PROLOGUE

Abide by their dictatorship

Suppress your thoughts
Suppress your feelings
Suppress anything that doesn’t fit

Society society
Hear their rules
Abide by their dictatorship

Long for more
Yearn for pleasure
Learn to live

Society society
Hear their rules
Abide by their dictatorship

No feelings are right
Individuality is contrite
Burn that heart
It has no place

Society. Society.

– Sim Kaur

PROLOGUE

She remembers the rhymes they used to sing in school. She remembers the silly verses and the quick pace of them, and how everyone wanted to join in and learn the words off by heart. She remembers how, at the time, none of them knew the real meanings and no one actually paid any attention to them, until they grew up and realised that singing them could get them all killed, when everything changed.
She remembers the time when every single child included every single other child, and when it didn’t matter if you were richer or poorer, or who your father was, or which Tract he came from, or what your mother talked about over tea with her friends.
She remembers when the people you would walk past in the streets would look up and greet you, or stop to have a conversation, or invite you to their homes to continue the conversation started on the street.
But that’s all she remembers. What she knows as reality is different.
What she knows is how children don’t sing songs and don’t play games on the cement playgrounds and don’t ride bicycles because it’s illegal to sell them. What she knows is how no one smiles and no one greets you and no one invites you anywhere, or how no one even looks up when walking down the streets because they fear the officials. What she knows is listening to officials and following the laws and keeping to herself and hiding from other children who will laugh at her grey jumpsuit because it means she comes from a poor Tract and isn’t like them. What she knows is not to go near the High Walls and not to try to leave and not to cry over anything – including her brother’s death, and not to talk to anyone because she might just tell them her real name or her father’s surname. Because it matters who your parents are.
That’s what she knows.
But she wonders. She thinks and dreams and wonders, but she never tells anyone because they might not call them dreams – because they might tell the officials. She wonders what freedom feels like. She wonders how it feels to eat a full meal and bathe in a bathtub with running water – be it cold or hot. She wonders what it feels like to play with toys and swim in a pool like the wealthier people.
And she dreams. She dreams of escaping. She dreams of not waking up to the sound of another raid. She dreams of playing with the other little girls with ribbons woven into their plaited her and dressed pretty shoes. And she dreams of living in a home with perfectly painted walls that aren’t crumbling, with a green lawn and a big tree in it. And she dreams of a life where her mommy doesn’t worry about her daddy not returning home and her parents tell her why when she asks them questions.
And she’s just a child. Only a child. But she still wonders why. And she still asks questions because she likes to know the answers and the truth. She wonders why she can only trace the roads she’d like to travel across in the mist of her breath blown onto the window.
And most of all, she wants to grow up in a place where death isn’t inevitable. Where she doesn’t wake to the smell of burning and nightmares and fear, all mixed together.
But, if there’s one thing she knows, it’s that dreams aren’t real and they only last for a night, and they don’t exist in the world in which she lives. And they only get you killed.

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CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FOUR

“What are the little sins that I must commit
before I am allowed to sink my teeth into
life and tear happiness from it?”

– From the play, ‘ANTIGONE’, written by Sophocles

Running away, leaving, it’s second nature to me. It should be easy, like it was before. But this time it isn’t. It’s painful and tiring and draining. But maybe it’s only because of the awkward atmosphere separating Rhys and I like an unbreakable wall. The remnants of the conversation before still lingers on my mind. No matter what I say or do, the nagging thought of the unease I feel whenever I think of how strong Rhys was – how wrong that is, won’t leave my mind.
“Let me explain.” Rhys tries again. I don’t answer. I don’t know what to say. A part of me feels that I somehow owe it to our friendship to let him explain, but the stubborn part of me refuses to even so much as think about it.
“Just give me five minutes. That’s all I ask.”
I close my eyes and sigh.
“How will it change anything?”
“You’ll know. Isn’t that enough?”
He’s right. He knows I want to know – I want to understand. I like to know the truth – maybe it leads to the mystery that was my father and his death.
“You’ve got five minutes.”
Out of the corner of my mouth, I see his mouth twitch upwards – he’s enjoying this.
“Then follow me.” He tells me, and he leads me towards the forest path we used to take previously, a year ago, when everything was simple and clear. The Outlands is beautiful today, even more so than usual. The sun pushes through the leaves and trees, as if yearning desperately to become visible through the dense plant life. The flimsy breeze brushes past us, carrying stray leaves and strands of grass along with it. The buds of wild flowers begin to blossom with the warm rays of sunlight, as the sun rises behind us.
Rhys leads me under the thick, curling branch of a tree blocking the path. Despite my feeling annoyed, I find myself enjoying this. I haven’t realized how long it’s been since I’ve hunted – or really explored – and I find my fingers reaching out and brushing the surrounding plants with hunger, and my feet pulling me forward without a second thought, as if controlled by some deeper, stronger part of myself. This is all second nature, all of this, and it’s all coming back to me in waves.
“How much further?” I hear myself asking. But not because I want it to end – rather because I don’t want it to end.
“It’ll be a while. Another day at the least.”
That gets me thinking. It makes me wonder. How far is he taking me? Where is he taking me? I’ve never been this far, and it feels good. It feels exhilarating and exiting.
“Don’t worry,” Rhys suddenly calls out over his shoulder, “it’ll be well worth the effort.”
I can almost feel his smile even while he has his back turned to me.
“It had better be.” I call back.
Somewhere behind me, a bird begins to sing. The wind whispers its secrets in my ear as it drifts past. The sun’s shadow dances in front of me – always a single footstep away, never resting. And just like that, with the feeling of ultimate freedom pressing down on me, I begin to feel happy. I begin to enjoy it. I feel the strange sensation of a smile blossoming across my face. Maybe it’s the weather. Maybe.
“Are you missing all of this yet?” he asks me.
I look to the ground, watching my shoes tread over the mossy grass below my feet, memories of the moments spent here before washing over me like a gentle rainfall. “I guess so.”
Once the words are out of my mouth, a warm feeling rises to my cheeks. It feels wrong to admit something so personal, but I can’t take it back once it’s out, and the words seem suspended in the air in front of me, dangling in between the distance between him and me.
“I knew you did.” He tells me. “How could you not? You’re here again – in the place we used to call home, with a charming friend whom you have missed dearly.”
“Oh, dream on.” I tell him, but a smile clings to the corners of my mouth, dragging it upwards.
“Come on,” I feel his smile burn through his words, “you must be enjoying it at least a little.”
“Actually, I can’t really remember what we got up to before. I’ve sort of forgotten.” I tell him, trying to hide my smile. It’s what I’ve wanted to believe, but even as I say them I know it isn’t true. I’ve tried to forget – I’ve tried everything.
“Maybe you just need something to remind you.” His answer puzzles me, but then I see him stop, turn around, and throw something towards me. I catch it with one hand, my palm clasped around it. One finger at a time, I peel my fingers apart. For a moment, I don’t know what it is. But then I pull open the string typing rolled up slips of aged paper together, and the words fill my mind as I read over them. And then I remember.
“You’ve kept them.” I tell him with surprise. “You’ve kept the letters.”
The letters. The letters we would write to each other each day as children, before we would slip it into the black hole in the bark of the Large Tree, where the other one of us would run to collect it whenever we had a chance, before writing back eagerly. It was almost like our secret language. It was our secret. It was our game. It was the only way of communicating anything without getting caught, when everything you post to another person is re-read and altered if necessary. It was too dangerous to risk exposure – and so this was our resort.
“Of course I did.” He answers, as if it’s plainly simple and obvious. As if he would do anything else.
My fingers brush across the pieces of parchment, slipping into the dents where one of us had pressed pen to the paper so hard it had almost broken through. The words bubble through my mind as I read, bringing the memories I’d tried to keep hidden right back to the surface.
Dear Rhys, I’d written, Today I overheard J telling I that this – all of the bombs – are only just the beginning. He says worse things are coming. He told me to be careful of what I say – that it isn’t safe anymore. And not just because of the war. I’d stopped there. I remember how I’d run out of things to say. I remember the images running through my head at the time – it was one of the first raids Edward the Prosperous had ordered – but at the time, we had no idea why. We were scared. I can feel the fear through the pressure placed on the paper. I can imagine myself writing this – my shaking hand scratching across the paper. I can imagine the anger, too – the angry slashes to each end word.
Dear Cara, Rhys had written in response, Don’t be scared. Even if we live far away, even if I can’t be there in person, just imagine me there in your head. I’ll always be there.
He’d stopped there. He hadn’t needed to say anything else. His words had comforted me, had almost made me forget for a few moments. I remember, how, a few days later my brother had been killed. And the letters came slower and slower, right until they stopped completely. And it had almost broken me. There was one last one – one last letter, after the second night of my brother’s death.
Dear Rhys, it began. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to feel. That’s all I had written. It’s all I could manage – if I remember correctly. I remember that night – the night of the last letter. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t finish a single sentence – I couldn’t sleep an inch for fear of the images of his death returning. I couldn’t make it longer than five minutes without the tears and pain raking my body and leaving me breathless. And he hadn’t written back.
“You stopped writing.” I mutter quietly, lost in the sadness and loneliness of the memory. “You never replied.”
It takes a while for him to reply. “I did reply.” He tells me. “I just couldn’t send it. I couldn’t go through with it.”
I shake my head with anger. Of course. He never could finish anything.
And then he abruptly stops. He turns to face me, and I drag my eyes away from the crumbling paper in my hands. “I couldn’t finish it – not until now.”
“What do you mean?”
Confused. That’s how I feel.
And then he takes a step to the side, and my eyes trail to the thing he’d been covering from my sight.
“It’s the tree.” He tells me. “It’s the Large Tree.”
I know. I want to tell him. I could never forget, what with how many times I’d visited, hoping to find a letter – just one more.
But then it hits me. The tree – it’s different. Every inch of the bark is covered in writing. Writing scratched deeply into the bark. Two words. Two words fill the surface of the whole tree; swallow it whole.
I’m sorry.
Two words – two words that had meant so much. Now they mean nothing.
“It took me hours,” he tells me. “I came back a few days before I’d come to your house, and I’d completed it. The last letter. The last reply.”
I shake my head and smile a ghost of a smile.
“It’s just a little late, don’t you think?”
He doesn’t answer. There’s nothing left to say. And then it all makes sense. All that’s left between us is empty dreams and hollow words that have lost their meaning.

