Authors: Beck Nicholas
Tags: #Science fiction, #teen, #young adult, #space, #dystopian
I take up Megs’ offer of a shoulder to lean on after I put on my shoes and jacket and we hobble over to the medic station. Maybe I drag my feet a little more than necessary to have the excuse to hold Megs close for a few extra seconds.
“This is Blank.” Megs introduces me and the illusion of being at home here vanishes. I need to remember I’m here for answers.
It doesn’t take long for the medics to clean up my burn. They apply a balm and I walk pretty well on it straight away. Someone tosses me a tube of the stuff. “Three times a day.”
Megs is right about the fans. People who glared at me before the game gather around to talk to me about it afterwards. Everyone wants to go back over the best moves of the contest. I’m not sure how to explain what I did. Most of the time I wasn’t thinking much at all. But that sounds pretty lame.
“Are you sure you haven’t played this before?” The teasing question comes from Megs, who’s stayed by my side and taken the teasing about losing top spot with good grace.
A loud bang shakes the building.
“It’s a raid!”
I don’t see who yells, but panic grips those around me.
The lights flicker off and a wave of night sweeps the room. People cry out in fear. There’s the sound of ripping, tearing metal, and a man screams in pain.
What the hell?
A familiar, small hand grabs mine. Megs. Her body presses against my side and her breath teases my ear. “We have to get out of here. Now.”
The green robes who run the warehouse are obviously prepared, because dozens of doors swing open to the street and patrons disperse before the first officer enters. The officers conducting the raid wear helmets and are dressed just like the woman I saw at the markets.
The officer uses a weapon like the one I pulled from my jacket to line up a young green-robed boy from behind.
“Watch out kid,” I yell, but my warning’s caught in the rush and he doesn’t hear.
The officer raises her weapon and fires. The boy in the green robe crumples mid-stride and the officer turns her attention to her next victim.
“My brother,” Megs mouths, looking up at me. “He’s not supposed to be here. I didn’t know.”
I don’t stop to think.
The extra focus from the drink courses in my bloodstream and everything around me moves like it’s in slow motion. I easily dislodge Megs’ grip on my hand. Once free, I push against the mass of bodies fleeing the building. Their wide-eyed, panicked faces tell the story. You’d have to be crazy to head back toward the officers. Maybe I am.
My height gives me an advantage. I don’t lose sight of the boy despite the crowd between us. It’s probably a lost cause. I might not have a memory with details of my own life but I know people don’t fall like that and get up and walk away. But the image of the dead boy from this morning won’t let me give up.
I thought I’d lost Megs in my concern for her brother, but she’s by his side before me. She’s on her knees in the dirt and tears leave a shining trail on her cheeks.
Megs’ hands fumble in the shadows at his neck. Looking for a pulse I guess. She gulps. “He’s alive.”
…The faint memory’s gone before it solidifies in my brain.
There’s no time to check whether moving the kid’s a good idea. Either way I can’t leave him here at the mercy of those who hurt him. With Megs’ help, I slide one arm under his knees and the other under his shoulders and haul him into my arms.
A convulsion of pain arches his body and he screams, deep in his throat. It’s not loud but it rips through me. Again, a half memory of another boy crying weakens my knees and I almost land us both face first on the floor.
The memory happens in a heartbeat.
I pull myself into the present. He’s lighter than he looks. I stand. He arches again. His dark green hood falls back. It’s the boy from the alleyway. “Hello again, buddy.”
It shouldn’t surprise me to find him here. This rundown city doesn’t seem big. The fact he’s Megs’ brother explains why she seemed familiar when I first saw her in the bar.
“Buddy?” Megs asks. “His name’s Janic.”
There’s no time for introductions. “Later.”
We move with the crowd now. Megs tries to clear a path in the mass of panicked people. Through the doors and out onto the street. We’re on the opposite side of the warehouse, where we arrived. I think. I’m lost. I have to hope Megs knows somewhere safe to go.
“Hey. Hey you. Stop there,” a deep male voice shouts behind us.
It’s an officer. I glance behind and he’s a dozen feet away, weapon in hand. Playing a hunch from the morning, I move my body between Megs and the officer. A faint tickle tells me he fired.
