“I am not part of the resistance!”
“Yeah, but you’re connected to it. You wouldn’t have that thing on your arm otherwise,” Daniel persists.
“Well it’s not like I had any choice in the matter.”
“But you know people. Your mother.”
“Leave her alone, Daniel.”
“You could find others.”
“Daniel!” Thomas’s tone is sharp. “No one gets forced into the resistance, no matter what their parents put on their arms. It’s chosen freely, or not at all. There is too much at risk, too much that must be sacrificed for it to be any other way. Katherine would have to choose this. And unless I’m misreading her, she’s already made her choice. All she wants is a way to get her sister back.”
“Look, all I’m saying is that someone’s got to do something.”
“It’s in the Lord’s hands. He will do something.”
“Well, no disrespect, preacher,” Daniel huffs, “but the Lord sure does take His sweet time.”
A smile toys at the corner of Thomas’s mouth. “That He does.”
Daniel exchanges glances with both of us, obviously unsatisfied by Thomas’s answer and my intransigence. I scowl at him. Who does he think he is, anyway? I’ve precisely zero interest in being pressed into service against REGA. Sure, I’d love to see REGA go down—just like anybody back at the HUT, or the destitute cowering in the abandoned buildings of the Lower, waiting for the next raid to sweep them away. But I have no illusions about my significance. Mother trained me to survive. Nothing more. And that’s all I want to do. That, and rescue Becca.
Daniel shakes his head. His disappointment is palpable, but I refuse to give into it. Finally, he turns, muttering under his breath, and starts forward. After a moment, Thomas and I fall into step behind.
“He’s right, you know,” Thomas observes.
I heave a breath and push my hair from my face, tying it into a ponytail. “I’m nobody’s hero.”
“That’s your choice, too.”
“Katherine, I would never suggest you do something against your own will.”
Great, I think, Here comes the recruitment speech.
“But you should consider the events of your life—whether or not they’ve been leading you to just such a calling. Perhaps you were born for such a time as this. Perhaps you are why the Lord has delayed His salvation.”
So now I’m supposed to be the instrument of God? I’m beginning to rethink the wisdom in bringing the Lyptic along. Not that I had much to say about it. I guess that was his choice, then.
“Maybe the Lord should just find someone else.”
“Maybe there is no one else.”
I stop and glare at him. “Well then it’s all just gonna go to hell then, isn’t it?”
“That’s your choice.”
“Stop with the ‘choice-talk’ already. I didn’t choose this. I didn’t choose any of this! You think I want REGA? I was born into this world. I didn’t have any choice about what it would be like when I got here. I didn’t choose the mother I have. I didn’t choose this tattoo she stuck on my arm. And I certainly didn’t choose to get picked up by Sweepers, when all I was trying to do was find some food.”
“And yet you did choose to break out of the Hut. And you did choose to find your way to us.”
I shake my head. “That was an accident.”
“No, that was a consequence. A natural outcome of the choices and decisions you’ve made. Everything in your life, Katherine, has brought you to this point. The choices you’ve made, and the way you’ve chosen to respond to the choices you didn’t make. You didn’t make the world as it is. But the world that will be? That is not beyond your influence.”
I turn and start walking again. “Now you sound like my Mother. ‘Can’t change what’s done. Can only change what we’re going to do.’”
“Your mother is a wise woman.”
I decide to change the subject. “How did you know that Becca has Down’s?”
“But you knew to ask. And you knew to ask whether or not we’d ever been sick. They asked me the same questions in the Hut. The Sweepers, too, when they ran our ID in the van. Both Becca and I came up ‘deceased’ in their records, and the Sweeper I talked to practically insisted that we should’ve been sick.”
“That’s because everyone is. You catch the plague and it kills you outright the first time, or it comes back decades later and kills you then.”
“But not us.”
“No. You and your sister are exempt.”
“Why? What aren’t you telling me?”
He looks down instead of answering right away, and it takes me a moment to realize he’s praying. Finally, he raises his head. “It has not been given to me to answer you. Not yet, anyway. But I am permitted to tell you this. The surprising thing is not that Rebecca has Down’s Syndrome, but that you don’t.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means you don’t know how special you are.”
He won’t talk about it more, no matter how much I press him, and finally I let the matter drop.
We reach the outskirts of the city by nightfall. The gate is closed and locked, and there’s no way inside without either setting off numerous alarms, or waiting on the outside until morning.
We build a fire in an abandoned truck wheel and sit around it, warming our hands and eating the last of the bread and meat the Lyptics packed for us. My leg is hurting again, and Thomas offers me more of his tea. I sip it gratefully. After dinner, all we have left are the apples and a few grapes, which Thomas suggests we save for breakfast. His people provided us just enough to reach the city. No more, no less.
After dinner we lay out the blankets around the fire, and use our rolled up packs for pillows. Thomas pulls out his dog-eared holy book and starts reading, leaving me to either stare at the shadows or talk to Daniel. I’m not sure which I would prefer. A wall has grown between us since this morning, and we haven’t spoken two words to each other all day.
