Just stick to the plan. Stick to the freaking plan. Despite best efforts, my hands clenched into anxious fists when dangling at my sides. So? I jammed them into the pockets of my fitted blue sweater instead. Don’t think. Don’t think. Don’t. Freaking. Think.
Lights began to flicker on in store windows to my left even as blinds were drawn in the residential windows beyond their wrought iron gates to my right. A car hurried past, and I was instantly reminded of my graduation, a day when a young man had been brazen enough to question the status quo. His inquiry had been answered with death, a death he succumbed to while tethered between two opposing cars of the same make and model as that which had just rushed past. Somewhere, a baby cried out, and memories of the infant I had witnessed being skinned alive rose to the surface. Though I knew it to be nothing but a barbeque, the pungent aroma of seared meat wafted from a backyard nearby and brought with it the familiar scent of charred flesh. Of death. I rounded the corner and adjusted the strap of my bag as though somehow, that simple action could shake the memories.
As I headed east, I noticed a man’s long shadow tuck in line behind me, matching me step for step. He was several yards back, but the setting sun announced his presence just the same. I hurried another mile, and as I, and whomever tailed me moved, we passed through the gradual shift between the Elites, or “Elis” as they were known in the Upper – the Municipal’s Capital – and the Middle.
In truth, there was nothing gradual about the variation between the Upper and Middle at all. The homes on this side of the divide were all but encased in marble and the finest of materials, each filled with life’s little luxuries, while just across the street, lay dilapidated homes with patched roofs. Further in, some of those homes didn’t even have the option of electricity. Of course, there was a row of dense hedges and their millions of tiny green leaves, a twenty-foot-tall cinderblock wall with barbed wire and electrical barriers, and the ever-present guards posted at various intervals to ensure the “gradual” shift didn’t become muddied.
Nightfall licked at the edges of the valley, and the ominous shadow that had tucked in behind me began to meld into the increasing darkness. I struggled to keep calm, emotionless as the air cooled. Once I reached the seventh guard station, I held up my left wrist, bearing my identification bar code to the scanner, and walked through the sliding glass doors to present before the guard posted there. Removing my hood, I heard the doors swoosh closed behind me and the airlock click into place.
“Name.” A large female issued in a monotonous tone. She wore the standard garb worn by all guards: dark blue linen pants and matching long sleeve button shirt tucked into her bulging waist. The only adornments allowed were their dark belt, lanyard, various Municipal patches on the tops of each arm and white identification numbers sown into the left breast for identification and reporting purposes. Though I couldn’t see them, I was certain that her shoes were appropriately shined and black laces laced all the way up.
“Purpose?” The light within the chamber was a brilliant white, making it difficult to look far beyond the chamber into the night.
“Running a job.”
“Hmm.” she snorted in disbelief turning her tired, brown eyes to look me over. Her hair was dense and curly, but neatly trimmed. Her skin, which should have been dark and rich fell victim to the harsh lighting and instead appeared sallow and dull. Nearing the end of her day, I saw her shifting her weight between her feet. Despite the guards’ twelve-hour shifts, the Municipal didn’t provide seating, or anything of comfort, to help them through their day. This was a simple reminder that while they may have been selected to maintain a perimeter for the Municipal Capital, they were in no way members. “I’ve seen a lot of runners in my day, Honey. None of ‘em look like you, and they sure don’t got shoes like yours, a bag like that or come through this station, goin’ into the Middle after dark. No, Ma’am. It don’t work like that. I know this job, and I know runners come through here and try n’ go into the Upper for the night. Not the other way ‘round.”
Runners might have been a tattered lot, but they were also prideful. Each worked hard to appear part of the Upper they frequented. Of course, they also lived in utter denial of the fact that the Upper they longed for would never adopt them as one of their pets.
“Just running a job.” I said evenly. “And if you don’t mind, I’d like to move this along so I can get back before lockdown.”
