I’m curious to know what he means by that, but he just grins cryptically and leads me out of the culvert. “I’ll show you when we get there,” is all he’ll say about it.
We make our way along the bank of the stream as it ambles beside the road, careful to keep ourselves beneath the tree covering as much as possible. Both of us are limping, and the going is slow. I’m starting to doubt we’ll reach the city before nightfall. Occasionally I shoot a glance at the sky, wondering if I can catch any sign of the drones flying high above us in their lazy circles, but it’s raining lightly now, and it’s hard to see anything against the clouds. I don’t think the drones can see, either.
As we continue to slog through the mud, Daniel fills me in on his time since we lived in the same complex. “We moved around a lot, of course. Mom kept trying to avoid scrapping after Dad got picked up and shipped off to war. She’d do odd jobs here and there—whatever she could to scrape a little bread money together for me and Gill.”
Gill, I’m reminded, is Daniel’s younger brother. I don’t think he was much older than two when I met him.
“At any rate, she finally wound up cleaning homes in the East Middle for some wealthy couple. It didn’t pay near enough, but it was regular. I’d take Gill out and try to forage where we could. Then one day we came home and someone from REGA was there waiting for us. They had a court order suspending Mom’s parental rights. Said she wasn’t a good provider. Had been skipping out on her community service, too. Which is crazy, ‘cause the only reason she did it was to stay close to us. I remember pitching a serious fit. Told that lady right to her face that if they hadn’t taken my Dad away, none of us would be in this position. She didn’t care. She was just there to drag us off to somebody else’s home in the Upper Quarter, and I never saw Mom again. Gill took sick with plague, and I went to find Mom. That’s when I got picked up and sent here.”
I don’t have much of a response to this, though I fill him in on how Becca and I got picked up. Like Daniel, we moved around a lot, too, but Mother was a little savvier when it came to staying off grid and under the radar. I don’t tell him this, though.
The stream continues to widen and deepen, and before long we have to abandon it for higher ground. This means moving up onto the surface of the road. The rain patters lightly across the pavement, and our clothes are getting drenched with every passing moment. There are no convenient trails in this part of the woods, so the best we can do is walk along the edge, ready to fling ourselves into the bushes at a moment’s notice.
That moment comes sometimes in the early afternoon. The twenty-seventh’s massive skyline is visible through the crown of trees, but a pale, low-hanging haze obscure most of the tall buildings. Every other day, the scrapper plant churns out billowing clouds of noxious smog which float over the city and make everything smell like sulfur. The fog starts just before sunrise, and by midday, the clouds hide the sun and give everything a yellowish cast. The worst part are the afternoon rains. The water washes through the haze, and when it lands on the ground it’s so acidic you can actually hear the sizzle as it boils away at the pavement. Potholes in the road are more common than intact asphalt, but since only Sweepers drive anymore, no one complains about it. Days like these we’re usually given a weather advisory and told to stay indoors. Of course, they stopped issuing advisories for the Lower some time ago, given that the quarter is supposed to be abandoned now. But most of us have figured out the pattern and how to avoid the rains.
My mind is on this when I hear it. It starts with a low rumble. Daniel and I exchange glances. I have no doubt in my mind that it’s a car or van of Sweepers ready to capture us and take us back into custody. We slip off the side of the road and duck behind a fallen log. Staring through breaks in the wood and from beneath a spread of scraggly ferns, we wait for the truck to come.
It comes slowly, with four men walking along either side, and atop it two more sit in opposite turrets. They man strange looking devices painted completely black with what look like oversize bottle tops on the front of each. I raise up to get a better look, but Daniel grabs my shirt collar and presses me into the earth. “Keep down,” he whispers. “Don’t move a muscle.”
“What is that?” I hiss.
He winces, and I can tell he doesn’t want to answer. “Composite radar,” he says. “It picks up all sound, movement, and heat for a hundred yards. Things can even pick up a heart beat.”
My breath catches in my throat and together we duck our heads as the rumbling draws near. “They’ll find us, won’t they?” I ask, hoping the noise of the rain hides our heartbeats.
He grimaces. “Probably.”
“Then we can’t stay here.” I turn and look over my shoulder, searching for any hope of escape.
“Where we gonna go? They’ll see us for sure.”
I spy an upraised concrete pillar, with what looks like a rust-colored grate lying atop it. “There,” I say. “That drain.”
It’s about thirty feet away from us. I turn around and see through the underbrush that the truck is closing in on us, but is still a good fifteen yards off.
“We’ll never make it,” Daniel urges.
I don’t answer him. Instead, I roll off to one side and rise to a low, limping crouch, trying to make as little sound as possible. I reach the drain pipe in two minutes, and Daniel is breathless behind me. Dodging behind it, I glance up the road. Through the underbrush I can still see the truck bearing down on us, but it doesn’t look as though they’ve spotted us.