**

We walk in silence, as the sun begins to set and the moon slowly rises to replace it, the sky ablaze with fulgent colours of the diminishing sunlight that streaks across the sky. It almost feels out of place in the grey and white world the country has become. The minutes drag into hours, and none of us says a word. And I don’t mind it. I don’t know what to say.
All around me, the creatures of the Outlands settle down, preparing for the night ahead.
“Let’s find a tree to sleep in for tonight.” Rhys says, uttering the first words since the letters and the tree. He doesn’t look at me – he hasn’t all day.
“Sure.” I reply, not trusting myself to say anything more.
And then it plunges right back into silence. And that’s how it stays.

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER THREE

I am the fallen life
Raised from the promise of tomorrow
To the death that will never come.

Daniel D. Crow

When I reach the house, the sun hangs low in the sky like a burning red ball balancing on the tips of the factory buildings. A beautiful vision blurred by the clouded fumes. It burns a deep scarlet colour, and drenches everything in the copper and russet colour of the setting sun. I walk down the street, my feet trudging over the crumbling tar, towards the house numbered One hundred and two. My feet kick up clouds of dust that settles around me, as I near the house. The lights burn brightly tonight, but only because of the Prowlers – the citizens that steal the Regimen’s electricity illegally. Without them, the town would be forever plunged in darkness because the Regimen never remember to include the sixth Tract by handing us the fair share of electricity that we should be given. They never remember or they just don’t care.
My eyes brush over the houses lining the street I live in. The houses are packed so tightly, there is only enough space for small pathways between each house and the next. Each house, at one stage, used to be painted a different and brightly coloured shade of paint. The paint has faded now, leaving behind fragments of what it used to be. The cracks dig deep into the walls because the walls aren’t strong and they hadn’t been built to last for such a long time. They haven’t been built with the same strong bricks that the richer houses have been built with. There are too many houses to build for the Regimen to be able to make each house strong and versatile, and the Regimen hoped that we would have died out by now, either due to hunger or sickness – at least that’s what we’ve heard. The sickness spreads like wildfire in this Tract. If one person contracts a disease, more than half of our population will be dead within the next month. The Regimen don’t care. I know this because they could save us all with their fancy medicine equipment, but they never have and they won’t. They want us to die. It’s clear by the way they pack the houses right on top of each other.
We could have lost the house when my father was killed – I have seen it happen to others when there is a death in their family. There is a rule in this town. If the breadwinner of the family – the one physically able to do the majority of the work – dies, then your family is thrown out of the houses. You only live in the houses provided by the Regimen if you work for them. We should have lost this house, because Irene doesn’t work full-time. But, she managed to make a deal. All the money paid for rent goes straight to the Regimen, and if there isn’t any money to pay, they torch the house and set you into the streets, where Vigilum constantly patrol and prowl, hungry for new victims.
My father used to work in their offices. He would work with the people that create the fancy technology that we could never afford. He was given that position as an honour.
He lost it a while later, and was then transferred to various other Tracts. Each time we moved with him. A new Tract and a new town and a new name. “A new start”, is what he told me. Only I didn’t see it that way. He didn’t get to explain why we had to move around so much. I never asked either.
It is almost five o’clock. An hour left until the siren rings out through the town declaring that the hour for bathing has begun. We only get an hour with hot water – if we’re lucky. The affluent citizens are allowed a continuous flow of it. Most of the time, we aren’t even given running cold water. I have to walk to the communal water source and gather a bucket of water, boil it in a pot on the gas stove, and use that for the bath water. It is hard work, but it’s nothing I can’t handle.
I pull out the keys for the front door, and they jingle loudly, filling the quiet air of the First Linea – the first street in the sixth tract, Seni.
Most of the wealthier families in a few other towns have a fingerprint door lock scanner, but you don’t find many here, where every cent goes straight to rent, water and electricity – to the Regimen.
The air around me is silent. That’s when it hits me. The birds have stopped singing. I feel myself slip into the mind of a hunter instinctively – out of habit. I can almost smell the change in the air that occurs when another is in my presence. I can almost smell it.
I hear the crunch of leaves against the bottom of a boot behind me, and my hand instinctively reaches for the silver handle – embedded with a round and red ruby – of the thick metal knife with a spear point blade that I make sure is tucked in to a piece of clothing on me at all times. The Victorian styled, pure silver dagger with gold and black swirled patterns on it, was a present from my father for my thirtieth birthday – in the same year that I had been taught to fight. It must have been a family heirloom that my father hid from the raids because I know for a fact that it’s far to expensive for my father to be able to buy at the market.
My fingers hug the cool metal comfortably, out of habit. A dagger is easy enough to use, if you have been taught to use one, and if you have the right blade for your capabilities and strength. I press the dagger against my back with my right hand – my strongest hand – and my eyes search through the black air for any signs of movement. There is no one in sight. If it were the Vigilum, I would be taken straight to the cages for handling a dangerous weapon. But I don’t take chances. Besides, killing the Vigilum is easy.
I hear the sound of breathing behind me, and I whip around. Nothing.
I hear his warm and amused chuckle drift along with the wind, and I know he’s here. His scent fills the air – the scent I’ve grown accustomed to during all the hours spent together. He’s out there. He has to be. A warm feeling of hope fills my body – before I shoot it out of my mind instantly.
“What do you want?” I call out, annoyed, masking my surprise. He must realise that I know it’s him. I can smell him. I can feel his presence. I know him as well as I know myself.
“How did you know?” he asks. He steps out of the shadows; a still black silhouette against the cerise sky.
It’s him. The thought catches in my throat. It’s really him. He’s here, right in front of me.
“Either it hasn’t been as long as I have thought,” He smiles, “or I must be limitlessly unforgettable.”
I roll my eyes. “Don’t count on it.”
He laughs humorlessly.
“It’s about time you showed up.” I add. “Any later, and you would have been officially declared dead.”
“But they might have plastered pictures of me on the passing lampposts. That thought is particularly appetising.” His smile burns through the darkness. “I wouldn’t mind it all that much.”
“It wouldn’t be up to you.”
“True,” he says, “but it wouldn’t matter. I have an unforgettable face anyway.”
It’s true. I want to say. I couldn’t forget. I hate myself for thinking it.
“I would be so sure.” I answer.
His laughter fills the empty air. He walks towards me; a dark shadow moving unnaturally silently.
“I have missed you.” He tells me.
I have too.
“I’m sorry to say the feeling isn’t mutual.”
“I doubt that.” He tells me, and he steps under the glow of the light from the lamp above the front door. I almost choke on the breath in my throat. “You’re a better liar than before.”
His blue eyes – the eyes the colour of a cloudless sky – burn down into mine fiercely. There is a smile plastered across his face, a smile as bright as a rising sun. But there’s something hard to them – something new. My eyes drink in the sight of him: the muscular build of his body, the broad shoulders, the tall frame. He knows what I am thinking. He reads me as easily as I read him. It’s always been that way.
But It’s been so long. Things change over time.
“I spent a year on the run, and you’ve got nothing to say?” he asks me with raised eyebrows.
I swallow the lump in my throat. “They found you?”
“They almost did. I just got away. It’s why I had to leave.”
“You could have written. You could have sent a message.” I tell him. Anger flares up inside. “After all we did for you; you could have told us that you were safe.”
“I suppose I could have,” he begins, “it just didn’t cross my mind.”
“Of course it didn’t.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asks sharply.
“Leave it.” I tell him. Wrong. It feels wrong. This conversation feels off and wrong. I turn around to open the door, but his hand grips my wrist.
“Let go.” The words slide through my clenched teeth. I manage to hide my flushed cheeks and racing pulse under the dull light from the lamp overhead.
“Are you sure that’s what you want?” he asks me with a small smile, “Because not many could say that to me and mean it.”
“I do.” I jerk my wrist free.
“So that’s it? You’re just going to leave me standing out here? All alone?”
“That’s what I plan to do.”
“We both know that’s not what you want.”
Anger explodes. “How would you know what I want? How would you know anything about me anymore?”
If the words hurt him, he doesn’t let it show. “I’ve made mistakes.” He tells me. “Who hasn’t? But what choice did I have? We both knew that I would be next. It had to be me. I had to leave before they got to me.”
My anger dims, slowly fading through my fingertips.
“It’s done now, anyway.” I answer curtly.
He is silent. It hangs between us like a veil. Things are different now. I can feel it in the air between us.
“Will it ever be the same?” he asks.
“I don’t know.” I admit tiredly. “Honestly, I don’t have the energy to care. I’m different to how I was. Everything is different. We both care about different things.”
He nods slowly. “If it counts for anything,” he tells me quietly, “I am sorry.”
I turn to go, but I stop just before I close the door completely. He hasn’t moved. He stares at me with an unreadable expression. I was right. We are different. He has changed as well. There’s something hard to him – something dark and hidden. Reserved. Myseterious. Dangerous. That’s what he is.
But the more different we are, the more similar we become.
“Goodnight.” I tell him. He looks to the ground. He doesn’t answer.
I close the door behind me. I don’t look back.

