That night I dream of Rebecca. We are running away from something down a dark tunnel. The ground is littered with broken stones and cans of spoiled food, while above us, fluorescent tubes flicker and spark. I hold her hand as we race, but somehow she slips away from me, and though I reach out to find her, she has vanished in the darkness. I hear her screaming my name, but instead of finding her, I turn and keep running.
I tell myself, “No. You have to go back for her. You have to find her.” But when I stop and turn, Sweepers knock me off my feet and start dragging me backward through the debris, all the while telling me how special I am.
Then the thing in the darkness comes to take me, and when it howls at me, it sounds so very much like a train until I realize it is a train, and Tommy is tied to the tracks in its path, about to be crushed.
The train whistle blows a long blast, and I wake up.
Most of me, anyway. My legs are still asleep, and I’ve got a terrible crick in my neck, and my hair smells like the inside of a slop sink.
And for some reason, I can still hear the train whistle from my dream.
I stretch out my legs to try and get some feeling back into them, gasping as the circulation returns to the blood-starved muscles. For a moment, it is sheer agony. I clench my fists and bite my lip as the feeling returns, then sweet relief as the pins and needles subside. My calf starts to throb again. Weakly, I push to my feet, and I hear the whistle again.
Then I remember. The train!
I turn the lock and slip open the door just a crack. It’s dark in the hall, but not pitch black like it’s been here in the closet, and I can see fairly well.
I see nothing. I widen the door and poke my head through, peering down to the other end of the corridor. A security light illumines the tile floor with splashes of light, but for all that, the hall is empty.
I slide through the opening and silently shut the door, then steal down the corridor to the junction at the far end. A quick glance in either direction tells me all I need to know. My fellow prisoners are all bunched up in a double line outside the gate, shifting their weight and stomping their feet in the cold. Even from where I stand, I can see the hazy mist of their breath rising from their mouths and dissipating in the glare from the outside lights. On a wooden platform in front of them I count six guards. Two are standing facing the tracks. Two are looking in either direction down the line of track and two more are facing the crowd, with wicked looking rifles braced in their arms. Just beyond them, the train is coming to a stop as load after load of abandoned vehicles trundle by on flatcars. The train finally stops with a passenger car coming to rest in front of the crowd.
I am out of time.
Everyone’s eyes are on the car as the doors open, even the guards who are supposed to be watching the crowd. I make my move. Pushing through the door, I hurry across the open expanse of dirt, arriving in line just as one of the guards turns his head to look back.
My heart is in my throat. Does he recognize something different in the line? Has he seen me? Abruptly, the doors to the passenger car open, drawing his gaze to the front again as the arriving team starts to shuffle out.
I spy Daniel two rows up from me, and I whisper his name. He doesn’t hear me. I try a little louder. “Daniel!”
He glances back, and his eyes widen. I can’t tell if he’s surprised or frightened or both. He slips backward in line until he stands beside me.
“What happened?” he says.
“Spent the night in a supply closet. Tommy showed it to me.”
“Where is he?”
Only then do I realize he has no idea. “Solitary. Guard nabbed him outside the closet door.”
He swears, studying the guards. We fall silent as the arriving team slouches toward us. Their heads are down, but in their eyes I see a listless, hollow look, as if life itself had been drained from their bodies. Their faces are smudged and gaunt, and their clothes are stained black. A malodorous wave rolls off them, and I wrinkle my nose. My reaction is not lost on Daniel.
“There aren’t many accommodations on the road. Things like showers, a change of clothes or a hot meal? Forget it. Week’s time, that’ll be us.”
I shake my head. “No, it won’t.”
“You mean to go through with it then?” He shifts his weight, glancing furtively to the left and right. “Without Tommy? That don’t seem right.”
“Can’t change what’s done,” I reply, using one of Mother’s favorite expressions. “Can only change what we’re going to do.”
“Well, if you’re going to do something, you’d better do it now.”
I see the guards start to disappear into the train, sweeping it from end to end for any stray prisoners.
“Did you bring what I asked?”
He pats his stomach in reply. I take his hand, and together we slip backward from the line, ducking our heads until we can dash sidelong into the guard shack.
The interior is no larger than five foot by five foot. I shove us in the darkest corner and whisper, “Quickly!”
Daniel unzips the front of his jumpsuit and pulls out the thin, woolen blanked he snagged from his bed. I hand him a corner, and we stretch it out before us, pressing either end against the walls with our palms and holding it there.
“You sure this’ll work?” he says.
I shush him and try to listen. Through the gauzy fabric I can see the outline of the door framed by the spot lights outside, but nothing else. We hear the guards give the order to board the train, and then comes the sound of the team shuffling forward. A few minutes later, the gate to the passenger car is closed and latched.
The train blows its whistle and starts forward. I glance at Daniel, and I can see he’s sweating, his lip trembling. He needs to keep it together a little while longer. I give him a smile, hoping to calm his nerves, but he only swallows hard in response and keeps staring through the blanket. The clack of the train’s cars dwindles in the distance, and soon we can hear the muted conversations of the guards, but not enough to make out the words.