“Back?” Her eyebrows shot up in amusement.
“Yes, Ma’am. Home.”
To that she shook her head and gave a loud guffaw. “Honey, you ‘n me? We got a problem,” she tipped her fingertips across her screen. “2-0-0-8 dash 1-1-9, we got a crosser.” A brief pause before, “Isolated. No threat.”
“Are you freakin’ kidding me?!” Irritation and annoyance slithered along my every word.
“Alright Honey, unless you want to die tonight, you’d best do exactly as I say.”
I sighed and put my hands out at her urging.
“Remove your bag. Place it in the tray.”
I placed my errand bag into the clear drawer and slammed it back to the other side, where she unceremoniously dumped the contents onto her metal counter.
“Is this really necessary? You haven’t even -” I began to reach in my pocket.
“Uht!” She clicked her tongue and pointed at me. “Keep your hands up! Don’t even think ‘bout it.”
So? I kept my hands up, even as two armed men entered the guard station behind her. I remained locked in my chamber where they couldn’t access me, and I? Well, I couldn’t access them. Nobody said a thing. The taller, slenderer of the new guards, had balding hair that exposed his pink scalp. His head was cocked to one side as he kept his gun trained on me, though we both knew the walls, while a clear polymer resin glass, were bullet-proof.
Against all odds, I felt the fear I had been waging an internal war with, begin to slip away. In its place came purpose and mission, flavored with a lovely hint of agitation.
“Put your arms behind your head. Turn.” The second guard urged with a curt motion of his squared head. His clay colored skin had baked in the desert sun over the years, and his singular eyebrow was furrowed in an attempt to seem more threatening than his small, albeit strong, stature commanded.
Once my back was to the door I had not yet passed through, I heard the lock disarm and the familiar whoosh of opening doors. Firm hands slammed me against the chamber wall where I was cuffed, the metal tightened to a point I felt sure they had drawn blood. But? I refused to flinch.
The second guard was already emptying my pockets while the tall, rail-thin guard stepped back and had me turn to face him. I then found myself face to face with the barrel of his gun instead.
Stupid. I thought. It’s like he wants me to take it from him. Instead, I acted as though it weren’t there, keeping my eyes locked on his, unwavering even as the second guard frisked me. He was rough and inappropriate in this endeavor, but I refused to react, refused to give him that power over me. Having had enough and getting no reaction from me, he returned to where he placed the items removed from my pockets.
“Nice knife.” He tested the weight in his hand, arching his eyebrow at me, questioning.
“Thanks.” I replied sourly.
Whack! The first guard rammed the side of my face with the butt of his gun for the insubordination.
I licked the blood from my lip and spat it at him which promptly drew the knee of the second guard to my ribs. After the initial shock, and after managing to draw my next breath, I straightened but remained silent.
The female guard who had summoned these goons now had her round arms crossed triumphantly across her chest.
“Quick question.” I asked plainly.
“We ask the questions here. What’s with the knife?”
“It’s my pocket knife.” I said dismissively. “Come on now, even you ought to have been able to figure that one out.”
Whack! He struck me again. “You know the mandate. No weapons.”
“Forgot the rest of that mandate, did ya?” I paused, as he proceeded to pocket my knife. “No? See if this rings a bell; if a blade is to be used as a tool for your selection, you are free to carry it on your person for the purposes of your trade.”
After they exchanged a brief look of surprise that I could recite the mandate verbatim, the female guard wondered, “And what is your trade Honey?”
“Like I told you. I’m a runner.”
“What the hell do you need a knife for as a runner?” The second guard demanded.
“Anything.” I shrugged, wishing the handcuffs were looser. “Use it dozens of times a day.”
“Mine now,” he responded in an attempt to end the tit-for-tat.
“Again, quick question.” I reminded him as he eyed the envelope that had been removed from my pocket. “Anyone going to look at my Order?”
Holding the envelope, he regarded me, considering. Eventually, he cleared his throat, only to look back to the female guard. “You didn’t check her Order?”