**

I slip under the thin duvet, and I nestle into the rough sheets. They’re all we can afford, but I don’t mind that much. It smells like home – the cinnamon and ginger scent of the cheap washing powder – the smell lingers on the fabric scattered around the house. It’s comforting and familiar. I turn on my back.
My stomach grumbles painfully, but by now, I’m used to it.
The bag of rice, the half a loaf of bread, the bag of flour, and the slab of butter – the provisions – didn’t arrive tonight, but that is often expected. Hunger is a common feeling – if you aren’t hungry, you’re one of the luckier ones, and you know it. The Regimen isn’t reliable with the delivery of our provisions. That’s why the citizens have resorted to their own methods of obtaining the necessities. Bartering is an old form of trading one good for another. It’s a simple concept to grasp, and it’s become the only way to survive.
Two to three oranges or apples will get you half a bag of grain, but not a whole bag. Fresh meat is popular with some, but not with others. It’s simple once you’re used to it. Meat is hard to obtain though, and it’s worth a lot more than fruits or vegetables.
I close my eyes, but sleep doesn’t wash over me. All I see when I close my eyes is an uncomfortable darkness.
I turn over to my side, and I curl into a ball. It was how I managed to sleep the few nights’ after my father’s death, yet it doesn’t work now.
My head reels with a whirlwind of memories and thoughts, mainly due to Rhys’s unexpected appearance. It’s brought memories into my heads that I’ve tried to forget.
I thought that I could force myself to forget all of the warm days evenings or the chilly mornings spent hunting in the Outlands – the reachable parts at least, and then trading them for the necessities. The Outlands is the area beyond the High Walls – the area left unprotected against the unnamed predators that live there. No one knows the names of the animals. If they eat meat, we call them beasts. The small, furry creatures that live in the trees are called darters. The small creatures that live on the ground are called critters. Those are the basic ones. But you have to be very careful in the Outlands, even if there is no officials watching. You have to be sure that you don’t get too close to the cupola – to the invisible wall that keeps us from escaping the tracts. I remember, once not too long ago, Rhys and I were out in the Outlands on one of our first explorations of the world outside of Seni, before we knew where the cupola walls began. Rhys was whistling the tune of a song we aren’t supposed to sing, and I was walking ahead, eager to get as far away from Seni as possible. It all happened at once. I, out of habit, kicked a stone in front of me forward – as I had been, and all of a sudden the stone smashed into flaming crumbs that rained down around us like snowflakes – or what I imagined them to look like, anyway. If the stone hadn’t been in front of me – I would have ended up like the stone did.
I snap my eyes open. Air. Fresh air. That’s what I need. I need to feel the comforting freedom that the cool air and the light of the moon bring.
I climb out of bed. I walk out of the small room, my feet leading the way, towards the front door. I throw open the door and I step outside. The chill in the air makes me breathless, but it is a welcome feeling. I feel calmer out here. The room makes me feel like a trapped animal. I sit down in front of the door, and I rest my head against the thin wood of it. I close my eyes, breathing in the air around me.
Tonight the smoke left over from todays’ work in the factories is thick. I can smell it even when I try not to. The events of the day run through my head quickly, without hesitation. They will still be looking for me, trying to figure out my real name. It is only a matter of time until they find me. They know how dangerous one heretic can be. It only takes one to crush the Regimen to dust. To light the spark that will burn the Regimen to ashes. “One light to start a wildfire,” was what my father always said.
I know what this means. It means that I only have a matter of time before I must run. Running is second nature to me. I’ve done it often enough to be able to do it again easily.
The stars are bright tonight, brighter than usual. It’s the only source of light tonight. My father used to love the stars. He used to spend most of his time under them, watching them, studying them. We used to laugh about it, Irene and I, but now I understand his fascination with them. It’s comforting to know you aren’t alone, even if a part of you won’t admit it.
I look across the empty road. Everything is still and asleep. Not a thing stirs. But then I see a shadow, moving quickly and quietly. I am on my feet in a second, the dagger placed firmly in my hand. I shift into the shadow of the house, and I hide there – waiting. The shadow moves towards me. I clamp my hand across my mouth, camouflaging my breathing.
I blink slowly – and then the shadow is gone. I rub my eyes. I must have been seeing things.
I turn towards the front door, ready to go back to sleeping.
It only takes a second. A second too late. I’m pressed against the wall, thrown against it. Someone presses a hand against my mouth tightly. I can’t scream or cry out. The person presses my back into the wall with their weight, and presses their hand more tightly across my face. It’s too dark to see who it is. I punch the side of the body, I kick the legs, but the person doesn’t react. They don’t do anything.
“Would you calm down?” the voice whispers roughly in my ear. The voice sends vibrations through my body. I immediately recognise it. My hands drop to my side, paralysed.
Annoyances flares through my body. Why is he back here? He came back.
“Shut up,” he tells me, “they’re looking for you. They’re almost here.”
He’s right. In a few moments, I hear their voices and fancy tracking software as they drive down the street. They’re looking for me. They would have found me. Which means Rhys saved my life. I owe him. I hate owing people.
He presses his finger to his lips, indicating that I must stay quiet. I do. With my back against the wall, I see nothing. He sees it all. I hate being the blind one – I have to trust him. It’s something that I don’t do easily.
I hold my breath, waiting. The wait takes forever. I can hear the Vigilum knocking on the door and asking for me. Irene tells them they have the wrong address. That she doesn’t have a child. It’s the lie my father since I was a child, and Irene has kept it up since. There are no photographs, no records of any family outings. We are never seen together. She said it is for my own good. She said it protects me. I don’t question it. I do as I’m told.
The Vigilum demand to search the house. They say that I’m supposed to be here. She lets them in, telling them again that she doesn’t have a child. She tells them that she can’t have a child. They don’t listen. They’re certain that they’re right. The door closes and the connection is lost. I glance towards their car. There’s no other Vigilum in sight. I seize my chance. I raise my knee and I throw my fist into his chest. While he doubles over, I spin him around and throw him against the wall so that our roles are reversed. My fist grabs hold of a handful of his shirt, and I throw my elbow into his throat. He is taller than I am, so it is slightly more effort, but it is nothing that I haven’t had to deal with before. He is surprised, there is no doubt about it, and slightly amused.
“Hasn’t anyone ever told you,” I tell him sweetly, “not to sneak up on an angry woman?” I release my grip on his shirt, but I keep him pinned to the wall because a Vigilum might return at any minute and I can’t risk being seen.
“You have to admit. This is kind of pleasant.” He tells me with a flirtatious wink. “You can’t tell me that you’re not enjoying it.” his breath is hot against my skin. It burns where it lands.
“I can and I’m not.” I tell him, battling to keep my voice steady.
But the situation makes my cheeks flush. I’m not as fierce as I would like to be. He knows it’s affecting me. He smiles a small smile of victory.
“You’ve acquired a few new skills since the last time I was here.” he whispers.
“I told you; I’ve changed.”
The door flies open. I press myself closer into the shadows – into Rhys. He smiles again, enjoying the situation. I nudge my elbow into his chest, and his face crumples in a brief flash of pain. A slight distraction. A distraction too weak – it doesn’t last long. It doesn’t affect him as much as I would like it to.
The Vigilum mutter angrily as they walk to their car. They say that their leader will be angry, that they’ll have to start the search all over again. One of them mutters that they’re lucky they hadn’t reported to the leader yet. That he won’t know of their mistake. That buys me another day. One more day at the most.
When they reach their car, a small smile of victory creeps across my face. We did it. They didn’t find us. I’m safe, until tomorrow.
The car speeds off in a huff, and I release my grip on Rhys as soon as they’re gone. I step away, my balance unsteady.
He smiles a one-sided smile in my direction.
“We make a good team.” He tells me.
“Too bad we won’t get to be one any longer.”
His smile almost falters. I like how I can get to him.
“So you just happened to be here at the right time?” I ask. “Or were you stalking me?”
“I was coming to try and apologize again, actually. I saw their cars coming and I heard them talking into their radios about a young girl presumably living with an Irene Mae – and I knew it was you.”
“It buys me one day.” I tell him. “I have to leave before then.”
“I’ll go with you.” He tells me suddenly. “You’re going to need someone as brave and strong as me if you’re going to survive.” He flashes a dashing smile.
“I’d rather do this on my own, thank you.”
“Come on. Admit that you need me.”
“It’s not polite to lie.”
“You’re lying to yourself. You know that we need each other. We’re stronger together. Always have been.”
“I don’t need to bring anyone else into this. It’s not safe for you.”
“When have we ever been safe?”
He’s right. He’s always right. Always has been.
“I don’t want to string anyone else along.” I try again.
“You won’t be,” He tells me, “If I’m choosing to go.”
I roll my eyes.
“Who knows, maybe we simply happened to be going in the same direction, at the same time.”
“You won’t give up, will you?”
He smiles at me. He knows I’m giving in. He shakes his head: no. I sigh loudly.
“I guess you could accompany me.” I tell him with a reluctant sigh. He smiles at me. “But don’t get any other ideas.”
He turns to face me and flashes a flirtatious smile. The moonlight rains down, setting us ablaze in the pearly white glow of it all. It highlights his white teeth as he smiles. “I wouldn’t dare to.”

**

I climb back into bed, my head spinning. By the time I came inside, Irene had already fallen back asleep. It was a strange night.
I close my eyes and darkness envelopes me. The night is silent once again.
I remember my father telling me about creatures that sang during the night. Creatures that filled the silence with a unique sound unlike any other. It’s hard to imagine these creatures. Nothing sings these days.
I breathe in, letting myself relax. It only takes a few moments, and then I’m unconscious.

