The house is clean and swept, with sparse furnishings. It consists of two rooms. The one in back I assume is his bedroom, though the door is closed to it just now. The room we’re in has a table with four chairs set beneath a small window. A sink and counter take up the back wall beside a working refrigerator—itself a startling find—and a small desk with a bookshelf beside it, on which lean a handful of well-worn books and hand-written journals.
“Would you like something to eat? Or perhaps something to drink? I haven’t much to offer besides goat milk and water, but both are cold.”
I nod stiffly, unsure what to make of this gesture. “Water, I suppose.”
He smiles and fetches a glass from a cabinet above the sink, then reaches into the fridge for a pitcher of clear water. He pours me a glass and hands it over. Gingerly, I take a sip. It tastes surprisingly sweet, with none of the sulfuric aftertaste that I’m used to.
“It’s good,” I say, taking a larger swallow.
Thomas takes a seat at the table and gestures to the open chairs. When we join him he says, “I’m sure you have many questions. I have a few of my own.”
“Yes,” I reply, pointing to the glass. “How’d you manage this? And the electricity?” Power in the Lower is pretty much non-existent. Even in the Upper Quarter it can be intermittent.
“The fridge runs off solar batteries. There’s panels installed on every roof. We manufacture them ourselves. It wasn’t easy. This encampment was built over an abandoned housing tract. Many years ago, the properties were laid out and construction started, but the buildings were never completed due to the war. We salvaged what we could and finished the ones you see here. It’s taken us better than a year to get this far. The important thing is that it has given my people hope. That is something in short supply these days.”
I sense where he’s going, and decide to say it aloud. “And you don’t want anything—or anyone—to jeopardize what you’ve built here.” I shoot a glance at Daniel, who gives me a confirming nod.
Thomas props his hands on the table. “Our project has not exactly been authorized. REGA insists that everyone live within the city limits. For my people, that’s simply not an option. We’ve chosen a different path.”
I get a laugh. “If that’s what you wish to call us. We’ve been called worse. The point is that we’ve chosen to live apart. The world is corrupt. ‘Come out from among them, and be ye separate,’ saith the Lord, ‘and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you.’”
“I thought Lyptics didn’t settle down.”
“This world is not our home. But while we sojourn here, well, we all need food to eat and a place to lay our heads. Here we grow our own food, filter our own water, and generate our own power. We are self-sustaining. And off-grid.”
“And you wish to keep it that way.”
“Why don’t you defend it, then?”
He gives a half-laugh. “Daniel has told me about your encounter with the Sweeper team, and how quickly you dispatched a man who threatened you. But I must tell you: violence is not our way. If REGA wishes to shut this down, they have the power to do so. We will not resist. But as far as that goes, REGA doesn’t know we’re here. Or if they do, they’re choosing to not pay attention. We’re undoubtedly too small and insignificant to warrant their inspection. I suppose if we are too successful, or grow too big that might change. For now, the task is to manage the growth—reach that point of sustainability without quite crossing the line. Regardless, the effort teaches us self-discipline, self-reliance. We’ve learned to meet our needs without having to resort to foraging, or worse.” He measures me carefully when he says this part, and I wonder what he means by it.
He’s still dancing around his point, and I wonder if all Lyptics are this evasive. I decide to try a different tack. “What would you do if Sweepers came here looking for us?”
A grin tugs at the corner of his mouth. He leans back in his chair. “Tell them the truth, of course.”
“So you’d turn us over to them.”
“But you’d tell them where we were.”
“If we spoke at all, then yes.”
I frown. “You’d defend us?”
“We would passively resist. I assure you, it would be quite problematic.”
I’m thinking it wouldn’t be nearly as problematic as a group of people throwing rocks or worse at the Sweepers, but I’m not really surprised by his response.
“So you’re saying it’s better for everyone if we just go.” I have no problem with that, and I’m about to tell him so.
“That is your choice.”
“You haven’t exactly offered to let us stay.”
“You are welcome to stay as long as you need. You might even decide to join us–”
Unlikely, I think.
“—but you would have to adopt our ways.”
“Thanks, but no thanks. I just want to get my sister back.”
Thomas frowns. “It seems I’ve erred and made an assumption. When I saw your tattoo, naturally I assumed—”
“My tattoo?” I blurt.
“Yes. The falcon.”
“What do you know of it?”
“It’s the symbol of the resistance. I assumed you were here to recruit. You wouldn’t be the first.”
“You mean others have come here with this?” I bare my shoulder, exposing the falcon on it. Daniel’s eyes go wide, studying it. He’s making me nervous, so I cover it up again quickly.
“What is that?” Daniel asks.
“It’s not nothing,” Thomas corrects. “A tattoo like that can get you killed. I assumed that’s why you were running.”