“No. I – she- she, uh…” Her eyes flicked between them desperately.
“She… tried reaching into her pocket for the Order?” I suggested.
Pulling the first page from the envelope, the guard scanned the text as he sighed. “This is legitimate. She’s got an Order. She is just passing through. Aw, hell.” His hands fell loosely to his sides as he face paled several shades. “She’s a Premier.”
“Premier?” the first guard choked on the word, lowering his weapon and quickly freeing my wrists from the handcuffs.
In a frenzied scramble, the female guard put everything back in my bag. “I, we, ah-”
“Let me guess,” I snatched my bag back through the slot worked to re-fill my pockets. “You’re incredibly sorry, no idea what came over you? Sound about right?”
“Look, Miss-” the first guard tried feebly.
“You kneed me in the ribs!” I turned on my heel to face him. “I think we are well past ‘Miss’, here, don’t you? I should report all of you. You’ll be eliminated by this time tomorrow.”
“Come on. We didn’t know.”
“No. You didn’t,” I said matter-of-factly, “but you should have. You broke protocol. You assaulted without provocation and you conducted an inspection of a Premier without prior authorization. All three of you will be …. provided for. Not to worry.”
“Look, we -” there was desperation in Guard Unibrow’s voice, as he paled yet another shade.
I stepped directly in front of him and held out my hand expectantly. “Knife, Sir.”
“Honey -” began the female, her voice softer than I’d previously known it to be.
I pointed at her, commanding silence, my eyes fixed on the guard.
“Knife.” My whisper was made of venom.
“Look, we don’t -” the first guard was fighting back tears, his emotions completely overwhelming him. “No, no, no, no, no.” Leaning against the clear wall, he slumped slowly to the white linoleum floor. “No.”
I placed a dark gray ball cap on my head, lifted the hood of my sweater and pocketing my knife, turned to leave.
“Please!” begged the female, her voice cracking with emotion.
As the doors whooshed opened, I stopped, and with a heave, turned back to them, doing everything in my power to conceal my smirk of victory.
The first guard rose to his feet, hope defying the weight of despair. I reached into my bag, found the frequency jammer that luckily, the female hadn’t been able to identify, and held the connection down. “Give me your phone.”
She grabbed for it, fumbling in her haste.
There was hesitation, fear, but deciding the risk was worth trying for, she moved her hand slowly to the screen, dialed and placed the handset into my waiting hand.
Mocking the voice of the female guard I said calmly, “2, 0, 0, 8 dash 1, 1, 9 requesting manual override.”
Interest moved into the voice on the other end of the line. “Repeat.”
“2, 0, 0, 8 dash 1, 1, 9 requesting manual override.”
“Charlie, 0, 0, 0, 7, 4, 3, 1, 4, 4, Alpha, Oscar, Sierra.”
A renewed sense of fear washed over the second guard as he realized I kenew their override codes.
“Authorization approved. Go ahead.”
“We got a problem with our electrical. Honey, it’s givin’ us all sortsa problems. Requesting manual reset.”
“And the crosser you reported a problem with?”
“False alarm. He had some sort of twitch. He’s long gone by now.”
“Any need for review?”
“No. He was nothin’ but a common passer. Your two guys are headed your way now.”
“Friendly reminder, we do the reset, you lose the past fifteen minutes recorded video and audio.”
“Reset starting in 3, 2, 1,” and with that, the lights blinked out.
I handed the phone over to the female guard, forced the doors open just enough to pass through and scurried along the pedestrian path into the night. There was a sense of urgency, of jubilance, of terror all coursing through me at once. Now, if only the rest of the plan went as smoothly as that had, everything might actually turn out ok.
After nearly a quarter mile, I heard footsteps fall in behind me again. I slowed my pace; so too did the footfalls at my back. Almost there. I encouraged myself.
