Authors: Annie Oldham
Tags: #corrupt government, #dystopian, #teen romance, #loyalty, #female protagonist, #ocean colony
* * * * *
Copyright © 2013 Annie Oldham
Cover design by Renée Barratt
Smashwords Edition License Notes
This ebook may not be resold or given away. If you would like to share this book, purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, visit Smashwords.com to purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the author’s work.
* * * * *
For my girls, who give me the time to write and call me the best mom in the world.
* * * * *
I wake up to the sounds of the others breathing. They found me yesterday just north of the cabin—nine nomads looking to chase down a rumor that has spread like wildfire. They emerged like shadows from behind the trees. I wasn’t afraid, though. If it had been soldiers, I would have heard them coming from a mile away. Nomads have learned to be nearly silent. It’s a self-preservation thing. And nomads don’t scare me like they used to. When I meet a nomad, most of them ask if I’ve seen a girl named Terra—if I am Terra—if I’m the one that can take them to the water’s edge and then deeper, down to the colony where they’ll be free.
Who knew that a place I once thought was a prison could be liberating for so many?
I peer over the edge of the loft down to where they nestle against each other like a pile of newborn mice. I don’t light a fire in the hearth anymore. The smoke threading through the tree tops is too risky now that the government doesn’t just hunt nomads. They hunt me.
I roll over onto my back and rest my head on my hand and stare through a small hole in the roof. I’ve been meaning to fix it, but I’ve been busy. I’ve visited over twelve different sites along the coast. Jessa told me I’ve gone as far south as what used to be Oregon and as far north as Canada, though that doesn’t mean a whole lot to me. It just means that the days that I spend at the cabin—my only haven—are fewer and fewer. Jessa also told me the council has discussed building another colony. I haven’t brought them that many nomads yet, but they realize the potential for what I can do.
If I squint one eye closed, I can see through the hole and through the tree boughs and catch a star’s light slicing through the midnight blue sky. I’m not sure why, but I think of Jack. I don’t have a north star to guide me anymore. Now I just have the sense of responsibility over these people—the sense that I'm the only one who can help. It’s the one thing that holds me together. Despite all the people I’ve come across, I feel so lonely.
In the morning the nomads and I eat food cold out of cans and then begin our three-day hike to the ocean. I haven’t come this way for two months, and I haven’t noticed any unusual scanner or watcher activity, so we should be safe. None of these nomads have trackers, so there’s nothing to scan.
One of the nomads lopes in stride with me. He’s several years younger than me, but very tall. He’s all arms and legs as he stretches his limbs to meet my pace, and his arms dangle by his sides.
“Thank you for doing this.”
“Over there—” he nods toward a girl with a splash of freckles across her nose and cheeks “—that’s my little sister. Agents took my mom and dad ten months ago outside of Salt Lake City. We ran as fast as we could, but I let my sister run faster. They couldn’t get her that way. They got me.” His face clouds over and his bottom lip trembles. He watches his sister and doesn’t look me in the eyes.
I look back where she skips along with a girl about the same age. She doesn’t look scarred the way he does. The sacrifice he made saved her from whatever happened to him. But he looks so haunted I doubt he’ll tell me. I put a hand on his shoulder. He looks at the horizon as he wipes the back of his hand across his eyes.
No one else says a word to me for two days. They watch me warily, and I wish I could tell them to trust me, but those words would be lost on them. We’ve all seen too much to trust anyone easily. They’re probably waiting for me to march them into a government trap.
When we reach the beach, it’s near midnight, and I sit on the cold, damp sand and watch the waves break over and over with white foam. I shouldn’t sit here out in the open, exposed. I think the government knows about me and knows what I’ve been doing. Just three weeks ago as I hunched in the brush lining a similar beach, the helicopters came and stayed longer, taking pictures of footprints and the groove the sub dug into the sand under the shallow water. I held my breath as they sent down a line from the helicopter, and when a single soldier slipped down it and landed in the sand like a cat, I turned and bolted through the trees.
If the agents haven’t quite caught on to exactly what I’m doing, they will soon. The colony can’t take just the trackerless for long—there are too many citizens of New America that deserve a home there. When those with trackers start disappearing at a faster rate than they do now, the government will sit up and take notice and wonder why their citizens are vanishing off the grid.
As midnight passes and I don’t see any lights beneath the water, my heart speeds up. Jessa is never late. I rake my fingers through the sand, making long furrows like the rows I tended first in the colony and then in the oca fields of the settlement. Farming was never my vocation. Neither was cooking or medicine or marine biology like my father and grandmother. I have the gift to help people in a different way. I can give them some peace.
The first hints of daylight creep over the treeline behind me, and I wonder where the sub is. We're cutting it too close, and soon we'll be too visible. Appearing out of the woods and racing for it is dangerous enough under the cover of darkness, but during the day? I shudder. The thunderheads careening over my head toward the east filter the sunlight into a bleak gray. It’s a quiet morning at least. I haven’t heard helicopters beating across the sky for about three days now. That means either they’re just about to appear, or I’m under the radar for the moment.