The grate over the drain has no latch or lock. Lucky us. It takes both Daniel and me to lift it. Once it’s vertical, I climb in first, clinging to the foot rails on the inside of the pipe, with my good leg holding me up. I put my hand up to hold onto the lid as Daniel climbs in beside me. We slowly sink down, trying to keep the cover from slamming shut and giving away our location. When it finally touches the concrete, it makes a dull clank. I wince, sure the Sweepers have heard it and will be following us through any minute now. Daniel suddenly drops, staggers at the bottom, and then catches himself. I’m about to ask if he’s all right when he glares at me sharply, shoving his finger in front of his lips. Then he backs against the wall and lifts the weight off his leg. He motions for me to come down.
My bad leg doesn’t want to bear the weight, but I grit my teeth against the pain and inch downward until I can stand in the water beside him. Daniel’s face is white. I point at him and make a walking motion with my fingers, then give a thumbs up and down. He heaves a breath, gives me a thumbs up, and takes a step away from the wall.
I catch him as he falls. Together, we navigate to the other side of the trench, out of the line of sight of the drain cover. I can still hear the rumble of the Sweeper truck on the road above us.
“Your ankle isn’t just twisted,” I whisper.
I pick it up and put it in my lap. He hisses in a sudden intake of breath as I pull off his shoe. I wince when I see it. His whole foot is swollen to an ugly purple. “This is bad.”
He sniffs. “Told you. You should’ve left me. Still should.”
“Still not happening,” I reply, but I’m not so sure anymore, not with only two good legs between the two of us. How am I supposed to help him get to the city and to help like this?
The rumble of the Sweeper truck is even louder now.
“Why haven’t they left yet? They must be right on top of us.”
Daniel’s eyes widen. “That’s not the Sweepers.”
The roar is almost deafening.
“What is it?” I cry, no longer caring if I’m heard or not. Suddenly Daniel grabs me and pulls me into a tight embrace. His face is locked behind us, his eyes frozen in terror. I turn in time to see a wall of water careening toward us.
Then I’m bowled over, swept off my feet, dragged under, and sent spiraling down the pipe with him. I claw my way to the surface, only to find I’m pushing Daniel underwater again. I gasp for breath and loosen my hold. Daniel comes up, but is wrenched away from me by the force of the water.
Choking, sputtering, and swallowing copious amounts of run-off, I vainly paddle at the waves, desperately trying to stay afloat.
Something hard and unyielding smacks the back of my head. I see stars. Then blackness.
“Easy now, easy.”
I cough up brackish liquid, vomiting suddenly. My head is pounding and my lungs burn. I hurt everywhere. My body is one big, massive, throbbing bruise.
Someone pulls my hair away from my face as I finish retching, and then wraps me in a blanket and presses a rag to my lips.
“You’ve been through quite an ordeal, but I think you’ll live.”
I stay there shaking for a while, uncertain the retching has stopped. Finally, I wipe my mouth and mutter, “Thanks.” My voice sounds like gravel. Feels like it, too.
“Come,” the person says, “let’s get you up.”
As I straighten, I get a look at my benefactor. She looks like she might be in her forties or fifties, but I can’t be sure. I never was a good judge of age. She’s wearing rags that have been roughly stitched together. The fabric looks like it was crafted out of scraps, with little regard for color, pattern, or consistency. She helps me to my feet, and that’s when I notice I’m wearing a proper bandage around my leg. My jumpsuit is gone as well, replaced by a rough garment similar to her own.
My shoulder, where Daniel carved the tracking chip out of my arm, has been patched, too.
“What happened?” I croak. “Where am I?” I feel like I’m going to faint.
“All in good time.” She pats my arm. “Just know that you’re safe, and among friends.”
That remains to be seen, I think, but I’m in no position to argue.
She leads me to a small cot, where a tiny wick burns from a beer bottle. I smell the distinct odor of kerosene. She lays me on the mattress and drapes a blanket over me. I clutch it in my fist and shiver. I think I might have a fever. Around me, the light from the lamp makes inconstant shadows on the wall, the canopy above me. I frown and try to penetrate the gloom, hoping to catch a sense of where I am, but the darkness resists my effort.
The woman presses her lips into a thin line. “He’s speaking with the Elder. I’m sure he’ll be glad to know you’re all right.”
The Elder? Who are these people?
“For now,” she says as she tucks me in, “you should get some rest. It’s nearly midnight. Tomorrow we can answer your questions.”
I want to object, but there isn’t much point. All I can do is lie there and let this person nurse me back to health.
I must’ve fallen asleep, because the next thing I know, daylight is streaming into the room. My clothes are damp and my hair is matted, and I have four more blankets lying atop me. So it was a fever. It must’ve broken in the night.
I thrust the covers off and rise to my feet. My calf muscle throbs, but it’s only a dull ache, not the sharp pain I felt the day before.
Assuming it was only a day before. I have no recollection of what happened after the flood of water washed us away.
I look around. The room I’m in appears to have been the bedroom of a house at one time, though the windows are broken and covered with thick, dirty plastic. It lets in the light, but obscures my view to the outside. The only furniture in the room is the cot I slept on with its canopy, and the small end table that held the beer bottle lamp. A floor length mirror beckons from the back of the door, however, and I hobble over to it to get a good look at myself.