“The resistance is scattered. Leaderless. They haven’t been able to do anything more than hide for years. Sometimes one or two will come around making promises, trying to draw people off. Usually it’s just to rob them blind—not that my people have much to steal. Still, for all intents and purposes, the resistance is dead.” He watches me for a reaction, and when I don’t respond he says, “You don’t know anything about it, do you?”
After a moment, I drop my eyes. “No.”
Thomas runs a hand through his hair. “Oh my. We have to get you out, before the Sweepers find you here. My people would face summary execution for harboring a rebel.” He pushes away from the table. I catch his arm.
“I’m not a rebel!”
“Then why do you carry their mark?”
I open and close my mouth, remembering Mother’s warning. I’ve already talked about it more than I should have. “I’ve always had it.” It’s the only answer that feels safe.
His gaze softens. His eyes search my own, as if looking for a lie. “What did you say your name was?”
“And you have a sister?”
“Your sister. Is she… different?”
He knows the answer before I give it. I can tell by the way he’s asked the question. “Disabled. She has Down’s Syndrome.”
He closes his eyes then, and I suspect he wishes he hadn’t asked. “One last question. Have either you or your sister ever been sick?”
“No. Not even once.”
I expected him to be surprised, but I didn’t think he’d nearly pass out. Thomas grips the back of the chair and catches his balance. One hand flies to his head, as if he’d just received a blow. “I—please excuse me—I need a moment. To pray.”
He staggers to his bedroom and shuts the door, leaving Daniel and I alone at the table.
“You didn’t tell me about the tattoo,” Daniel says.
“What’s there to tell?” I shrug.
“Apparently, quite a lot. Enough that it’s got him all worked up. What’s all this talk about a resistance? Are you, like, part of some kind of fifth column?”
I shake my head. “No. I don’t know what he’s talking about.”
“Are you lying to me?”
“Then how’d you get it?”
“Like I said. I’ve always had it.”
He wrinkles his brow. “What, like when you were a baby?”
“No.” I sneer. I wonder how long Thomas plans on praying.
“Then when did you get it?”
Exasperated, I say, “My mother gave it to me.”
“So is your mom part of the resistance?”
The answer is obvious. I’m surprised I never realized it before. All the training, the secrets she made me keep, the way she works on a scrap crew instead of doing something more worthy of her skills—even the changed name. It also explains why my and Rebecca’s names keep coming up ‘deceased’ on the Sweeper’s comlinks. She must’ve given us false identities, to hide who we really are.
It hits me then. My entire life has been a lie. I don’t even know my real name.
But Daniel is still looking at me, waiting for a response. My voice is shaky. “You heard him. The resistance is dead.”
“But your mother was a part of it.”
“I don’t know what my mother was. Right now I’m not even sure who I am. All I know is that everyone I meet keeps freaking out about this stupid tattoo—telling me how special I am—and none of it is helping me get my sister out of that Hut before—” My voice catches in my throat, and I choke back a sob. “Before it’s too late!” I feel the tears start to come. Daniel rubs my shoulder to comfort me, but I pull away. Angrily I slam my hand on the table. “We’re wasting time!”
The tears come anyway. I press my palm against my eyes, wishing them away.
Finally, Daniel speaks, “Listen, I know you want to get your sister back, and I think we should try. Definitely. But we can’t do it without help. Breaking out of there was—I don’t know—just dumb luck. Breaking someone else out from the outside? We don’t even know where she is in there.”
I wipe my eyes. My nose is thick with snot. “What are you saying?”
“If your Mother really is part of this resistance, maybe she’ll know how to help.”
He’s right, of course, but it’s not an option. “No.”
Daniel frowns. “Why not?”
“You don’t understand. I can’t face her. I can’t go home without Becca.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“Yes it is. It’s entirely my fault! Becca is my responsibility. Mine! And I let her down. I’ve got to make this right. Nothing else matters.”
At that moment, Thomas opens his door. When he walks out, his face is drawn, and his eyes are lit with a grim determination. “The Lord has spoken to me,” he says. “For the sake of our community, you have to go.”
I blink, wiping the tears from my eyes. “Go where?” I don’t expect an answer.
“To the city,” he replies. “There’s something you must do.”
He shakes his head. “He didn’t say. He only said that you already knew what it was.”
I roll my eyes. That’s helpful. Thomas’ God isn’t very forthcoming.
“There’s more.” He takes a breath. “I have to go with you. To atone for a mistake I made long ago.”
“Thanks a lot,” I mutter, rising from the table, “but I think we can manage on our own.”
Thomas snorts. “Yeah. He said you’d say that.”
Of course He did.
There’s no point in arguing. I don’t want the company of the preacher, but he isn’t giving me that choice. Instead, he goes outside and speaks to the men in the pavilion, explaining to them what it is the Lord supposedly wants him to do. They call the women and children over, and Daniel and I stand to one side in mute bewilderment as Thomas kneels in the center of the pavilion. One by one, everyone comes over and lays their hands upon his head, muttering quietly.