Daniel is the first to break the silence. “I’m sorry for what I said earlier, for pushing you.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Thomas is right. It’s got to be your decision.”
“I said don’t worry about it.” My voice has an edge to it, and the words come out sharper than I meant them to. “It’s just that, I’m worried sick about her. We’ve never been apart this long, and I have no way of finding out how she is.”
He rolls over onto his stomach and meets my eyes. I can see the firelight reflected in his. “I remember her,” he says. “She was wicked at cards. Sometimes we’d play Gin-Rummy while you were foraging.”
I furrow my brow. “I didn’t know that.”
“First time I played with her, I thought I had to take it easy on her or something.”
A laugh erupts from my chest. I know without him saying how it turned out.
“She didn’t just win. She destroyed me. The next time, I tried to play fair. Still lost. Then I tried to be ruthless. Didn’t matter. She still won.”
“She’s good at cards.”
“It’s more than that. She has a way of surprising you. Don’t underestimate her.”
Tears well in my eyes, and I reach out and stroke his cheek. “Thank you. For reminding me who she is.”
He closes his eyes and lays his head down, catching my palm between his cheek and his sack. I glance across the fire and spy Thomas watching us. He holds my gaze a moment, and then returns to his book. Gently, I extricate my hand away from Daniel, roll over, and go to sleep.
A few hours later I awaken with a knife to my throat. The fire has gone out and the moon is a thin fingernail glowing in the hazy sky. I can see almost nothing of the dim shape of my assailant.
“This one’s awake,” the person says.
I realize that several others are standing around our barren campfire, and that Thomas and Daniel have already been subdued.
One of the figures in the center turns our way and speaks in a gruff voice. “Get her up with the others.”
“On your feet,” my assailant says. He pulls the knife away from my neck, but not so far that I can slip away from him. Gripping me by the shoulder, he hauls me to my feet. Zip tie cuffs are slipped around my wrists, and my arms are secured behind my back. My assailant shoves a dark hood over my face.
“Grab their stuff,” the leader says to the others. “Let’s go.”
Only once I made the mistake of asking where they were taking us. A sharp blow to the back of my head told me to keep my questions to myself. We walk for hours, and I can tell by the sounds of the city around me that day has come. Tiny pinpricks of light penetrate the hood, but not so much that I can see. We descend a flight of stairs and pass through a narrow opening into a tunnel. I hear water dripping, and our footfalls echo on the walls. Abruptly, we are shoved into waist-deep water. The stench tells me it’s an old sewer pipe. For once, I’m grateful for the hood. Not only does it block out the light—cause I don’t even want to know what I’m wading through, but I suspect it absorbs a fair amount of the smell, too, judging from what does seep through the fabric.
I remember vividly hiding in the drainage pipe with Daniel just days before, and being swept away by the rush of water from the storm. I hope nothing like that happens now.
After what feels like an hour of slogging through the subterranean river, we climb out and pass through a breach in the wall. I only know because I stub my toes on one of the bricks and collide against the jagged edge of the opening. My calf has started to throb again, but I don’t think I’ll be permitted any of Thomas’s tea to ease the pain.
After a hundred more strides, we are brought to a halt. Someone hoses down our feet and legs, and then we are led a little further into a quiet room, where they finally remove our hoods.
It takes a moment before my eyes adjust to the sudden brightness. A glaring light shines in our eyes from an overhead bulb. We’re standing in a wide, gray room of concrete and cinderblock, with tall pillars supporting the roof. Behind the men and women forming a rough semi circle around us is a raised, wooden platform forming a loft, with stairs leading up to it on either end. A few more people gaze languidly at us over the guardrail that runs around it. On the walls, broad paintings of the city compete with enormous, multicolored epithets. One word is repeated continually, written with highly stylized and yet consistent letters.
Understanding dawns. We’ve been abducted by one of the twenty seventh’s major tribes, and taken to their underground lair.
The man in the center of the tribe walks forward, clasping his hands beneath his chin. “Well, well, well,” he says. “Welcome to our nest.”
I swallow hard, uncertain how to play this. Tribes aren’t known for taking prisoners, let along bringing them back to their havens. Since they first woke me with a knife to my throat, I’ve been at a disadvantage. I would’ve expected them to slit our throats in our sleep and rob us blind—not that they’d have much to gain besides a few apples, our hunting knives, and the clothes on our backs. And while I preferred this to sudden death, it still left me bewildered.
“If we trespassed in your territory,” I say, “we did so unknowingly. We’ll pay what’s necessary, and if we are unable, I’m sure we can come to some sort of arrangement.”
His eyes widen as a grin spreads over his bearded face. He whips his head back toward the others while pointing at me. “Did you see that?” he says. “Now, who would’ve expected that? The leaders of Lyptics are usually male, and—elder—I believe they call them. And yet this young girl presumes to speak for them.”