The sky is dark. Ash falls all from the sky, landing all around me. It covers the ground like a thick blanket of snow – the kind I’ve only seen on television. The ash falls slowly around my ankles. I choke on the coppery and bitter taste of it when I breathe it in. Large, black clouds clog the sky and block out the blue, if there ever was. Everything is coated in the grey colouring. The sky rumbles loudly; the sound clatters in my head so that I cannot think straight. Through the clouds of ashy mist, my vision is blurred. I look around. I’m alone. There’s no one in sight. The thought makes me feel uneasy. Something tells me it’s a bad sign. My eyes dark across the burning landscape, searching for movements – for anything. A wave of hysteria builds up in my chest. My feet plunge me forward, in every direction. Something crunches under my feet. I look down, blinking rapidly to clear my vision. My hands reach forward. They brush the crusty shell of dried bones beneath my feet. I look closer. A dead person. An old skull. When I look closely, I realise that dead skulls litter every inch of the dusty floor. Something tells me that I used to know these people. I used to live with them and talk to them. Recognize them just by the sound of their voice. Now I couldn’t even try to imagine who they are. A sick feeling fills my stomach. Dead. Everyone is dead.
It’s my fault. It’s because of me. I don’t know where the thought comes from, and it scares me.
The sky thunders and lightning flashes across the sky in a blaze. It blinds me and it knocks me to the floor. I breathe in the ashy air as I fall. I choke on it and my body convulses. The poisonous fumes leave a sour and bitter taste in my mouth that I cannot get rid of. I choke on the taste of it. It clogs my lungs and envelopes me. I pull my body up from the sea of skulls and dead bodies. Dead bodies. The words ring in my head, louder than the thunder, louder than my raging thoughts. It should mean something. A part of me realises this. That’s when the realization of it all hits me. I suddenly smell the stench of it. I see the disgust of it. I hear the eerily silent whispers of the voices I used to hear on a daily basis. The voices of those now dead beneath my feet. I feel sick. The smell. The sight. The sound. The feel of the dead beneath my feet. It’s all too much. All too much. My hands feels damp. I look down at them.
Blood. Red sickly blood. My hands are covered in it. They reek of it. My eyes search desperately for the injury because it must be serious. Then it hits me.
The blood isn’t mine.
It’s not mine.
It’s theirs. I killed them.
I killed them all.
I’ve killed before. But this is different.
These people were good. They didn’t do antything wrong.
The sky rumbles overhead. The wind gathers around me like a whirlpool. It dances wildly around me, angrily, hungrily. The ash falls faster. It burns my skin. It’s hot. Too hot.
I glance closely at it. It’s actually ground hot coal dust, raining down on me.
The wind roars in my ears. The thunder clashes across the barren land like the sound of an unsteady heartbeat, increasing in speed. The lightening streaks across the sky, blinding me. The wind gathers around me. The ash and coals clog the air. They are swept along into the wind, and they dance around me, forming a thick curtain penning me in. Caging me in.
I scream, but the screams are swallowed up by the noise around me. I can’t breathe. The wind closes in. I’m surrounded. I can’t run. It chokes me. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.
My vision blurs. The darkness washes over me, blocking off my sight. Blocking off my voice. Blocking off my hearing.
It isolates me so that all I’m left with is my screaming thoughts.
And then that’s cut off too.
I’m alone.
I’m alone.
I’m alone.
I’m drowning in a sea of darkness.

My eyes snap open. I push the remnants of the dream out of my mind. I don’t want to think of it – any of it. It disturbs me. Unsettles me.
I unwrap the tangled blankets wrapped around me from the previous nights’ sleep, and I wipe the beads of sweat gathered on my forehead, on the blanket. My feet hit the cold tiles and I climb out of bed swiftly. I know what today means. I know what I must do. Run. Leave, while I still have the chance, and the confusing dream won’t help me at all. I know that I must be quick. I don’t have a lot of time left, and I need a head start.
I walk to the window and I pull the curtains open. Light dribbles into the room like water from a rusty tap, soaking everything in the warm glow of it slowly, delicately, gently, as the sun slowly rises.
I open the simple-looking cupboard purposefully. The backpack is kept on the highest shelf – hidden away but easy to reach for situations like this. I pull it down carefully because it’s old and worn. My fingers draw a line through the thin layer of dust as I place the bag on the bed. I work effortlessly and quickly.
I pull out the essentials from the cupboard – only the necessities because I don’t know how far a distance I’ll have to travel, and for how long. Carrying an extra load is pointless.
I pull out my grey jumpsuit and I slip it on in front of the cracked mirror. I watch the reflection of myself as I dress. My body is slim and slightly muscular from the hours of training and running. My skin is slightly darkened from the time spent under the sun. I look nothing like Irene. My hair is brown while hers is blonde. My eyes are green while hers are blue. Somehow, we’re related. I pull the brush through my hair and I scrape it into a knot. I’m ready.
That’s when I hear it. The sound of movement outside the window. I pull the bag onto my back and I head towards the window. Saying goodbye to Irene seems pointless. She probably won’t notice that I’m gone at all. But, I rip a piece of paper out of my diary and I leave a note in a brief and quick explanation anyway.
I slip my feet over and out of the windowpane smoothly. I land on my feet. I drop to my knees because I don’t want to be seen. I breathe in the air as the breeze blows – I will be able to smell out a person by their scent. It’s a trick I learned from my father.
I listen closely. Someone is there. Somewhere hidden from sight. The scent of vanilla and cinnamon – the cheap spices in the market – drift through my nostrils. That’s the giveaway.
I walk out from around the corner of the house.
“You’re on time.” I tell him.
He smiles at me. His eyes dance a gleam of a gloating smile. He walks confidently towards me, his hands clasping the straps of his backpack.
“I’m always on time.” He tells me with a shrug as he walks up next to me.
“You haven’t had the most reliable record of it in the past.” I remind him.
“Everyone else is simply early.” He answers.
I ignore him. I turn around and I start walking.
“This is serious,” I tell him, “so I expect you to treat it that way.”
“Of course.” He tells me. “I’ve run away too.” He sounds defensive. It annoys me.
“There is only one way this…thing will work.” I answer.
“Really?” he asks with mock enthusiasm. “And what way is that?”
“If I take the lead.”
“What experience do you have?” he shoots back.
“I’ve left before. I’ve run. I could do it again.”
“Not that.” He tells me. “What experience do you have being a leader?”
I don’t know what to say for a while. The silence hangs on our shoulders like a wet and heavy blanket. “I don’t trust you.” I finally say.
He doesn’t answer. We walk in silence. I cannot see his reaction.
“You used to.” He whispers. My foot hits a twig on the floor as I lurch to a stop at his words. The sound of it snapping replaces the silence filling the street.
“Stupid move.” He tells me angrily, and he pushes me against the wall of a house because someone’s coming. Their footsteps echo loudly, the sound growing with each step closer.
“No one must see us.” Rhys barks into my ear.
I shake him off. “I know.”
The seconds drag into hours. The waiting makes me nervous. What is taking the person so long? I know they’re here. Someone’s here. Have they seen us? Are they calling the authorities? I can’t trust anyone here – they’ll call the Regimen in a second if it means an extra share of Provisions.
And then I can’t take it any longer. I pull out of the shadows before Rhys has a chance to pull me back.
“I’m not going to wait for death.” I tell him.
He shakes his head. “You’re crazy.”
My eyes scan the street. Nothing. There’s nothing in sight. I turn back to Rhys. I start to tell him that it’s clear – that nothing is coming…
And then I feel it. Something hits me from behind. Something like a copper pan. I fall to the ground. The surprise is stronger than the pain. The embarrassment and shame burns through my mind, blocking out the rest of the pain. My eyes search for my attacker, but Rhys is quicker. He pulls a knife from his boots and throws it straight towards the attacker. My eyes follow the direction that the knife travels – right until it hits the mark. I watch the body crumple to the floor. Anger flares through my mind. A child. It’s a child.
“How could you?” I snap. “It’s a child. It couldn’t hurt me!”
“It did.” He answers. “It deserved what it got.”
Sure, I’ve killed before. But I’ve never killed a child.
He turns away, but not before I get a look in his eyes.
There’s nothing. There’s no emotion. There’s no remorse. He doesn’t feel anything for what he’s done. At least I feel something after killing – even if I hate it. It makes me human.
“The child was only protecting itself. It’s suspicious for us to be walking the streets this early – especially alone, like the child must have thought one of us was.”
“It’s done now.” He shrugs; he doesn’t care. “There’s nothing to change what’s happened.”
“You want to know why I don’t trust you anymore?” The words tumble from my mouth in an angry rush. “It’s because of that. Because I don’t even recognize what you’ve become.”
That does it. He whips around, as he turns towards me. He throws me into the tree behind me – a tree at least a meter away. My back slams against it and pain seers through my body. Unease spreads through me. He shouldn’t be that strong. It’s wrong. It’s inhumane. He walks closer. He doesn’t stop till he is right in front of me. He’s angry. He’s fuming. His breathing is heavy, uncontrolled. He stares into my eyes, but he doesn’t see me. He doesn’t see anything. There’s something about him – something unnatural and animal-like. Suddenly I’m afraid. The feeling scares me because I don’t feel it often. I try to move but I’m stuck. I’m trapped. I know what happens next – I’ve killed enough to know when it’ll happen to me.
“Rhys…” I begin, pleadingly. He’s not in control of himself. I can see the anger spreading through him as quickly as wildfire. It’s wrong. Wrong. He’s not himself anymore.
“Don’t!” he shouts, and he slams his fist into the tree behind me. I hear myself yelp in fear, as the tree creaks and then topples to the ground. “Don’t look at me like that – like I’m an animal you’re about to kill. Like I’m just like the Vigilum. Like you hate me.”
Now I’m terrified. He’s far too strong. It reminds me of my father’s strength, and that’s not a good thought.
“Calm down!” I tell him fiercely. “I’m sorry.”
He looks at me again. He starts to listen…I can see it on his face…
“Calm down.” I tell him again. I place my hand on his shoulder. The physical contact works. His breathing slows. He lowers his hands. He steps away.
“I’m sorry.” He tells me. “I don’t know what happened.” He looks ashamed.
“What are you?”
He looks away. He doesn’t answer.
“Sometimes I get a little carried away.” He tells me. He’s hiding something. I can see it straight away.
“That was more than just getting ‘carried away’, Rhys. What happened? What are you?”
“Leave it.”
And there it is again. That awkward curtain hanging between us once again, separating us, tearing us apart. It didn’t even exist before.
So I do. I leave it.
We walk in silence, none of us saying anything to the other, right until we reach the rough texture of the High Walls.