Booted feet trudge toward us and the guards stride past. Daniel’s breath catches in his throat, making a slight sound. But one of the guards stops, comes over to the guardhouse, and sticks his head inside.
The guard looks around, reaching for the flashlight on his belt. If he turns it on us, there’s no way this blanket over us will fool him. He flashes the beam into the shack. I wince.
“Holden, you coming?”
The guard looks back. The voice comes from outside, one of the other guards. Guard Holden shakes his head and clicks off the light. He retreats to the outside. Soon, the only sound we can hear is that of our own hearts beating.
Cautiously, we lower the blanket. Outside, the wind blows leaves across the barren ground, but there’s no other sound. I take the blanket from him and fold it into a neat square, tucking it inside my jumpsuit. Daniel moves to the edge of the guard house, peering through the opening.
“They’re gone,” he says.
I come to his elbow and study the outside. Across from the train tracks I can see a fifteen foot high chain link fence topped with razor wire. On the other side of it, dense woods and thorn briars block the path.
“What now?” he says.
“We either go over the fence and through the woods here, or we take our chances on the railroad.”
He glanced at the woods with its briars and thorns. “I say the track.”
“I say you’re right, but we can’t stay on it long.”
“Shouldn’t have to. This is the same track runs through the twenty-seventh just off the East Middle. We’re on the outskirts of town. You gonna be able to run on that leg?”
“One way to find out. You ready?”
He nods once, and then we’re off. As soon as we clear the guard house, an alarm claxon sounds. It gives wings to our feet. My leg throbs, but holds up. We reach the track and sprint down it. We’re halfway to the gate before we hear the first guard clear the Hut. Behind us, I hear someone yell, “Fan out! Find them!”
We reach the gate and start to climb. It sags outward under our weight. I hear a shout, and a gunshot is fired. My leg is throbbing harder now, and I see fresh blood start to seep through the fabric. I reach the top and tear the blanket out, unfurling it and whipping it over the razor wire. It snags on the blades and holds. Daniel is the first up. He gets a leg over the fabric, gasping as the blades cut through the blanket and into his flesh. He grimaces and offers me his hand. I take it, pull myself up. More gunshots. This time, we hear the bullets whizzing by our heads. Some of them strike the fence, pinging off wildly in a spray of sparks. I clear the razor wire and swing down to the far side, clutching the fence and offering a stabilizing hand to Daniel as he extricates himself from the blades. Abruptly, he loses his balance. I hang onto his hand as he falls, but the sudden movement tears me off the fence, and we collapse to the ground below.
We hit hard. The ballast and track is unforgiving. I feel a hard blow to my arm and my ribs, and raw fire shoots up my leg. But for all that, I’m relatively undamaged.
Daniel isn’t so lucky. He twisted his ankle when he landed on the rails, and his upper thigh is a bloody mess from the razor wire. Behind us, the guards are rushing toward the gate. Automatic gunfire lances the fence, spitting hot flashes of metal where the bullets impact the steel posts.
“Leave me!” Daniel says. “Go.”
“Not happening.” I grit my teeth and push myself to my feet, dragging him up. I throw his shoulder over mine and together we start hobbling away, each leaning against the other.
We only manage to escape through accident and dumb luck. We’ve gone thirty yards when we hear the sound of the gate opening to let the guards chase after us. Daniel huffs “This way,” and together we lurch off the track into the woods.
Here, a narrow hiking path meanders into the woods. The trees there raise barren branches that entwine in the shadows above, while the ground is snarled with unruly thorn bushes. In the distance the alarm bleats into the night, a grating pulse that hurts my ears and sends shivers down my spine. The only benefit it gives us is in masking the sound of our footfalls, though it also hides the noise of our pursuers.
We hear the guards closing in when the ground suddenly gives way. We careen down a thirty foot embankment, tumbling end over end to land in a high patch of weeds, with the wind knocked out of us. I stare at the black sky above, seeing neither star nor moon in the overcast night. Then a red miasma overcomes the clouds, dropping down until it swallows me whole.
I wake sometime later, and wish I hadn’t. Above me, the sky is a vault of azure blue, tinged with the gilded rays of morning. I feel a dull, full body ache ebbing away at the edges of my consciousness. I try to sit up, and pain floods back, washing over me and piercing the fog in my brain. A cry escapes my lips, and a hand suddenly clamps over my mouth, pushing me back into the grass. My eyes go wide. I reach for the hand to pry it off my mouth, adrenaline overcoming pain.
Daniel’s face appears above mine, his finger pressed to his lips. I stare hard, stunned by the mass of cuts and bruises that mar his face. Both eyes are black, and one of them is swollen shut. Still, there is a look of intense concentration on his face. I realize he is listening.
After a count of five heartbeats, he takes his hand away. I wait for him to nod before sitting up. It still hurts, but I manage it without crying out. He makes hand signals to me, carving half-circles in the air, pointing at my chest and his, and then making walking fingers with one hand. I sorta get the message. He wants us to go someplace, though I don’t quite know what the half-circles are all about. I nod anyway, pretending to understand.
Slowly, we push to our feet, staying low in the tall grasses that obscured us from view through the night, and even now conceal us from the ridge above, where the train tracks run toward town.