The dress I’m wearing has all the appeal of a burlap sack, with a rope belt tied around my waist. The collar is much too large for my neck, and the dress hangs off one shoulder. Gingerly, I undo the belt and pull the dress off over my head, examining my naked form in the mirror.
I’m a wreck. Dark bruises cover parts of my abdomen and thighs, and ugly scratches mar my face—one of them dangerously near my left eye. About the only part of me that isn’t cut or bruised is the tattoo of the falcon on my left shoulder. I’m about to put the dress back on when I see it in the mirror.
I turn around, much too quickly for my head, and I have to draw a few breaths before the red miasma stops pulsing around the fringes of my vision. There, on the back wall of the room. It is a child’s drawing, crudely done with charcoal on the wall. But it’s the same falcon. The wings are outstretched, and the bird’s head is turned to the side, just like the one on my arm.
“Huh,” I mutter, tracing my fingers over the drawing.
Someone knocks softly on the door. Daniel’s voice calls through, “Katherine?” He sounds like he doesn’t want to wake me. I scrabble back into the dress as the latch turns and the door swings open. The dress drops down over my body as he steps into the room.
“Oh.” He retreats a step. I see that he’s walking with a crutch, and his leg is in a makeshift brace. “Sorry. I thought you were asleep.”
“Not anymore.” I scoop up the belt and tie it around my waist.
“Did I wake you?”
“No. It’s all right. How long was I out?”
“A day?” My thoughts instantly flash to Becca still locked up in the Hut with all the other ‘Special Cases.’ I should never have left here there. All I know now is that I have to go back and get her out of that place somehow.
“Yeah. They found us about a mile away from their camp. Lucky us, they were out foraging when we washed out of that drain pipe, or we might be there still. You were out cold. Took a nasty hit to the head. I wasn’t even sure you were alive. By the way, how is your head?”
I shrug. “Better. Still sore.”
He nods. “Anyway, I saw them by the river and called for help, which I guess is good.”
I frown. “What do you mean?”
“I didn’t know, when I saw them, who they were.” He hobbles back a step, as if retreating from me.
“Who are they?” Now I’m not sure I want to hear the answer.
He smiles weakly. “Lyptics.”
I close my eyes. Lyptics. He could’ve said anything else and it would have been a better answer. Lyptics were religious fanatics, barely existing on the fringes of society. When I was fourteen, a caravan of Lyptics swept through the Lower with their strange dances and rhythmic drums, all the while telling us to embrace death as the means to life. I didn’t understand it then, and even less now. All I know is that they prattle on incessantly about getting saved and something called “The Last Days” when God will swoop down and rescue them from this world. For all their talk of saving, they show no interest in helping others survive, and even less in changing the way things are. Mother can’t stand the Lyptics. REGA tolerates them only because they preach non-violence and non-resistance. If Sweepers came into the camp asking for us, the Lyptics would hand us over in a heartbeat. Not because they support REGA, but simply because they would refuse to hide the fact that we were with them.
Nobody I know of has any use for them at all.
“Lyptics,” I repeat. Now the words the woman spoke to me last night make sense—all her talk about “The Elder.” That’s what Lyptics call the man they follow.
“So are you saved now?”
He chuckles. “Not for lack of effort.”
“He wants to see you.”
I don’t have to ask who he means. The Elder. “Well, I suppose I owe him a ‘thank-you’ at least.”
Daniel holds the door open for me, and we go outside.
The Lyptics’ camp is made up of a series of squat, concrete houses arranged in a neat line, with a large pavilion at one end. All around, people are wearing the same kinds of clothing as Daniel and me, along with too happy smiles that they flash our way as we trudge toward the pavilion. Many of them are tending gardens laid down around the houses, diligently plucking weeds from the soil or tying plants off to stakes driven into the ground. A few homes have goats and chickens milling about behind rickety fences. It takes me a moment or two to realize that the only people I see are women and children, and I wonder where the men are, if there are any.
I learn quickly enough when we reach the pavilion. There I see thirty men sitting on rickety benches, while in front of them a man with wild eyes and a scraggly beard stands behind a podium, reading aloud from a book.
“And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth. And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain…”
He stops reading, and I realize that all eyes are on me.
The man closes the book and leans upon it. “I see our guest has awakened. Brothers, if you would excuse me a moment? Brother Hiram, will continue reading from verse nine.”
Another man steps quickly to the podium and takes over the book as The Elder comes down from the front, his hands open wide. He doesn’t look as old as some of the men on the benches, and I’m starting to wonder why they call him The Elder. He looks as though he’s going to embrace me, and I take a step back.
But he folds one his hands together as he leaves the pavilion and introduces himself. “I am Elder Thomas. You may call me ‘Elder’ or simply ‘Tom’ if you wish. I trust you’re feeling better?”
“Much,” I nod. “Thank you.”
“Rather, thank the Lord.”
“The Lord, then.”
He nods in satisfaction and gestures to one side with his hand. “Come,” he says, we have much to discuss.”
I wonder what he means by that, but there’s no sense in arguing at this point. I follow his arm to a small house, no different than the others, set near the pavilion. Thomas opens it for us, leading the way inside.