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER TWO

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges, guttering, choking, drowning.

Wilfred Owen, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’On the hill of last defiance

Once I’m over the wall and far away from the school building, I let out a breath I’ve been holding in for a while. Eira was right. They’re there. Their fancy cars crowd the entrance and exit. They’re running my name through countless name searches, no doubt. They won’t find anything, unless someone tells them my real name. No one but Eira and Kailey know my name, and I’ve sworn them to secrecy. They know how important my secret is. They aren’t stupid. I’m not worried at all about Irene. She wouldn’t ruin all of the hard word she’s been through to keep my name hidden.
My feet hit the ground in a constant rhythm. It’s an easy pattern to fall into, when it’s repeated daily. There is only one way to get home, if your family doesn’t own a car like mine, and that is to walk. I don’t mind it, especially during an autumn day like today. The few trees around me still holding leaves, all burn a bright colour of red, orange, brown or gold, and the paths are painted with the leaves that have fallen from the branches of those trees. My school shoes wade through the small piles of leaves that clutter the sidewalks, as the cold wind digs under my coat. Despite the cool weather around me, I still find myself absentmindedly humming a quiet tune that my father used to sing. This time, I allow the memories locked away, to replay in my head. It’s a relatively long walk home. I have time.

It is late at night, because the only light flooding through the thin curtains emanates from the moon, and it casts an eerily pale light across the room. I close my eyes in another feeble attempt to try to coax my mind into unconsciousness, but it isn’t working. Then I know why. I hear voices from downstairs. I can hear them arguing again, and their voices rise in heated anger. This isn’t like the usual squabble. Tonight, I can hear each angry word no matter how hard I try not to.
I climb out of bed, and then I creep towards the slightly ajar door. A thin line of yellow light streams into the room from the candles lined along the walls. There’s no electricity again.
“Don’t leave, John.” My mother pleads. “You know what happened to Aleron the last time you left. Cara needs you here. If they find you, they will throw you back into the cages and then you will be killed. They can do without you for at least the one protest.” Irene tells my father frantically. She places her hands tightly on his shoulders and she looks him in the eyes. “You know what they will do with the rest of us if you leave us alone on a night like tonight.”
“They need me there for every single protest and meeting, Irene. I made the decision to step up, and now I have to follow the responsibilities, no matter what the consequences.” He answers curtly, pushing her hand off his shoulder with annoyance. I’ve never seen him like this – silently fuming with rage.
“I will not let you leave. What if you don’t return? What will I tell Cara? How will I explain that her father was killed willingly and by choice? She is fifteen, and she needs you. Only you can get through to her. She never listens to me, and she never has…”
Her voice drops to a whisper. I strain my ears closer, so that I can hear more clearly… and then it happens. The door opens and I fall against the floor. My cover is blown.
“Cara? I thought you were asleep.” My father asks, the tone of annoyance seeping through his words, as he looks across the room at me. He knows. He knows I’ve heard. He’s angry – very angry.
“I couldn’t sleep – not with all of the fighting. Why do you two have to fight?” I ask him quietly, as I walk out of the shadows.
“We fight because we care.” John tells me gently, as if I were made of porcelain, as if I were fragile. As if I will not understand any other way. Somehow, his quiet voice silently quivering with anger is worse than when he shouts.
“This is important, sweetie,” Irene tells me, and pulls me into a tight hug, “and there are important decisions to be made.” I feel her face turn upwards to look at my father. I turn to face my father too – to read his expression.
Before my father has a chance to answer, there is a harsh knock on the door. Irene breaks away abruptly, and I catch my father’s fearful gaze. Something is wrong. The atmosphere in the house turns cold.
He bends down and grasps hold of my shoulders, hard.
“Listen to me, Cara. Go and hide, and do not come out. Whatever you do, stay hidden. These men, they cannot know about –“ but he is cut off by the loud knocking. “Think of it as the game we play. Hide and don’t come out.”
“I don’t want to leave you.” I tell him desperately. “I don’t want to play tonight.”
“You have to. Do it now.” He pushes me out of the room roughly, just as the door bursts open with a deafening roar. I want to tell him that I do not mind leaving the town anymore, that I will agree to leave. I know that I didn’t want to leave this place – not after I have actually made some friends – but no words leave my mouth. I want to reassure him that even though my life is based on running, I will leave once again, if it means staying alive. But he turns away from me, the memory of his proposal far from his mind. It’s as if he isn’t here anymore; as if he is too far gone. He doesn’t see anything else. He doesn’t see me.
I quickly scramble into the small space in the shadows behind the large cupboard I used to play in as a child. It’s a place where I am hidden from sight because I fit snugly in the shadows. I see two Vigilum barge in. They are followed by a man in a suit and a man with a camera. The cameraman is dressed in the smart clothing worn by the reporters for the Regimen, and I recognise him from the broadcasts I have watched on television. Something’s wrong. Why’s he here? It could only mean something very bad is going to happen.
“It has been so long, but I finally have you.” The man in the suit tells my father gleefully. “You have caused a lot of trouble for Carus. It will be a relief to be rid of you. After they see what we will do with you, none of them will be so willing to defend you any longer.” The man adds.
My father pulls out a gun from his pocket, and he aims and fires smoothly without a second thought. The images of him training me to do just that, flash through my mind. I notice how he hits the target each time. He was holding back in the training sessions. One man falls down, dead. My father re-aims, but within seconds, two more Vigilum barge into the room. He aims and pulls the trigger, but nothing happens. He checks the gun in his hand. I hear his anguished silence. My father is outnumbered. The fall of his determined expression shows me that he’s realised it too. But he doesn’t give up. He lunges forward and punches one of the Vigilum as hard as he can, and the man flies backwards. There’s a click as his back hits the wall. There’s something about my father’s strength that unsettles me…he’s too strong. I gulp back my surprise and unease. It reminds me of the man that killed that pregnant lady all those years ago.
The next Vigilum launches towards my father with incredible speed, and my father curls his head into his neck. As the Vigilum gains distance, my father’s head snaps up and the Vigilum is sent flying back just like the other one, almost as if his eyes alone moved the Vigilum straight into the air and against the wall. My eyes flick over to the news reporter speaking hurriedly into the camera, and then to the man in the suit pinning Irene’s arms to her side. She doesn’t fight back. The man releases his arms around her for a second – just to throw a small black and circular shaped egg-looking object into the room, and then he covers Irene and bends down. A ticking sound fills the room. My father finds my face and beckons for me to cover my mouth and duck down. I do as I’m told. The ticking slows down, as the sound grows louder. My father ducks to the floor. It’s not a good sign. Something’s wrong with the egg-shaped object lying in the middle of the floor. Irene buries her face in the man’s jacket.
And then it happens. The room explodes in a thick steam and black misty fumes. I bite into my shirt so I don’t breathe it in because somehow I know that it’s deadly. My vision is blurred to an extent where I have to close my eyes to dull the searing pain. The sheer magnitude of the mist almost knocks me unconscious. It only lasts for a minute longer – and then I can see again. My father jumps up from the floor. I assess the damages. He looks physically fine, but I know that something’s wrong. It’s when my father tries to strike out again when I find out what.
He’s not strong anymore. His strength has been depleted. He can’t fight back anymore.
My father lurches towards the second last Vigilum, but this time he isn’t fast enough. The man catches him in mid-air, and they both tumble to the ground. While the one Vigilum works on keeping hold of my father, the other pulls out various weapons that I haven’t seen before in my life. The man kicks my father in the stomach, and he cowers in pain. The man seizes his chance. He kicks my father’s jaw and pins his face to the ground with the bottom of his boot. My father lashes around and cries out, trying to break free, but the man holding him is strong. The other man slams his head into the ground, and the floor shudders beneath my feet. The one man bends over my father while the other continues to pin him to the ground.
“Tell us about code Defector.” The man bending over my father demands.
My father laughs and spits in his face. “You’ll have to kill me first.”
The man growls and pulls out a long and lethal-looking knife. He slides it across my father’s body slowly, grinning as my father cries out in agony. I bite my tongue to keep from screaming out loud, as I watch my father’s face contort in pain.
“Feeling a little more cooperative?” the man asks my father once again.
“Never.” My father chokes out.
The man responds by digging the knife deeper into his body. My father’s blood seeps through his shirt and drips into the carpet.
I close my eyes and try to block out his screams. I count in my head, because that’s what my father told me to do when I’m scared.
One
The Vigilum laugh loudly. Their laughter radiates through my head. I can’t hear myself think through the sound of it.
Two
My father screams again. The sound travels up and down my spine, spreading instant pain – almost as if I can feel his pain myself. I’ve never heard him scream before. I’ve never seen him feel pain.
Three
I bite down on my tongue. Blood fills my mouth. I choke on the coppery taste. I bite into my sleeve to keep from throwing up from the taste of it.
Four
His scream is cut off in a strangled gasp. I don’t open my eyes. It takes everything I have. But, I will be strong. I will be just like my father.
Five
I think I hear his body slam against the wall, but I’m not sure. I force myself to keep my eyes closed. I promise myself that I’ll listen to my father’s words – they may just be his last. I can’t blow my cover, and if I look – well, I know I won’t be able to control my anger.
Six
The room erupts in cruel laughter that makes my skin crawl. It’s somehow worse than the men’s laughter. My hands fly up to the sides of my head, as if to crush the echoing sounds of the laughter right out of my head.
Seven
I hear my father give in as he begins to plead and beg in desperation. It must be serious if he’s already begging.
Eight
The room is cast in an eerily silence. It’s not a good sign. I open my eyes.
My father is hunched on his knees, his eyes pupils are diluted, and his eyes are focused on something in the distance. The man in the suit holds his hands on either side of my father’s head, as if trying to reach into his mind. My father is utterly still.
“What are you showing him?” one of the men asks.
“I’m showing him his life if hadn’t chosen to be what he is, and whatever he desperately wants.” The man in the suit answers.
“What’s the point in that?”
“The point,” the man in the suit begins, annoyed, “is to show him what he really desires, and then to take it away from him, leaving him utterly alone and trapped in his own body. It’s another form of torture.”
The two Vigilum smile at each other in admiration.
“What do you see?” one of the men asks.
The man in the suit doesn’t answer for a while. “Interesting,” the man begins with wonder and annoyance. “He is holding back. He is fighting me back. He is stronger than anticipated. We won’t get anything out of him in this way.” The man in the suit lets go of my father’s head. My father crashes to the floor as if all his energy has been drained. “You might as well continue anyway. We have an audience.”
The man opens the door, revealing the rows of neighbours peeking out from their doors, and flashes a big and bright smile. “You know what?” the man in the suit asks. “Let’s take this celebration outside.”
The Vigilum smile and clap in agreement, and they lift my father’s body up and carry him out of the door.
No! I want to shout. Don’t take him away from me!
But they keep walking, solidly and determined. My father’s head hangs limply backwards, so that it’s facing me. His eyes drift open. He locks eyes with mine.
He mouths something, but I cannot see what. He is trying to look brave, but the fear behind his eyes shines through. I call out to him soundlessly, but he is beyond seeing or hearing now. He is preparing for death.
The Vigilum carry him to the large pole placed in the centre of the street that is often used for punishment of petty thieves or liars. The simple law-breakers.
They tie my father’s hands tightly to the pole with thick rope, and then they step back to admire their handiwork. They smile proudly. While they’re occupied, I sneak to the window, where I have a clearer image of the scene. My father is facing the window I’m positioned at.
“Get the shifter.” The man in the suit, who is clearly the leader, calls out.
One of the other men hurry towards the house, where all the weapons have been left. I slink behind the open door, where he won’t see me. I hear his breath as he draws near, and I place my hand over my mouth to mask the sound of my breathing. He walks closer, and I hear his boots just behind the door. He stops, as if he’s noticed me. My heart speeds up. I close my eyes tightly, and I slink further into the shadows, trying desperately not to be seen. It works. The man turns and walks away with the bag of weapons in his hand. I hear myself breathe a small sigh of relief.
The man walks up to my father and drops the bag. The other man pulls out a long, gold and round baton-looking weapon. His hand slides across the smooth texture, and two long blades flick out the ends of the batten. Despite myself, I find that I rather like the look of the weapon.
The Leader takes hold of the sword and walks towards my father, who has regained most of his energy. His eyes register the weapon in the leader’s hands, and he kicks wildly as he tries to free himself. The leader laughs at his efforts, and slowly pushes the shifter forward. My father looks up and meets my gaze. Something clicks inside him, as he suddenly stops fighting and pulls himself together. He is trying to be brave again. I almost believe him.
I look around and see the admiration and respect forming in the eyes of those watching, but I know it won’t last. If the leader notices, he will kill them all. They will mask their emotions soon enough.
The leader slides the sword into my father’s body with ease, barley missing the place where his heart should be – it’s something I paid attention to in school. He gasps in pain, trying to hide whatever else he feels, but it’s not too hard to see how much pain he is in already.
“Tell me about the code.” He demands. “Tell me and I might just spare you.”
“You wouldn’t do anything of the sorts,” my father answers curtly, “not when you have an audience to perform for.”
The leader slides the sword in deeper in annoyance. I smile at my father with pride. He notices it and winks in my direction. I feel myself start to hope that he may actually survive.
Big mistake.
The second my father smiles, the leader rips the blade out of his chest and plunges it into his arm. My father anticipates this and the blow doesn’t hit him as hard. He starts to feel confident.
“Do whatever you want,” my father calls out, “but you will never know my secrets. We’re almost as strong as each other, Ludovic, so you should know that trying to drain me will take a while. And your head games won’t work on a Mae.”
Ludovic growls and beckons for one of the Vigilum to pass him the next weapon. A simple looking rod lands in his hand.
What could that possible do? I hear myself ask.
Ludovic flicks on a button and the whole rod lights up in a luminous blue colour. The weapon suddenly looks rather ominous. My father’s eyes widen in a way that suggests that he has seen one of these before, and that this isn’t good.
Ludovic’s smile grows.
“Are you regretting opting for silence yet?” he asks my father.
“Never.” He answers, trying to continue his act of bravery.
“You will.” Ludovic answers with a cruel smile, and he plunges the luminous rod straight into my father’s body like a projected image, but my father’s reaction tells me the weapon is much stronger than a simple projection.
“What does it do?” An observer asks.
“It electrocutes him.” Ludovic answers simply, with a gleeful smile.
My father’s body goes limp for a few minutes, and his eyes flutter closed. For a while, all that can be heard is the dull buzzing of the rod in Ludovic’s hands, and my father’s body hitting against the pole behind him. Then he pulls the rod out of my father’s body. Ludovic waits a few minutes, and then he plunges the rod into his body again. His body shudders violently, and his eyes roll back in his head.
Ludovic laughs and pulls the weapon out.
“Anything to say?” he asks.
My father manages a slow nod, but it takes all of his energy.
“What’s wrong? Lost the ability to speak?” Ludovic jeers, and then he slides it in again.
I can’t look anymore. I can’t stand to see the tortured expression half-hidden behind my father’s attempt to appear brave for my sake. I look away quickly, and I hear the violent shudder of my father’s body as it slams against the wooden pole behind him. His breathe chokes in his throat – I can hear it loud and clear. I can’t stand it any longer. I allow the sweet, calm melody of one of the songs my father used to sing, fill my head.