When they part, another man breathlessly runs forward, carrying three sacks. He hands one to Thomas, and then comes over and presses the two remaining sacks into our hands. “Provisions,” he says, “for the journey.”
“Thanks,” I say, astonished by the gesture. I may have to rethink my opinion of Thomas’s company. The Elder joins us a moment later.
“It is time,” he says.
I feel like I should say something, but I have no clue what that should be. Finally, I just duck my head and start walking.
We walk in silence for the better part of the morning and into the afternoon, pausing only once to eat something and rest before continuing. I’m grateful for the break, because my leg is starting to hurt again. We sit around and open our packs, and I’m stunned by the sensibility of the provisions the Lyptics packed for us. Each of us has a large, plastic jug of water, as well as several layers of salted venison wrapped in paper. There are also bunches of grapes, several apples, and most surprising of all—bread. We’ve also each been given a woolen blanket to ward off the chill, a change of clothes, and a hunting knife. The knife’s handle is hollow, and inside is a coil of thin wire, fish hooks, and waterproof matches.
Thomas, having noticed how I’ve been favoring my leg, brews me a tea from Meadowsweet, and after drinking it, I confess that my leg doesn’t hurt as much.
After filling our bellies and continuing on in silence for several miles, I finally give voice to the questions that have been roiling inside me ever since that morning.
“Tell me what you know of the resistance,” I say.
Thomas glances back, surprise registering on his face. “Wondered how long it’d take you to get to that.”
“You obviously know more about it than I do.”
“There isn’t much to tell. The resistance started gradually. Not all at once. It happened because people remembered the way the world used to be, before the war. At one time, this was a great country. It had fifty distinct states, all independent and sovereign, but joined together in an inseparable union. People had rights. The right to live as they saw fit. The right to speak their minds. To do whatever they wished—go where they wanted to go.”
“It wasn’t perfect, but it was good. There was no regional authority at the time. Places like municipal twenty-seven had actual, proper names. Names that anchored them to history and experience. As a people, we governed ourselves. We elected leaders—people chosen from our own number, and they represented our mutual interests to one another.”
“And the war changed all that?” Daniel asks.
“No.” Thomas shakes his head. “We changed it. Long before the war. We got complacent, started electing people to lead us from the same, small subset of people. Over and over again. It became all about money for most of them. Money and power. They’d run against each other, and we’d all pretend that deciding between them was making a real choice about who would lead us, even though there wasn’t much difference.
“We were only fooling ourselves.” He kicks a stone from the road into the weeds. “When the war started, the government imposed austerity measures—and a draft. We shipped our finest young men overseas to die in foreign lands. Eventually, the older men, too. And while they were fighting over there, the war came here. Small groups of insurgents, committed to disrupting our freedoms, our way of life. Bereft of God, we turned to government, gradually handing over more and more of our freedoms and rights in the name of peace and safety. We never imagined that the people who were supposed to be fighting for us—our government —were the exact same people fighting against us.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
He smiles ruefully. “Who do you think was training and funding the insurgents over here? Our own government. And with our taxes, too. They used the insurgents like patsies to steal power from the people. They didn’t have to take over the country. They just had to wait for us to give it to them. As the war worsened, and more and more sacrifices were made, the people who were really in charge—not the elected figureheads we thought were our leaders, but the power-brokers behind the scenes, the master puppeteers—they goaded the insurgents into attacking the Capitol. One final, suicidal effort. The attack nearly destroyed the city, and it practically wiped out the insurgents. It gave the power-brokers the excuse they needed to impose the Regional Authorities on the states. All elected officials, federal and state, were herded off to an undisclosed location—for their protection, of course—where they would govern as long as the emergency lasted. No one ever heard from them again. The power-brokers, the bureaucrats now in charge, would transmit messages from them. Propaganda urging us to stay the course. Keep up the fight. That sort of thing. After the elections were suspended, people started to object. The objectors were rounded up and marched off to detention camps. When the second round of elections came and went—that’s when the resistance started. Unfortunately, by then it was too late.”
He falls silent, but he still hasn’t answered the question burning on my mind. “I saw the falcon on the wall, in the room you put me in.”
His gaze darkens. “That was supposed to have been scrubbed out.”
“Who put it there?”
“I did. Long before I found God.”
“That’s how you knew about construction site,” Daniel says. “You were part of the resistance. That place used to be a safe house.”
“Something like that. But like I said. It was a long time ago.”
“Is that why you chose it?” Daniel presses. “Because you were hoping that people would come? That the resistance would start again?”
“The resistance is dead.”
Daniel points at me, and I recoil at his next words. “She’s not.”