But I’m not hurt. It doesn’t bring me down the way it did the boy. I was right. Whatever the weapon is, it doesn’t affect me. I file the information away for later when hopefully I’ll have time to think.
Then we’re through a gap in the fence and away into the night. Heavy footfalls echo off the walls of the empty buildings around us but I don’t see another soul.
We’re on the street and a block away before we settle back to a fast walk. Megs obviously knows her way around, taking short cuts through abandoned buildings with confidence.
“Who were those people?” I ask without slowing. “Who would shoot a boy in the back?”
She kicks at a loose stone on the path. “Officers of the Company.”
“Who are the Company?” I manage in between trying to drag oxygen into my lungs.
I picture her shaking her head from the movement in her shoulders. “You really aren’t from around here are ya, Blank?”
We support Janic between us when the path’s more difficult. Thankfully he’s passed out from the pain, because here any cries could carry through the night to wherever the officers are searching and give away our location.
When we reach an intersection I recognize the crumbling orange wall from earlier in the night. It rained while we were inside the warehouse and the potholes are filled with murky water. The smog’s washed clean, but the layer of dirt on the road turned to slippery mud. Every step is laced with the possibility of ending up on my face.
From here it’s straight ahead to the market and the gaming bar. Megs moves left.
I don’t follow. “Where are we going?”
“Janic needs help. There are medics at the station.”
“It’s our city headquarters.”
“Who is ‘our’?”
She runs her hand through her purple hair. The white lines around her mouth give away her frustration. “Forget it. I’ll take him myself.” Her slender hands grip the boy’s shoulders and she strains to drag his limp body from my arms.
“Don’t be ridiculous. You won’t get five feet.”
“I don’t have time for twenty questions.” Her voice breaks. “Janic doesn’t have time.”
The boy’s breathing is shallow. I can’t leave her to deal with him, but I have no idea what I’m walking into.
“I’ll come with you, and carry your brother to the help he needs, on one condition.”
“I leave whenever I want.”
She hesitates. Then brushes a lock of her brother’s hair from his pale forehead. When she looks up at me her eyes shine with unshed tears. “Fine.”
She does. We cut through a ruin, and it takes the both of us to maneuver Janic over the rubble. There’s not an ounce of fat on his skinny frame, but he’s heavier with every passing minute. My arms ache, but I ignore the shooting pains and adjust the boy over my shoulder.
A damp patch in my jeans spreads above my right knee. The burn beneath has long since stopped hurting. My injury is minor compared to the boy in my arms. I grit my teeth and tell myself it’s only splashed water off the road.
“Nearly there,” Megs assures me.
We enter another warehouse. There are no windows. When she drags the door shut behind us it’s black. I blink and make out a narrow path between stacked crates.
I keep up with Megs and I wish there was some way I could take back my questions about the Company people. If I didn’t already look different and sound different I’ve just put a neon sign on my head and it’s flashing ‘No Idea.’
I don’t notice the sentry until we reach the final door. He’s old, like really old, with white bushy hair and a matted beard. He’s wearing a faded green robe with a hole over the left knee.
“Janic’s hurt,” Megs calls out.
The guy slouching against the wall is on his feet and by our side in an instant. “What happened?”
“Raid at the game.”
He curses in a language I don’t recognize but with clear intent. “No one else has returned.”
I don’t know these people but I get the implication. With the extra burden of an unconscious Janic, we weren’t moving at top speed. Someone should have made it back before us.
Megs presses her fists into her eyes. Her shoulders shake. Is she crying? I’ve only known her for a short time but I’d bet it’s not something she does often. I stand there silently holding Janic, wishing I could do more to take her pain.
Megs drops her hands and she’s pulled herself together. “We need a medic.”
The sentry leads the way through the door. It opens out onto another courtyard, graveled and encircled by high brick walls. I’m reminded a little of the garden I woke in. Was that only this morning? It feels like a lifetime ago.
It’s empty except for stacked piles of rubbish either side of the far door. The walls have high windows. It’s incredibly defendable. Are they at war?