‘My sweetheart, come along!
Don’t you hear the fond song,
The sweet notes of the nightingale flow?
Don’t you hear the fond tale
Of the sweet nightingale,
As she sings in those valleys below?
So be not afraid
To walk in the shade,
Nor yet in those valleys below,
Nor yet in those valleys below.

‘Pretty Betsy, don’t fail,
For I’ll carry your pail,
Safe home to your cot as we go;
You shall hear the fond tale
Of the sweet nightingale,
As she sings in those valleys below.’
But she was afraid
To walk in the shade,
To walk in those valleys below
To walk in those valleys below

A blood-curdling scream slices through my whispering voice. My head snaps up to where the body of my father hangs.
A scream chokes in my throat. The man in front of me is unrecognisable.
His body is a ripped and shredded piece of bleeding and raw skin. His head hands low and his chest is still. I expect the worse. How could I not?
But one ragged breath from him tells me that he isn’t dead just yet. He is fighting to stay alive. The man holding the thick whip in his hand stares in disbelief. Ludovic lets out an enraged roar or angry words.
“So it seems you would rather die than give up the information we desire,” He calls out.
“How noble of him.” One of the Vigilum agrees sarcastically. “This usually works.” He points to the long piece of leather placed in his hands.
I bite back my anger.
“It’s rather annoying.” Ludovic snaps.
My father barely manages to choke out a response. I realise with a pang that he’s trying to laugh. He really is the bravest man I know.
“Break him.”
My father is beyond pain. He is beyond caring.
I suddenly want to laugh. Doesn’t Ludovic know?
You can’t break a broken man.
“We didn’t bring any other weapons.” One of the men calls out.
“We didn’t think it would take this long.” The other agrees.
“Then we’ll just have to take him with us. Finish him there.”
I bite my tongue to prevent the scream stuck in my throat, from escaping through my lips. Take him where? My father lifts his head high enough to meet my eyes. His eyes whisper a secret smile of hope, a smile written in a language only the two of us can read. My hand reaches for him, and rests on the cold glass of the window separating us. The barrier. Just like the Cupola. He smiles faintly, and then he bows his head as the wave of exhaustion crashes over him. I breathe in the image of him, knowing this will be the last time I will see him, forcing myself to remember every detail, no matter how grotesque. A silent, unspoken goodbye hangs on my lips, as the men carry the unconscious body of my father out of the town.
“Let this be a lesson to you all.” The man named Ludovic begins. “We will not be as understanding the next time.” He looks around, drinking in the fearful expressions with a smile. “This is where Defiance gets you.”
And then he is gone.
I step out of the shadows, and my feet sprint out of the door and in the direction that the car travelled. Run. I run.
I hear Irene telling me that it’s no use, that it won’t help anything, but yet I still run. I don’t stop until I reach the bloody pole that my father was tied to. I search for signs of him. I search for anything at all, but all that surrounds me is blood. Red. Scarlet red blood dots the street like paint. Blood. That’s all I smell. His blood. The coppery and bitter smell fills my nose, fills my mind, my mouth, right until I smell nothing else. The blood sticks to the bottom of my boots. Blood. Suddenly it’s too much. Too much blood. Too much lost. I turn down the street, walking the way the men left. They’re gone. There’s nothing but the reek of the engine fumes thick in the air. That’s all that’s left of him. The bottom of my shoe crunches against the cracked tar.
Stop, my mind instructs. You stood on something, and it wasn’t the tar. I lift my foot and bend down. My fingers brush against the copper-coloured chain strewn across the floor. I’ve seen my father wearing it before. He must have dropped it by accident. But something tells me otherwise. He wanted me to find it. My fingers snatch hold of the chain, and I lift it up into view. It’s a pocket watch. It looks expensive, and it is the prettiest thing I own. I could guarantee a whole month’s supply of food for both Irene and myself, if I traded this in town. But, I know that I would never do anything like that. I could never let go of this piece of my father. I slip the necklace into my pocket. I’ll have to find a place to keep it hidden. If the Vigilum find this during another raid, they’ll confiscate it. I can’t let that happen.
I walk back the way I came. My footprints are shadows of blood. My father’s blood. The thought makes me feel sick. It makes my head spin, all over again. With every fresh wave of nausea that washes over me, the pain increases.
Unfair. This is all unfair. Unfair and cruel. They had the wrong man. They killed the wrong man. They must have. My father was good, kind. How did he come to such a bloody and unjustly end?
Anger boils inside me – bubbling and stewing. Something must be done, I tell myself.
I will do something. That is the thought that calms me down. My father wouldn’t think I’d be strong enough to do it – but I will. They’ll pay. Revenge.
I walk towards the house. Everything feels empty. Angry. Vengeful. That’s what I am.
My father has always been a hero in my eyes. The man that caught me before I fell from the tree, the man that sang me to sleep, the man that stayed with me right until I fell asleep, the man that build me a fort out of blankets to keep me safe, the man that always put his family first, even if it meant him starving to death – that man was a hero. Invincible in my eyes.
But tonight – no matter how hard my father fought it – tonight they made that man a boy.

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER ONE

Selflessness to defy egotism
Love to defy abhorrence
Empathy to defy apathy
Fortitude to defy disquietude
Cognition to defy ignorance
But most importantly, above all:
Defiance to defy the consent they demand.

– A well-known rebellion recitation originating from the civil war

My black, leather school shoes clip loudly against the worn tar of the road, as I run towards the crumbling school building. I pass several Vigilum patrolling the streets, searching for anyone willing to break one of the Regimen’s precious laws. I run with my head down, as every other person does, out of forced respect for the officers that ensure the law is upheld. Meeting the eye of a Vigilum classifies you as Defiant, and you will be prosecuted under one of the multiple laws that the Regimen created after they took over from the previous Government. The first thing they did was abolish the democracy system. The island of Vetus-Fortis, renamed from the big island of Hawaii, is now a complete totalitarian state. A state protected by the countless laws the president has created, to prevent the rebel group from rising up against them as they had done eleven years ago.
I am late again, because I couldn’t catch the local bus fast enough. None of the children from my town own a car. That’s simply another luxury that cannot be afforded.
I can feel the strain in my heels as I climb up the stone stairs from walking such a far distance. But I don’t feel the weight of the exhaustion the way I used to in the beginning. I’m used to it now. A few dry leaves crinkle and crack under my shoes like pieces of broken glass. The shoes aren’t as tough as I would like. I traded them for some scrap metal my father collected while working in the metal factories, because that was all I had at the time. The shoes are the only things that I can call mine, though – my whole outfit belongs to the Regimen. Here, in Seni, the sixth Tract, we wear a standard uniform. All the same. The shoes must match the outfit – the grey, silver jumpsuit to match the metal factory buildings. That’s the only rule. They don’t provide us with the shoes because they’re too expensive to make for all of us. A waste of money.
I pause before I enter the glass doors. I take a deep breath, and then I walk briskly into the busy corridors full of students hurrying across the corridors, rushing to wherever they need to be. Someone shoves me hard from behind, but when I turn, I’m not quick enough to catch sight of who it was. Maybe it was just a mistake – I tell myself. Maybe. But I know that it wasn’t. The children from Seni are always picked on, laughed at, mocked and teased. Most of the poorer students are from the poorer Tracts, mainly the factorial, agricultural, and quarries – the sixth, second, and seventh Tracts – although only students from Seni and Tribus attend this school. I push through the streams of people and I slip into the darkened History class, where I slide into a seat near the back of the class and try to become as invisible as possible. This way, I can almost supress the tiny voice at the back of my head urging me to speak out and stand up for my beliefs – something utterly illegal – as I know it will only cause trouble for me; trouble I don’t need. If you are caught speaking out of turn, you are taken into custody. No one knows what happens to you. You disappear. Some say they transfer you to another Tract with a new name and a new identity and a new life, with no recollection of your previous life. They say you forget because they wipe your memories clean with a Voider – the operations created by the Regimen to remove memories. But none of this is confirmed. All we – the people Watched every single day – can do, is hope. Hope that we aren’t pulled away from our homes, lives, taken away on account of an illegal activity performed unknown to us. It’s why I always keep my mouth sealed shut: I know that if I begin to talk, I won’t be able to stop. It wouldn’t do any good to anyone.
I glance out of the window, and my green eyes catch the distractingly beautiful gold tint in the leaves outside the classroom window. It looks almost like someone has taken a cloak woven from the most vibrant orange, yellow, red and golden colours, and draped it all around the town, enveloping everything under it, and spreading a rich autumn complexion. Autumn is the only pretty thing in this town. A slight breeze lapping against the leaves and through the tall branches catches my eye. That’s when I notice just how few leaves and living plants there actually is. Dead. More than half of the plant life here is dead. Poisoned by the poisonous fumes and liquid thrown out daily – the waste created from the factories this tract runs. But not everything the Regimen intends to kill dies. There are others who have joined to stand against the Regimen. They are the ones that no-one dares to even so much as look at or mention. Communicating with the rebels means death. Their blood red posters scatter the town; dripping off boards and peeling off walls and sign posts like sticky honey – a sickly reminder of how they refuse to accept their defeat during the civil war, and of how they simply won’t accept death as their reality.