The nomads wait under the trees. Their nervous energy cuts through the crisp spring air, and a few twigs snap in their anxiety. There’s always that nervous energy before the sub comes. I’ve done this enough times now that I can wait as still as a statue for the blue lights to appear under the water. Those around me can’t quite handle that. When they see the sub, they’ll dash across the open space, scurrying like mice avoiding the cat. We all worry that maybe this time the agents will be there and swoop us all up and never let us go; that the colonies will be exposed as truth and not just a bedtime story. It’s a bedtime story that more and more parents are telling their children—not a fairy tale, though; something to hope for. What happened at the labor camp—the agents finding Jessa’s letter and my confession to Dr. Benedict—has started rumors. I began hearing about them three months ago when a group of nomads found me and begged for a way to the colony. The word is getting out. And if it’s spreading among the citizens and nomads this quickly, the nagging at the back of my brain tells me what the government will do about it can’t be a good thing.
I look back to the woods. I make out nine pale faces between the branches. They all have the same expression—that the one hope of peace they all have will be ripped away only twenty yards in front of them. I wish they’d calm down. The talker—the only one who said anything to me on our hike out here—meets my eyes and shrugs his shoulders up and down. I shake my head. No, I don’t see the sub yet.
The knot in my stomach tells me that I share their fear. Sure, it would be calm and safe to return to the colony. I can’t argue with that. But it’s not for me; it never was. Sitting here with the damp from the sand seeping through my pants and the salty air on my face, in my nostrils, weaving with my hair and the wind, I know where my place is and I know what I can do best. I’m the bridge between the two worlds. I’m the peace-bringer to so many who have had nothing but pain for the past hundred years.
Then my mind wanders to Jack again, and the ache in my chest flares. I’ve thought about him every day for the past five months. I kept telling myself it would get easier, but I was lying. It’s my fault. I figured it out, and I never told him. So many things I could regret, and that’s the one that stalks me the most. I can feel his searing touch on my face, on my hands, his lips on mine, and my heart breaks more. All I can wish for now is that he’s happy and well. The tears slide out before I can stop them, and I wipe them away quickly, feeling the crusty salt coating a fine layer of grit on my cheeks.
I feel the talker next to me before he even speaks.
“Are you okay? You don’t have to say anything, but I just needed to talk.”
I glance at him and raise my eyebrows. Is he kidding? I couldn’t talk if I wanted to.
He blushes furiously. “Er, that’s not what I meant. I know you can’t say anything. With your—” he gestures helplessly at my face, “that is your—you know. I just meant that I needed someone to talk—”
I put a hand on his arm, and he stops talking and smiles at me with relief in his eyes.
, I mouth. I can tell by the look in his eyes that he’s going to let his ghosts out.
“When I joined up with them—” He nods his head toward the others in the woods—they may as well have their tongues carved out too for all they say. “I thought I’d go crazy with wanting to speak. They shushed me all the time, telling me there was always someone watching and someone listening. That’s true, but sometimes you just have to say something or you’ll go insane. I was in Salt Lake for so many months. Nine, I think. At that hospital, the one where they test the serums.”
My head snaps up. Besides shuttling nomads, what to do about the loyalty serum has been my other preoccupation.
The talker shoves his arms close to my eyes. The skin is riddled with minute pinpricks. “I lost track of how many times they jabbed me with a needle. And there was never anyone to talk to. I was in a cell all by myself. I would see other people almost every day, but I couldn’t talk to any of them. There was this old man with a red and gray beard and his eyes would glint at me as I walked by, like he was trying to tell me to hold on just a little bit longer. Only one person who ever said anything to me, though.”
Something tells me I should be paying better attention to him, but I stare so hard at the water my eyes go blurry as I hope to see lights, and his endless stream of words slips past me. We all have stories like his now. I shouldn’t be so easily unimpressed. I strain my eyes on the water and listen for the helicopters. It seems like they’re always just beyond the treeline.
“She had silver hair, and she was the only one I ever said a word to. She was three cells down from me. She always asked about the man with the beard.”
The ocean bubbles about a hundred feet beyond the tide line, and I see the lights hazy under the surface. The sub is finally here, and still the sky is quiet. I jump up and brush the sand from my clothes.
“I was just about ready to explode before we found you. They wouldn’t even tell me what they were trying to accomplish with all the shots, not really.”
I glance back at the tree line and hold a fist in the air. The sub needs to break the surface of the water first, and then the refugees can run. The timing is crucial. I’ve had a few close calls with helicopters coming just as the sub slides beneath the water. One of these days, the timing will be everything as the soldiers descend.
“Now I’m just glad I followed them. My sister was with them. Can you believe I found her again? And I’m glad we found you.” The talker’s hand brushes my arm, and I nod at him.
The sub cuts above the water, and I drop my hand. The other nomads scurry from the trees, their hands clutched around a small bundle each. They are allowed one personal item. I know it’s hard for people to give up their possessions, but we need speed and the sub can’t handle everyone’s luggage. Besides, in the colony they will have enough clothes, food, and supplies. The colony is a place of luxury compared to the Burn.
Two men, four women, two children, and the talker stand beside me just as the hatch opens and Jessa stands up. This is how I see her now. Only for the time it takes for the refugees to clamber up the ladder, but it’s more than I had before. Her hair has grown down to her shoulders, and already it looks lustrous. I decided to keep my hair in a short pixie cut. Makes life easier.