To my left, civilization began to drop off. I cut across a desert field following a trail of nothing but angry rocks, bits of sun-worn trash and endless tumbleweeds down a dusty embankment. I continued on through yet another barren field of dirt, rot and gloom, and without need for cinderblock walls or guards, the Underbelly uncurled before me.
The streetlights there were nothing more than open, burning barrels. The occasional conversations that could be heard through open windows within the Middle didn’t exist there. Instead, peoples’ diseased coughing, mewling cats and scuffling feet were the only soundtrack to the night.
While Air Security did conduct limited surveillance over the Underbelly of each Municipal, it was on a reduced, and often existential basis. There were no street cameras or other forms of ground surveillance. In fact, buildings did not generally remain intact in that part of the city. Instead, the majority of the Underbelly’s residents lived in something akin to a tent city with tarps strewn across partial walls and poles, in makeshift shelters.
Of course, there were exceptions to this generalization; there were pockets of old buildings that had managed to stand the test of time in spite of the relentless desert and political qualms. However, the Elites did not allow electricity to be routed to the Underbelly, resulting in only intermittent power created by the generators found in the quarters of a lucky few. Running water was even rarer, enjoyed infrequently and untreated? Deadly if consumed. The residents of the Underbelly did not dare enter the Middle without authorization, and certainly didn’t commit crimes against them. If they did, and if they were found out, such criminals would each be made an example of, suffering a public, drawn out death, but only after watching their loved ones endure the same horror. As such, no barrier was needed. Instead, the bitter stench of injustice doled out by Elite Premiers like myself kept them at bay.
It never ceased to amaze me the extremes that could be found in less than a two-mile radius. While the Middle was quite expansive itself, the path I had chosen skirted the bulk of their city, serving instead as the most direct route to the Underbelly from the Capital. As it stood, the luxury was incredibly close to the horror.
As anticipated, my tail broke off from the path and continued toward the abyss of mix-matched tents. He was at a near jog as he continued on to the Underbelly. As for me, I turned down the last street of the Middle and struggled to remain calm. Forcing deep breaths, I slowed my pace. At the fourth house on the block, I followed the broken concrete path to the front door and gave two quick raps on the metal panel. Finding no answer, I responded with three much louder knocks at the door. “Delivery!” I called out. Still receiving no response I banged at the door with the back of my fist causing the front windows to rattle in the dilapidated walls. There were no lights, no sounds of life within.
Resigned, I returned to the street and noticed the same dark figure that had been following me turn the corner, relentless as an ocean wave. Easing back to take cover from prying eyes beside a low wall, I quickly turned on my radio and spoke hastily. “Eckles to report.”
“At destination now. No response.”
“Understood. Return to base, will reattempt tomorrow.”
“Acknowledged. Will return now. Signing off until within range of the Capital.” And with that I turned off the radio, promptly removed the tiny battery, placed it in my pocket, used my knife to shred the outer portion of my black canvas bag and ran my shoes through the dirt. I used some of that same dirt on my hands and face before clawing at the wound the guard had created on my lip until blood ran anew and fought desperately to hear my own thoughts over the din of my heartbeat. All this was accomplished while careful to ensure I spent just a few seconds at this rather arduous task of blending into my surroundings, fearful of being found to be the Elite Premier I was.
Other than the man who had been following me, it appeared nobody else was out; he had slowed his pace as he approached but was coming nonetheless. I turned my back to him and hurried across a dried front yard interspersed by weeds, halfway down the block on the other side of the street. I skirted the worn stucco one story home, careful to remain silent and in the shadows.
I picked my way around frayed, fallen shingles and discarded wood feeling my way to the back of the house where I peered through broken blinds into the lamplight. My training cut through the heavy veil of fear as I canvassed the interior of the room and slipped gloves onto my hands.
There she was, radiant, sweet, naïve. Her parents were sitting on either side of her, talking and laughing, though there was something that seemed … out of place, a forced demeanor. My tension was barely manageable, but somehow it seemed to have edged its way into their home, their conversation. There was an energy, an ice, present in the room with them.
