. She pulled the cuff through the slave band on Riley’s hands and locked it in place. The rope started to go up, taking Riley’s hands with it, until they were all the way up over his head.
He stood unmoving, head still up, but for just a moment he could see his face tense, an almost imperceptible knot appearing and disappearing in his jaw.
“It’s been a very long time since I’ve had to do this. I’ve missed it.”
She waved the razor whip through the air, slowly, making sure Riley saw the thinness of it, the sharpness. She was watching his face, looking at him. Then she smiled, a full on smile, and he knew that she didn’t want Riley to talk, that she wanted to do this, to hurt him. She was a bloody sadist.
She walked around the boy, still playing with the whip, “There are 26 girls in this compound. Since you won’t divulge the name of the one you broke in here for, I have no choice but to punish you for all 26 of them. Your back is just big enough for the 26, lucky for you, or we’d have to move on to other places. Feel free to scream, Zoriner. It’ll make me enjoy this more,” and she swung out her arm and brought the whip out some and then flicked her wrist, the whip curling away from Riley and then into his back with that awful metallic buzzing.
He watched as a deep gash opened up in the top of Riley’s back, streaming blood. The hand was up again, and again, and again. He looked away. He wished Riley would scream, but by now he knew that he wouldn’t. He closed his eyes, counting each of the blows, hoping the kid survived this. Hoping this was something that could be survived. Finally, the buzzing of the furling and unfurling metal stopped. It was over. He couldn’t bring himself to look at the boy. He heard the rope come down and, the metal on metal sound of the cuff sliding away from the slave band.
“Wake up, mute, and get him out of here. You can unlock his band when he is at the gate.” She dropped the whip on the tray, pressed it into the wall, and without once looking at Riley walked out the door. When the grinding stopped, he finally looked at the boy. Riley was swaying, eyes shut, but still standing where she left him. His back just streaming redness.
He ran to the sink and turned the water on, found the coldest setting and let it run. He unlocked the slave band, and gently pulled what was left of his shirt off. He’d need it to try to take some of the pain away. The cold water should help. He hoped it would help. He soaked the shirt, fingers going numb at the coldness of it, and pressed it as gently as he could to Riley’s neck and let the streams from it run down over the impossibly deep wounds, turning pink and then red. He kept at it for a long time, until Riley raised his hand, stopping him, “I’m okay, Drake. I can walk now.”
He faced him and put his hands out in front of him, nodding to him to put the band back on. It hurt him to do this to him now, but the kid was right. He had to do it, had to play the guard until it was safe not to. So they walked, very slowly through the hallways and then up to the main floor and to the lawn.
There was a slight breeze in the air, and on it came just a hint of sweetness, jasmine or orange blossoms, though he knew it was far too early for those to be blooming now. But there it was still, the kind of smell that should signify the end of school for the year, when carefree kids would roam the streets falling in love, plucking leaves off of trees to mask the smell of stolen smokesticks on their fingers, but never these blooms. The good kids wouldn’t touch the blooms. This Riley, he was one of the good ones.
They were almost at the tower. Riley walking slowly, carefully, not once turning around to look at him, not saying a word. Maybe he could tell him about Samson now. He had a right to know. Riley stopped at the gate and turned around, looking at him, “I know she’s here, Drake. I will come back for her. I’ll find her and get her out of here. I have to. But I can’t use the tree anymore. I can’t get you in trouble. I’ll find another way.” He unlocked the slave band and dropped it on the ground. He didn’t want the damn thing in his hands. “I have to go, Drake,” Riley whispered and faced the gate, waiting for him to slide it open.
“I buried your Samson, Riley. I found him, and I knew I had to get him out of there, that you couldn’t be the one to have to do it, to see him like that. I’m sorry I couldn’t save him, couldn’t save any of them. I wanted to tell you for all these years, but I just couldn’t do it, didn’t know how to.” Riley didn’t turn around to look at him, just stood there, breathing hard, his broken back rising and falling too fast.
“Where? Where is he?” – a pained whisper.
“The back of the house, by the garden. It was too cold to go deep, but I dug as deep as I could… I had this old cross that my mother had that she gave me. I put it in there with him. I didn’t know what else to do. I’m sorry.”