I turn away from the window just as the educator assigned to this lesson walks into the classroom. I stare at the plump, tall woman in front of me. Her hair is twisted and braided, and then piled on to her head in an old-fashioned manner. She wears a matching pink pencil skirt and blouse – quite the old fashion too. Her shoes are a pink colour that is about two shades darker than the skirt, and they have a tall heel that cannot be comfortable. There is a hot pink colour added to her thin lips, and she stares at the class with a beady eye. I hate this woman. I think to myself, she is one of the richer ones – one of the ones who would die for the Regimen.
In this country, there are two kinds of people. The ones who know the cruelty of the Regimen and choose to turn the other cheek, and the ones who will die trying to end the suffering of others. There are the richer people, and the poorer ones. The richer ones have everything to lose, and the others don’t. For the poorer ones, there is almost nothing left. Their houses are crumbling, and most of their family members are dead. I know because I am one of them. I’ve lost enough to know their pain.
“Good morning.” The plump woman calls out in a tight voice, shattering my trail of thought. A few people mutter an answer. I don’t. “Let me ask a question; what makes a country great?”
And that’s how it always starts. It’s how every single lessons always begins, no matter which educator conducts it. The answer is always the same. The educators are expected to drill it into each child’s head so that they believe nothing else, and today is the day they all find out of they’ve done a good enough job. Today, with the lessons Watched – tracked by the Regimen – they have to be extra careful to get it all right.
“A great country is one ruled by control and a standardized system of rules put into place to guide us and navigate our paths in the way that helps us achieve the best we possibly can.” That’s what the class answers, everyone at the same time in perfect harmony so that it sounds flawless. Almost too flawless for my liking.
“We all know what today’s lessons will be about.” The woman calls out. “Today we are revising the summarised history of Vetus-Tenebris, and how we have all evolved and learned from the mistakes made by the people of the past.” I almost want to laugh. It sounds as if she’s read that straight off of a ‘Believe in your leaders!’ advertisement placed on television by the Regimen.
“How did it all start?” She asks us, but she doesn’t wait for an answer. “Let’s all flash back to a time of great unhappiness and anger in the world. Of a time when there was simply no control.” She pauses. “We all know of the Before – of when the citizens under the lead of a weak government revolted. We know of the riots and the excessive violence that ensured, and how the government was not able to control its people that had turned against them.” She pauses again, but only the slide the pictures of the riots onto the projected computer screen with the flick of her finger over the blue flickering screen hovering in mid-air. I watch the eyes of the other students drink in the images. I watch the disgust and revolt spread across their faces like the rising temperature of a heat wave – the kind that begins to seep through every crevice in each house, slowly – at the sight of the citizens ripping apart everything in their paths. In the photographs, children our age wearing white masks with cruel-looking grins plastered across them and exaggerated eyebrows, burn down buildings and light homemade bombs in various forms, before throwing them towards what must have been the government buildings with looks of loathing and hatred that burns brighter than the flames they create ever could. Studying their resentful expressions almost makes me think the root of their anger – the thing worth fighting for – had been forgotten by most. It looks almost as if what could have become a struggle worth writing into history, turned out to be a waste of time – something without meaning. That anger had gotten the best of them; devoured their sense of reasoning. That’s what really bothers me.
“This is what Hawaii, the previous name of our country, faced.” The woman calls out, her voice echoing throughout the room, filling the silence around us. “This is where the country would have ended, if it had not been for one man. One man alone saved us from complete destruction.” She looks around the classroom, meeting each pair of eyes directly, holding their gaze. “Can anyone tell me the name of this hero?” she points to a girl seated two rows ahead of me, to a girl dressed in a sandy brown jumpsuit who is clearly from Tribus.
“A brave and courageous man named Edward the Prosperous arrived from England and saved the country of Hawaii – our country. He made several changes after he overthrew the government. He changed the country’s name to Vetus-Tenebris, a word deprived from an ancient language called Latin, along with all of the towns and city names as well. He saved us. And to him, we will be forever grateful.”
The teacher beams proudly. The girl has gotten it just right. She’s remembered the exact quote repeated by all of the educators, and she even seems to believe it herself. There’s just one thing they’re leaving out about Edward the Prosperous, something my father made sure to remind me of. Not only did he change everything the people of Hawaii had known and took everything they held dear away, but he killed most of them due to his paranoia and phobia of disease, and due to the civil war, many had contracted various diseases. He killed them even if they weren’t sick, when he orchestrated the mass slaughters.
“And then, what proceeded after that?” The woman points to the boy seated behind me.
He smiles. He’s glad to have been chosen. “This is the most important part.” The boy begins. “This is when Edward the Prosperous created the Regimen – the new governmental party prepared to lead the country after his death.”
The educator smiles a satisfied smile. She’s convinced the whole class that this is the truth, and she knows she’ll be safe in front of the cameras watching the lesson. Well, almost the whole class.
“What about the mass slaughters?” the voice comes from somewhere behind me. It surprises even me, and every person turns right around in their seat to identify the person crazy enough to ask such a question. But there’s no one there. All the seats behind me are empty.
The educator smiles nervously, as she licks her lips. She doesn’t know how to respond. No one does.
“Let’s move on.” She calls out, her voice trembling. She knows this isn’t good – that she could be killed for even so much as answering it. No one argues or stops her. They just accept it. They accept it like they accept the unfairness and the poverty they live in, like they accept the harsh rules and cruelty of the Regimen. Suddenly I’m angry. I’m furious.
And that’s when it happens.
“I think we should answer the question.” I haven’t even realised that it’s me who’s spoken, until everyone is staring straight towards me. I don’t know where it came from. I know I shouldn’t have spoken. They’ll be looking for me now – the Regimen. It only takes one match to light a wildfire. But somehow, I can’t stop. It’s as if a part of me has been awakened, alighted, and now I can’t control it.
“The question is irrelevant.” The woman stutters.
“We all know it isn’t.” I answer again. “It’s something more than half of us want to know. But then again, there are many things we would like to know. Many things we will never receive an answer to.”
The room is eerily silent. The educator’s nervous laugh is the first thing to break through the silence.
“There are many things we want to know – but there are also many reasons why we won’t ask them. Why we don’t question.”
“It’s not your place –” the educator begins again, but I cut her off.
“You don’t question because you’re afraid.”
And then it ends as quickly as it came. The fire inside me subsides, and a wave of the shock of what I’ve just done, crashes over me
I think of what I have said. I think about why I just did what I did, and why I chose this lesson to voice my opinion. I realise that I don’t have an answer. I don’t have an explanation.
“Would you please accompany me out of the classroom.” The educated tells me with a stern expression. It’s not a question. I stand up, gather my belongings, and I walk out of the classroom, past the sea of shocked and stunned faces staring up at me.
The educator pulls me to the side, out of earshot from anyone listening.
“That lesson was Watched. There will be repercussions.”
I nod. I know this. I expected her to say this.
“That’s why you have to leave now. You have to leave before they find you.” She whispers the words, because she knows that even here – in the middle of the corridor – your words aren’t safe. Her response shocks me. She is not like me. She should worship the Regimen. She shouldn’t be trying to save me. Wrong. Her aiding me feels wrong.
“Why are you trying to save me?” I ask.
“I want you to live.”
Her answer is simple. Kind. That’s what she is. It feels wrong for someone to be kind; to care. I don’t like them. I mistrust them. You don’t find many of them these days. Every man for themselves. That’s what they’re all like.
“Go,” she tells me urgently, “get out of here while you still have the chance.”
I think about it. I take the opportunity, but I refuse to thank her. That means that I have admitted to owing her, and I hate owing people anything. I turn and I walk down the corridor quickly, without looking back. I don’t know what punishment that woman will face for saving me, and I don’t want to think about it. The thought makes me feel guilty, and I have done nothing to feel guilty for.