Retreating back along the jagged brown wall, I struggled desperately to make sense of it. No! I warned myself with a silent outburst of air. This can’t be right! My thoughts tangled around one another. How? It couldn’t be possible! No. It wasn’t possible. They didn’t know I was coming tonight. We had taken every precaution. The plan had been implemented just as it always was, with every retrieval.
Confused, horrified, I shook my head in a feeble attempt to shake away the fear. There was no time for this! Every fiber of my being screamed Abort! but that was no longer an option. Instead, I moved just a bit further and crouched below the window of the next room, which as expected, had been cracked to allow the cool night air into the home. Sliding it open, I climbed into the dark room.
I crept along their worn carpet toward the doorway adjacent to the kitchen the family sat in, striving to maintain control of my nerves. I reminded myself that the violence was necessary. They had known what they were getting into. As tragic as it may be, I had to assume it was the easiest decision they had ever made.
Their lives for hers.
As a parent, is there any decision more simple? Besides, the transaction wasn’t my call. I was following orders and was only here to help them, to save her, and exhaling a long breath…
To kill them.
Back pressed to the wall on the blind side of the interior doorway, I dropped my bag to the floor with a loud thud.
“What was that?” urgency clouded the mother’s voice.
“Yeah, what was that Daddy?”
“Shh-shh.” her father uttered as his chair scraped on the linoleum.
One, two, three, four. I counted his steps as he approached, but the vengeful clamp of terror enveloped my heart as I heard three, perhaps four more sets of footsteps join in.
The first man that entered the room was short but stocky. On impulse, I brought my knife to his massive throat and traced a thin line of death from one side to the other before he could do more than grab at my arm with his meaty hand.
As he collapsed to the floor, I used his momentum and tucked into his deathly embrace which gained me protection from the first blow the second, much larger man. Before the short man fully gave in to gravity, a small caliber gunshot rang out, immediately followed by a second, sharp burst. I managed to fall to the floor in time and lunging, rolled just enough to avoid the bullets as I felt the spray from the second lodging in the wall just inches from my face. The room was furnished sparingly with only a metal framed bed, a thin legged nightstand, modest dresser and small chest. As such, my options for cover were limited and I had no choice but to rush the large man. He was a wall of dark muscle and towering over me, landed a solid punch to the side of my head that left my ears ringing. Within moments, he had me dropped to the floor. He was on top of me, his massive hands encircling my neck.
Though he was doing everything in his power to squeeze the life from my body, he was actually a bit of a blessing. With the bulk of his frame between me and the weapon, the likelihood of getting shot was momentarily reduced. I struggled for air and rammed my knife deep into the left side of his abdomen three times, none of which wiped the gleeful snarl from my predator’s face. I saw the shooter angle for better access around his partner and quickly shifted. I fervently refused to be a victim, but as I couldn’t even manage to draw air, I was running out of options. Instead, my futile attempts to roll out of the way of the third man’s weapon only caused the large man’s grip to tighten around my neck. I felt the edges of my reality growing dim, nausea rising in my throat. I knew I was running out of time; in a final moment of clarity, I made the desperate decision to drag my knife crudely the length of his left forearm.
Before I could finish the task, he pulled away howling “You bitch!” Blood spewed from the flesh of his arm, just above where the knife protruded.
I struggled to my feet, fighting for air and grabbed to retrieve my knife too late. He was out of reach. Instead, I dove for the shooter as he tried for a third shot. I heard panicked yelling emanating from the main area of the house and the fourth man who had remained in the doorway turned on his heel, sprinting toward the shouting voices.
I rushed the shooter, interlocking our arms as we fought for control of the weapon. A wild shot bit into the floor. The larger man yanked the knife from his arm, and wielding it in his good hand, came at me. Struggling to maintain my grip on the shooter and simultaneously avoid being stabbed I was unable to free the gun from the man’s grasp. Instead, I managed only to fire the weapon at the stumbling man as we both continued our struggle for the weapon.