Riley nodded, and put his hand on the gate.
He knew he had to let him go now, go and cry for Samson again, and for the pain in his back, and for Drake, who couldn’t save him from Hassinger today. Drake, who never saved anybody. So he did.
Amelia, March 28, 2236
She needed time to process all of this. Marching him down to the headmistress would be the right thing to do, but she couldn’t bring herself to do that, not yet. She needed to think, and she couldn’t do that here, not while she was inadvertently pointing a buzzing weapon into the back of this strange boy. He seemed far too eager to be shot by her, she thought. They, Zoriners, were supposed to be survivors. Their savagery was predicated on a biological imperative, to live at all cost. That’s why they were thought of as so dangerous, they’d stop at nothing to survive, so this boy practically insisting she either shoot him or turn him in wasn’t adding up. She had to buy some alone time. Not here or anywhere where someone could see her or talk to her.
The morning wakeup alarm blared through the compound. This one was for the groups that had early morning chores today, so she still had a bit of time, but not much before her roommates got up. She felt, more than saw him flinch at the sound.
“I need to go down before I am missed, and then I need a little time to process all of this… I am not going to shoot you, so you might as well turn around and put your hands down.”
He turned around then, but his hands stayed up. “You don’t trust me… It’s all right, Amelia. If you need to leave, you should secure me in some way. I get it. I’m okay with it,” he said quietly.
He was right, she didn’t quite trust him. Too much here wasn’t adding up, but she had nothing to bind his hands with, and even if she had, she was unconvinced this boy would be immobilized by a pair of cuffs for long. Then suddenly she knew. Maid-bands. Every room in the compound had them. Wide metal bands that they used to bind the wrists of new maids. The only way to get out of those was a fingerprint of the person who put the band on in the first place, or the guards, or the headmistress.
She walked him to the den that had an unmade metal bed, a chair, and a smallish sink with a mirror over it. Without a word, he sat in the chair, hands still clasped behind his head. The panel on the wall behind him slid open at her touch, and she reached in and took out the maid band. She pressed her index finger to the ID pad. The invisible latch on the band opened without a sound, a small blue light pulsing on the outward facing side.
She turned around to where Riley sat, not even watching her. He didn’t seem to move at all, until his eyes registered the band she was holding. He jumped up in one fluid motion, all the calmness gone from him, as he stared at her, struggling to speak, panting. She took a cautious step back. Maybe she misjudged the stuff that didn’t add up. Maybe he was indeed how all Zoriners were supposed to be, and he would hurt her now or even kill her. Instinctively her gun hand went up and pointed at his chest. She won’t let him kill her quite so easily. She might be small and a girl, but the stun gun at the setting she had it on was lethal even to a full grown man, and this boy was not quite yet full grown.
He put his hands out in front of him and took a step towards her. “Go ahead,” his voice sounded pained for the first time. So it wasn’t rage or anger that she saw on his face, but pain, fear maybe. That, too, made no sense. It was just a piece of metal, not a bunch of undoubtedly broken ribs or worse, damaged organs. His hands were shaking slightly when she put the band around his wrists as gently as she could, and used her finger to lock it in place.
She felt him flinch when the metal touched his skin. He blanched, at her knowing. She’d seen so many maids wearing these bands when they were first brought here, none of them seemed in any pain or afraid. The bands almost looked like jewelry, and didn’t bite into the skin like ordinary cuffs did. Yet, he definitely looked in pain now, his eyes looking very much like Laurel’s that time, silently begging her not to break her arm. He stood there waiting for her to do something or say something, but looking past her face. Maybe he thought she was enslaving him. But they didn’t have boy slaves, except for Drake. He was the only one. Everybody knew that.
“What is it?” She knew he couldn’t really hurt her now, not with his hands bound like this, and her still pointing the gun at him, so she took half a step closer to him, and gently put her hand on his shoulder. He froze, “Please, don’t…” It was a plea, not a request. His voice hurt somewhere deep in her chest. She didn’t want to hurt this boy. Time, she just needed some time.