Together, we push through the field and down a second embankment, where a narrow stream gurgles endlessly, carving a meandering path through the field and wood toward—now I understand the half-circle motion—a dark culvert beneath the road. I bend down and scoop a little water into my mouth, and then hurry with him toward the darkened hollow.
Once inside, we collapse against opposite sides of the channel. “The water will hide our scent from the dogs,” he says.
He nods. “Heard them this morning. Braying all around the Hut. It’s what woke me up. I don’t think they caught our trail though.”
“That’s good. How’s your leg?”
“Sore. Better, but sore. The real problem are the drones.”
I nod. Drones fly above the twenty-seventh as a matter of routine. They’re often so far up that they’re invisible to the naked eye, though sometimes you can catch a glimpse of sunlight glinting off their wings in the distance. Usually there aren’t more than two or three on patrol at any one time, and I’ve never really concerned myself with them until now.
“So we need to stay under the tree cover,” I say.
He nods. “And hope they’re not scanning for heat signatures.” He pushes away from the wall and starts scouring the bottom of the culvert, panning through the muck with his fingers. “If we follow the course of this road, it should lead us back to the East Middle Quarter.” Triumphantly, he pulls up a shard of broken glass. “Then all we gotta do is get by the checkpoint, and we’re back in the city. For that, we need this baby.”
He nods. “This is gonna hurt. You do me, and I’ll do you.”
I frown. “Do what?”
“You remember that tracking chip they shot into your arm? You try walking past a checkpoint with that thing still in there and see what happens. You’ll have every Sweeper in the vicinity breathing down your neck.”
“You want to cut them out?”
“You got a better idea?”
I grit my teeth and shake my head. He’s right. The tracking chips have got to come out. I take the shard of glass from him and wash it off a bit in the muddy water, then dry it as best I can on my jumpsuit.
He unzips his and pulls out his arm, rolling up the sleeve to his undershirt until I can see the tight bulge of his shoulder muscle beneath it. In the direct center of the muscle, I spy the mark where the tracker is buried in his flesh.
“How deep is it do you think?” I hold the shard above his skin, uncertain.
He shrugs. “Just try to get it in one cut, okay?”
I nod, and then press the glass into his skin, drawing sharply down across the nub of the tracker. He winces as the glass bites into his skin, and a trickle of blood flows down his arm. I see immediately that I haven’t cut nearly as deep nor as long as I need to. “Hang on,” I whisper, and cut him again, this time pressing hard against the wound.
He grunts, and I feel his whole body go stiff as he steels himself against my amateur surgery. “Sorry,” I mutter, and cut again.
“Don’t apologize,” he gasps. “Just get it out!”
I wipe the blood away, catching a glimpse of the capsule before it’s obscured again. Turning the glass in my hand, I dig the point in first, leveraging it beneath what I hope is the end of the implant. A tiny bump appears above his skin. I dig deeper. Daniel breaks into a cold sweat. I can’t get my fingers over it. The implant is rounded smooth, slick with blood, and resists my fingertips. I need a pair of pliers. Desperate, I do the only thing I can.
I fasten my lips to his wound and suck hard on the implant until I can grip it with my front teeth, then pull it free of his arm. The coppery taste of Daniel’s blood fills my mouth. I spit it and the implant into the water.
Daniel is clutching his damaged shoulder. “Whatever happened to cut once?”
“Sorry,” I spit. “I’ve never had to do something like this before!”
He half-laughs at my outburst, and I feel bad all over again. “You all right?” I ask. He slips his arm back into his jumpsuit, grunting as he moves his shoulder.
He takes the glass from me, and waits expectantly. I unzip the front of my jumpsuit and pull out my arm, rolling up the sleeve as I saw him do. Unlike Daniel’s arm, the area where my tracker went in is still purple with bruise and tender to the touch. He wipes his blood off the edge of the glass, and then steadies it over my shoulder.
“You might want to find something to bite,” he says.
I take the edge of the jumpsuit’s collar and stuff it between my teeth. Hot pain lances through my arm, and I swear he’s trying to cut to the bone. A scream escapes my throat and is absorbed mostly by the fabric of my collar. I feel yet another dig into my arm, and then pressure. Then I hear Daniel spit something into his hand. He holds it up and shows me.
In his palm, a cylindrical object glistens amidst the blood. It’s about the size of a headache pill, but clear. I pick it up with my other hand, staring at the microcircuitry contained within. I pinch it between my fingers, and it breaks suddenly.
“Well that’s the end of that,” Daniel observes.
I turn to my wounded shoulder and roll down the sleeve. Blood soaks the white undershirt, staining it crimson. I slip my arm back into the jump suit and nod to Daniel.
He hurls the glass away and offers me his hand. “We got to ditch these uniforms.”
“You don’t think we’ll pass for scrappers?”
“Well that’s just it. No scrapper in the East Middle works at it full time. For them, it’s all a community service thing. So they don’t get jumpsuits like the rest. That, and we’re gonna need some food, too.”
“Okay. What do you suggest?”
“Obviously, we have to go shopping.”