The bullet caught the him in his stomach, and he released my knife instantly. Though he staggered, he managed to keep his feet beneath him. A shot bellowed from the main living area, followed by a woman’s frantic scream.
In utter desperation, I used my remaining strength to push the shooter, knocking him off center, relinquishing my efforts to secure the gun and instead attacked him. As he planted his feet and began to draw his weapon toward me once more, I all but pounced, my left hand to the back of his head and right to his jaw. In one swift motion, I snapped his neck, just as the fifth bullet cascaded through the window I had used to enter the home. His body too slumped to the floor.
More shouting and struggling could be heard from the living area, but nobody returned to the doorway. So? I focused my attention on the large, staggering man. He had placed his right hand to his bullet-wound but still reached for the gun now lying in the center of the room. I walked over to it as he dropped to a laborious crawl. When he grabbed for the weapon feebly, I placed my foot over it. He tried fruitlessly to remove it from under my step. Instead, I brought my other knee to his face swiftly, knocking his head back on his neck like a box-lid.
He rolled back against the floor and breathed loudly, his hand still applying pressure to his wound.
“Who sent you?” I commanded in a hushed whisper.
His eyes lulled slightly before focusing on me.
“Who sent you?”
His only response was a smile.
In return I stamped forcefully on his stomach wound, the crimson pool in his plain gray t-shirt growing exponentially.
His face contorting horrendously even as the last of his life drained onto the floor.
“Guess your face really can freeze like that.” A man called from the doorway.
I didn’t startle or even turn to face the voice. “Yep.”
“You good in here?”
“Yep. You good out there?”
“Yep.” he matched my tone which brought a slight smile to my face.
“You shouldn’t have come.”
“But you knew I would, knew I did. Don‘t play dumb. You knew I was following you.”
I sighed, unwilling to admit the truth.
“I broke off. Secured a weapon over in the Underbelly. Wouldn’t want to try something like this unarmed, right?”
I couldn’t help but snicker.
“Come on,” he beckoned. “We gotta finish this.”
“No!” I turned to face him now. “This is mine. You already shouldn’t be here. What if….” anxiety dripped from my words. “You can’t risk this.”
“For you, I’ll risk everything.”
“No!” Again, he matched my tone. “Don’t you dare! You are not a liability. You are not going to get me killed, or eliminated or made a martyr. We’re not going to have that conversation again. I will not leave you!” His voice dropped to a tortured whisper. “I can’t Harper. I won’t.”
I fell into his arms, resting my forehead to his, my hand on his heart. It beat brisk and strong. This? This was my home. Colton Sanders was home.
Even surrounded by all the death, past and present, I was never as safe as when I was in his arms. Here, just here, I was invincible. The world waned to the background, became softer, kinder, less malicious. He knew every secret, every aspiration, fear, plan and dream. He knew every fiber of everything that made me. We had grown, trained, learned and achieved together. He was my heart, my soul and though countless things continually kept us apart, our hearts were one, just as they had been since we shared our first kiss on my twelfth birthday below celebrating starst just ten years before. Ten years, and it had seemed ages. Reality was unkind, but when he held me, when we were allowed something so small as to be near each other, hope, actual hope, always clawed for freedom. Tears of love, of joy, of heart sprang to my eyes. He tipped his chin forward until our lips met and a torrent of tears ran down my cheeks.
Too soon, he pulled away. “You big baby.”
“Hey! I’ll show you a baby!” I joked as I tried to punch him in the chest.
His reflexes were so impeccable that he had already grabbed my fist and kissed it before I realized he had. Smirking, he said only, “Love you too.”
And then, ah, and then. We both sobered and turned to the doorway.
I only nodded in response. Reality, ever the relentless bitch, was right where we’d left her.