She ran quickly to the makeup alcove and dabbed a bit of concealer on the dot on her cheek, waited for it to dry and become invisible again and ran all the way to the door and down the stairs to her room.
Her roommates would be just waking up now, so she sidetracked into the bathroom first, hoping Laurel and Stella slept as well as they usually did, and her absence had gone unnoticed. Poking her head into the room, she needn’t have worried. Laurel’s head was still under her pillow, her blanket in a heap at the foot of the bed, and her pinkish toes moving with her breathing, making scratching sounds on the sheets. She was dead to the world. Stella was just sitting up and rubbing the gunk out of the corners of her eyes.
She smiled at her, and the two of them pounced on Laurel’s back, jabbing their fingers into her ribs, not too gently, to wake up, not to tickle. Lateness of any kind was more than frowned upon – it was punished by extra chores for the girl and her roommates. Finally, Laurel flipped on her back and the two huge blue eyes flew open. They might all just make it if they dressed in a hurry. They fumbled through their dressers for the right color t-shirts: blue for Mondays. They pulled on their identically colored jeans and flats, and bolted down the stairs to the kitchen.
They were almost the last ones in before the inspection. Laurel was giggling softly at their almost lateness – she enjoyed cutting it close. She could almost smell the adrenaline pumping through her now and emanating as sparks from her eyes. She loved and hated this about Laurel. Ever since they met almost nine years ago now, they roomed together. She was more of a daredevil back then, but had sense enough to do it in secret. Laurel never seemed to have grown up, no matter how many training sessions she passed with flying colors.
She would know what to do about the boy, about Riley. She found it strange that she just called the boy by his name in her head, and that it felt nice to do it. She needed that thing that Laurel had been born with, the thing hidden in the back of her perfectly implanted memories, that spark of doing bold, unpredictable things. The thing that made her smirk at the headmistress behind her back and never get caught. But she couldn’t share this with her, at least not yet. Not her or anybody.
It was lucky for all of this to happen on a Monday. Mondays were for meditation and the girls were left well enough alone until dinner. Her group didn’t have any chores today, except for the standard making of the beds and cleaning the room. She stuffed her food into her mouth, unladylike, as her mind went over all things this morning.
She felt Laurel punch her on her arm, and almost jumped in surprise at the not too gentle jab, but then calmed herself and looked over at her friend with a smile, “I’m starving, okay? Maybe I’m going through another one of those growth spurts, or maybe my body decided that my boobs need to be a little bigger than yours…” Laurel would buy this. This banter has become second nature to them. She needed Laurel to buy this. Stella was in her own world again, daydreaming of that perfect boy she was destined to make lots and lots of babies with. She didn’t need to worry about her.
But she had to find a way of blowing Laurel off for the rest of the day. They usually wandered the empty rooms of the compound on Mondays, jabbering about teachers and Drake and the headmistress, making up stories about people who used to inhabit this place, or just horsing around.
She needed a believable something that would give her hours of privacy. And then she had it. Cramps, she was having cramps. Her hands went around her stomach and she made her face look pained, “Laurel… uhm, I think I am going to die.” She looked at her friend, stifling a soft giggle, but making sure to keep the pain lines etched into her forehead. “Oh, for crying out loud, Ams! You are not going to bloody die from your period. If my implanted memory serves me right, no woman in history of the human race has ever died from it. Or maybe you will, and we’ll all erect a statue to you for finally managing to be the first at something…” She bought it. “Ams” was a show of affection, and a break of protocol. The girls weren’t allowed to use nicknames. Nobody here had one, except for her, and that was an old gift from Laurel. One she only used when she was sick or in pain. Or when she was sad after thinking about what might have happened to her family that her implant wasn’t telling her.
She put the remnants of her food on her tray and snuck a breakfast bar under the belt line of her jeans, leaned over to Laurel and kissed her cheek. “I am going to curl up in the old library with some awful book. Have a fantastic day of roaming the halls without me, friend.” She got up, still acting in pain and walked rather slowly to the door. She knew her roommates would take care of making her bed now, and they’ll fold her clothes and wipe down her work space.