No one challenges us but I see faces in the windows. Watching. The further we get into the compound, the more exposed I feel. I have Megs’ word that I can leave when I want but she doesn’t speak for everyone.
We’re only halfway across the courtyard when the far door busts open. It smashes against the wall behind. A man and two women come through at a run. One of the women goes past us, to take the sentry’s post I assume.
“Keane,” Meg cries.
Keane, the leader I’ve heard so much about. He’s surprisingly ordinary. He has shaggy black hair atop a big square head. He’s solid but not as powerfully built as the security guy at the warehouse. He doesn’t wear a robe over his jeans and white t-shirt. I’d built him up in my head to be a man mountain. I exhale and relax a fraction.
Then he speaks with all the command I would expect, “Was it a Q?”
“I don’t know.” She points to me. “Blank saw it.”
Keane’s black eyes focus on me and I get a glimpse of his power. “Was it a Q?”
I don’t know
“I…” Dust coats my dry mouth and my arms are aching. I don’t want to reveal my ignorance about the weapons, about everything, so I change the subject. “I can’t hold him any longer.”
Keane jerks his head and two more men come running from the building. Between them they carry a makeshift stretcher. When Janic’s eased onto it and carried away and Megs stays by his side, I feel even more out of place. But no one’s firing at me indiscriminately so I’m one step ahead of being caught by the Company officers.
Keane gives the sentry a look and the old man crosses to my side. “Toby, look after our guest.”
I fight a laugh. Look after? More like guard. I keep my mouth shut on the semantics. There will be time to ask questions when Janic’s stable. It’s not like I can do anything more to help him or Megs. I realize I’m starving.
“Does this looking after include food?”
Keane nods. The old man leads me into the building proper and down a long hallway with at least a dozen shut doors. Toby walks with a slight limp but his bare arms are still wiry with muscle.
“You carried him all the way from the game?”
“It’s a fair way.” There’s a trace of respect in his voice.
The kitchen’s at the end of a long hallway. It’s on a platform in the middle of what looks like two old train tunnels. The station. I get it now. Long tables surround a work area lit from above by lights suspended from a ceiling I can’t see in the shadows. It reeks of damp mold and burnt wood.
Toby slices some crusty brown bread and then grabs butter and meat from a huge, well-stocked refrigerator. He sees me looking.
“Some nights there are lots of mouths to feed here.”
I can imagine. I estimate there were more than eighty green robes at the warehouse and that doesn’t include those at the markets or the faces watching from the windows when we came in. A chill breeze whistles through the tunnels and I shiver.
Toby slides a sandwich across the bench, and I suspect there’s a grin hidden beneath that beard. “It’s warmer when the ovens are going.”
“Thanks.” I take a bite. The bread’s fresh and soft, the meat and butter rich. “S’good,” I mumble, my mouth half full.
“Blank, hey? Nice name.”
“It’s the only one I’ve got.”
I’m swallowing my last mouthful of the sandwich when Keane joins us. He strides into the kitchen and owns the space.
“Janic should be okay.”
“Good news.” Toby claps me hard across the shoulder. “Thanks to you. You’re a hero.”
Keane turns his full focus on me. It’s hard not to back away from the force of him. I stick to wiping crumbs from my mouth and sitting a bit straighter. I hope my cheeks aren’t as red as they feel after Toby’s enthusiastic praise.
I shrug. “I couldn’t leave him there, he’s just a kid.”
“You could have, but you didn’t. There’s always a choice.”
His words nag at me; they speak of something I can’t quite remember. “Whatever. I’m glad he’s okay.” I want to ask about Megs but I don’t want to show how much a girl I hardly know matters to me.
Keane’s gaze drops to the exposed burn on my leg. “Do you need medical attention?”
“No.” I show him the tube of ointment I got at the game. “This seems to be helping.”
“Get the kid some new jeans from the store,” Keane barks at Toby without his gaze leaving my face. “It’s the least we can do for him.”
Toby’s exit leaves Keane and me alone. He straddles a chair opposite. “You’re the stranger Janic reported this morning.”
“You must have something that belongs to us then.”