“We’re not Lyptics,” Daniel says. The leader looks back, his stringy hair flapping against the side of his face. Daniel shifts his weight. “Or, at least, we’re not. He is.” He nods toward Thomas.
The leader drops his hands. “You look like Lyptics.”
“They rescued us,” I answer. “Gave us shelter.”
“How noble. And then they agreed to send one of their own with you? Perhaps as a guide, or a bodyguard?” Snickers rise from the tribe. “Oh, that’s right. Lyptics don’t fight. And if you strike them so they bleed, they’ll apologize for it. Not much use as a guard, I suppose.” His tone darkens. “Why are you here?”
“We’re going to see her mother,” Daniel says. I shoot a glance at him, wanting to contradict him, but I know that’s unwise.
“You’re from the twenty-seventh, then?”
“Yes,” I answer.
“And what are you doing outside the gate? No one travels from the twenty-seventh… unless they’re on official business.”
“We’re not REGA,” I assert.
“Maybe you are.” He wags his finger at me. “Maybe you’re spies for the authority, or emissaries, come to broker an alignment between REGA and the Lyptics.” He cocks his head as if pondering this possibility. “Although, now that I think about it, I’m at a loss to know how that would serve REGA’s interests. Perhaps our mute preacher over here could enlighten us? How ‘bout it, Rev’rend? Got a word from the Lord?”
“We’re escapees,” I blurt. “From the HUT. Got picked up in a raid from the Lower five days ago.”
“That I believe,” the leader purses his lips together and nods toward Thomas, “though it still doesn’t explain why he’s with you. Scan them!”
Three people descend upon Daniel and me, forcing our legs apart and holding us firmly. One of them carries a Geiger counter, which he begins sweeping over my body.
The leader approaches Thomas, who has kept his head down and remained silent all this time. “How about it?” the leader says. “You want to tell me the truth? Why you’re here? You wouldn’t lie to me, would you?”
They’re scanning Daniel now, and the Geiger counter is making loud, staccato clicks. But my eyes are on Thomas. Slowly, he raises his head. Recognition flashes across the leader’s face. He furrows his brow, as if not believing what he’s seeing.
Everyone stops whatever they’re doing and turns abruptly. Thomas smiles sadly. “Hello Matthew.”
Matthew stares. “I thought you were dead. All this time.” Thomas opens his mouth to say something, but Matthew puts his palm out. “How long has it been now? Fifteen, sixteen years? All this time you’ve been living a stone’s throw from me, and not once—not once—did you ever try to get word to me? How do you do that?” He turns to the rest of the people in the room, who stare back in stunned silence. “What kind of father does that?” He looks to us. “What kind?”
I have no answer for him, or for Thomas.
Matthew returns to him. “Was I that repugnant to you? Was I that big of a disappointment?”
“Don’t! Don’t you dare call me your son. You chose a bunch of religious freaks! Over your own flesh and blood?”
“I don’t know what I can say that will help you understand.”
“Oh! Please, do try!”
“I was afraid.”
“Afraid?” Matthew reaches back and hammers his fist into Thomas’ gut. As the elder crumples to the ground, Matthew screams in his face, “You left me to fend for myself on the streets, and you want to talk to me about afraid! Do you have any idea what I went through?”
Thomas gasps from the floor and struggles to sit up. “I was wrong to leave. I’m sorry.”
A growl erupts from Matthew’s throat. He pushes Thomas over and starts kicking him repeatedly in the stomach and face.
“Stop!” I scream, but he keeps at it until his father is a bloody mess on the ground.
A woman comes over to him, touching his shoulder. Matthew shrugs her off and hurries away. Halfway across the room he stops, his shoulders heaving.
“Throw him out,” he says. “And as for the other one—deal with him.” He points to me. “Bring her.”
Two arms lift me and start pulling me forward. I turn and see two others dragging Thomas’s broken and bloodied form back toward the entrance. I scream for him, but then I see that Daniel is being goaded toward a pillar with pushes, shoves and kicks. He calls my name, but I can do nothing for him. I struggle as I’m dragged up the steps and into Matthew’s loft. I kick out, but I’m picked up from behind and shoved forward. My foot catches on the top step and I tumble to the floor, knocking my head against a chair.
I taste blood where I’ve bitten my tongue. They pick me up, shove me into the chair, and stick a knife beneath my throat.
Matthew smooths out his hair and pours himself a drink. He turns around and drops into the chair across from me. He swirls his drink a moment before tossing it back and heaving a breath.
The woman who came over to him takes the glass from his hand and pours him another shot.
“Care for a drink?” he says to me.
I draw the blood from my tongue and spit in his direction, landing a spot of crimson across his forehead. He wipes it off and says, “I’ll take that as a no.”
Someone backhands me across the face, and I see stars.
“Let’s take it from the top,” Matthew says. “Who are you? And what are you doing outside my city?”