She started up the stairs to the loft at a run, two at a time, as was now her habit, but then stopped on step 746, heart pounding. She didn’t do any thinking yet. What the hell was she running up there for, if she hadn’t come up with a way of dealing with this Riley problem. Yet something was compelling her to go up there. She needed to talk to him, or rather to get him to tell her what he wasn’t telling her. She could threaten his life, of course, but so far nothing but the maid band even made him show fear. Who would be afraid of a piece of metal but not afraid to die?
She went the rest of the way up to the loft, slowly, trying to remember what she knew about the bands, but nothing was clicking. Nothing was quite adding up. As far as she knew only compounds had maids and as such maid bands. They weren’t something he’d ever run into in his world, but he acted as if he knew what it was, and it scared him.
She was almost at the top and paused again. A part of her wished for this morning to not have happened at all. “You are a coward, Ams,” Laurel’s voice in her head chided her. That she was, at least compared to her friend. She made it this far now, and logic dictated she keeps going. Few more steps to the door and she was in. She let her eyes adjust to the dark before walking to the den where she had left him. He was lying face down on the naked metal of the bed, his bound hands outstretched in front of him, eyes closed. He looked very much asleep, and extremely uncomfortable.
She leaned over and touched her finger to the ID pad of the band. It slid open, and she threw it on the small shelf behind the bed, just out of reach. Now she remembered that she put her gun into the alcove on the way to the kitchen and never replaced it. She was unarmed, and he was no longer bound. She stepped back, ready to run if need be, and suddenly feeling very much afraid. She waited, but the boy didn’t move.
She flicked the small light on then, and looked closer at the prone form, thinking that he may have died while she was gone. Worried that his injuries were worse than the bruises she saw. She should have helped him fix them, if she weren’t such a bloody coward… His back moved, rhythmically, she could see it now, and then she saw a multitude of dark burgundy streaks symmetrically showing through the tan cotton of his t-shirt.
These couldn’t be from the fall, nobody bruised like that. She was staring at them, thin dark lines cutting diagonal patterns across his back. How was he still alive after that fall with his back like this? Who would do that to a child? And he looked very much like a child now. She had to see how bad it was, if she could somehow help him. Doing anything at all was better than looking at his back and thinking, imagining…
The blood, drying like this, would make it impossible to take the shirt off without breaking his skin, she knew. She ran to the sink, soaked a clean washcloth in warm water and put it gently to his back, letting the water soak into the shirt. He still didn’t move. She couldn’t even see him breathing anymore. She had to soak the rag four more times until she got all the caked-on blood to dissolve. Her hands were shaking. She couldn’t tell if it was from fear of what she will see or from hurting him or from fear of him waking up now and lunging for her.
Slowly, she lifted the bottom of his now heavy shirt up over his back, even this dim light catching every one of the slashes, 26 in all. She let the shirt fall back down again. She couldn’t do this. Nobody taught her how to do this. How to look at so many slices, made as if by a knife, into someone’s flesh. She stifled a sob. “It’s okay, Amelia… I’m okay.” She jumped back at his words. He wasn’t asleep after all. He sat up looking at her face, then stood. She took another step back from him. He didn’t seem to mind or to notice.
He went past her to the sink, pulled of his soaked shirt and started washing all the blood out of it. She watched, horror-stricken, as some of the scars opened up and fresh red blood streamed down his back. She had to get him to the med floor, he needed a doctor. She wasn’t trained for any of this, not yet. She could maybe give someone a shot in an emergency, or splint a broken bone, but not this.
She felt tears run down her face in hot streams, too much water to hide from him. She walked back into the den, found the maid band and locked it inside the panel of the wall. She didn’t want him to ever see it again. She stood there with her back to him, still facing the wall, trying to get her tears to stop and her breathing to return to her normal inaudible soft inhales and exhales. It wasn’t working.
She was suddenly dead tired, and sadder than she ever remembered being. And she was angry. For the first time in her life, she was angry. Then she surprised herself by knowing with absolute certainty that she was no longer afraid of this strange boy. He seemed far too broken to ever hurt anyone but himself.
…end of preview
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