**

My black fountain pen hovers above my piece of clean and white piece of paper, puzzled, unsure of where to start. A cool, delicate breeze drifts past the bare skin of my arms, sending a shiver all the way up my spine. All around me, the stray leaves that litter the grass lift up into the air, and they sway swiftly all around me with the wind. I close my eyes and breathe in the smells that float in the air all around. The smell of soil and earth, blossoming flower buds and crushed leaves surrounds me. It’s a welcome smell because it’s so rare.
I almost want to scream with the wonders that surround me; the slice of the pale blue sky, a small brown bird’s chirp goodbye, and the low whistle of the wind in the trees.
In this small clearing hidden from sight, only accessible to those who are able to climb over the High Walls – the walls that surround the perimeter of the town, which is where the school building is situated – is where I find my solitude and safety. There is only a small area beyond the High Walls that is accessible, due to the Cupolas – the almost-invisible wall that surrounds each town. I’m lucky I even know this place exists. Everyone else is supposed to think that the Cupola runs along the perimeter of the High Walls blocking off the other world entirely, but I found a way around this. I found a small portion of the Outlands that isn’t concealed. The freedom I feel when I’m here is almost sickening, in a pleasant way. The area is unkept and wild, because no one with common sense ever dares to venture past the point of safety that the High Walls provide. But, the unruliness is what makes it to beautiful. The grass has grown right up to my ankles, which is a phenomenon in itself, and the feel of it as it brushes my ankles is a pleasant one.
Whenever I need to hide or find safety, this is where I come. The walls are easy enough to climb over, if you’ve been climbing since you were let out of your house. Out here, in the middle of no-where, is where a slice of paradise – what is left of it – can be found.
I can stand on the large rock – big enough to fit three people easily – and shout out all of my anger, drain it all, and no one will even so much as hear me. I can write in my little black book made of soft leather, and no one will demand to read the secret words scribbled across the thin parchment, the words that are my thoughts. I can think whatever I want to think. I can feel safe with the knowledge that the Regimen aren’t watching. I can be myself, which is almost too much to hope for.
My eyes flitter downwards onto the blank sheet of paper.
The Regimen have almost destroyed all parchment or taken whatever they find for themselves. They told us that it was wasteful. They gave the richer students another reason to mock the poor.
I place my pen to the page in front of me.

It’s two months until my birthday. Sixty One days until I’m sixteen, until they Mark me and place my name on the list.
I’m scared. I’m too ashamed to admit it, but I am.

I lift my pen off the piece of tanned paper dented with the pressure of the writing from the previous page. I can feel the pressure and the weight of the memories hidden deep in a place away from thought, threatening to spill into view again. I know what happens after the rows of images flash through my mind of that night, and I know how dizzy I feel afterwards. It takes all my strength to push them away. I think about what I’ve written. It’s custom in Semi – I don’t know about the other Tracts – that when each child turns sixteen, they’re marked, or tattooed across their wrist in permanent ink, and then taken away. I realise that a part of me likes it here – or rather, likes the feeling of living in a home with a mother that we can almost call our own. That’s when I shut the thought away. If I think about it too long, the hollow feeling of fear spreads through me, and I hate feeling afraid. I hate feeling so helpless.
I close the book laid snugly across my lap, and I tie the thin ribbon securely around it.
And then I hear footsteps. I hear the crunch of one of the dried leaves crumpled under the sole of a shoe. I hear the intake of breath. I catch the wafting smell of her mother’s perfume thick in the air. That’s what gives it away. That’s what smells so familiar. I turn around just as Eira climbs off the wall. She strides over to where I sit.
“What’s happening out there?” I ask her when she sits down next to me.
From this place on the rock, I can see far across the barren landscape that clutters the surrounding area. Nothing grows here, near the factories. If it does, it’s coated in the thick and foul smelling fumes. Only if you walk deeper into the Outlands – as deep as possible but not too close to the cupola – you’ll find forests of trees and plants so beautiful you don’t want to look away.
“They’re here. They’re looking for you.” She answers quietly, her attention lost in the landscape.
“What happened to the educator I was last with?” I find myself asking. I don’t mean to, it just slips out of my mouth.
“They’ve taken her. They saw her talking to you just before you left. They think she’s guilty.”
“She saved my life.” It takes a lot to admit. “And she’ll die for it.”
Eira doesn’t answer. We both like it that way.
“They’re looking for me and Kailey. They know we’re all connected. They think we have something to do with this.”
“They can’t find me.” I tell her urgently.
“I know.” She answers gently. She turns her head sideways, facing me. I feel her dark eyes studying me, reading me. Eira sees everything. It’s part of who she is.
She reads me like an open book – she’s the only one – and it unsettles me.
“They can’t find you.”
“I’ll protect myself. I’ll protect Kailey. You know I will.” She answers. I do know that. I know how capable they both are of protecting themselves.
“Go,” I tell her, “before they have to search for you as well. Then we’ll all look guilty.”
She nods and climbs off the rock. She walks away from me, towards the wall. Just before she begins to climb, she turns around to face me.
“They won’t come close to finding you,” she calls out, “no one ever could.” And then she disappears with a small smile.