Episode V: The Runaways
Payle threw the door open and marched into the storeroom. "What in Kuldaan's name is going on in here?" he growled.
Two men looked back, their eyes meeting his only briefly before returning to their prey. Both held leather whips. "Dien Payle. Fen paes sumosuus."
The language of the lower class. The old tongue was still prevalent among the more primitive Viochiati tribes. While Luncia embraced the universal language of offworlders nearly a century ago—along with three other planets in the solar system—the natives of Irius refused to adapt. Payle was sympathetic; their desire to preserve their culture and heritage was admirable. But when attempting to protect oneself from an oppressor, the ability to effectively communicate was of the utmost importance.
"It is my business," he shot back. "I've authorized no interrogations today."
"Kein tel Granett," the man on the left said. "Se posess lon fen si'los."
Payle looked at their captive. Her limp body dangled from iron shackles at her wrists, the chain of which connected to a bolt in the ceiling. He couldn't see her face—she'd been hung facing the wall—but what he could see suggested they'd been at this for quite some time. The back of her shirt was torn and tattered and soaked in blood. Long bloody welts and gashes criss-crossed her back, oozing down and soaking what little fabric clung to the wounds.
"What charges has Granett brought against her?"
The man on the left cracked his whip, prompting the girl to throw her head back with another scream. Sun-colored hair spilled over her shoulders when she did, absorbing some blood in the process.
Payle gnashed his teeth. "I asked you a question, Ka!" The word "Ka" was a derogatory name often used to describe the lower class. Roughly translated, it meant "dog" or "mutt."
Finally, both men faced him. Through a heavy accent, the one on the right spoke. "Granett says she and another were snooping around the warehouse," he said. "We caught this one, but the other got away. Granett believes they are Luncia spies."
It wouldn't be the first time. "Have you been able to get anything out of her?" Payle asked, looking at the girl. Her crimson-laced hair swayed with each breath, but she was otherwise still.
"She claims ignorance," the other man said. "Just a Ka looking for food."
Regardless of whether or not she was being truthful, there was nothing more to be gained from her continued torture. "Leave her to me," Payle said. "Go to the quarry. They are in need of more hands."
"But Granett ordered—"
Payle yanked the whip from the nearer man's grasp. "I don't care what Granett said," he snapped. "Tell him to come to me if he wants to protest. He could use a good lashing himself."
The sincerity of the latter comment must have finally gotten through to them, because both men nodded and rushed for the door. He slammed it behind them to add the exclamation point to his threat, then slid the lock into place.
"Fools," he muttered, snatching the second whip from the floor where the other man dropped it. He tossed both to the corner of the room and turned his attention back to their prisoner.
She remained still as he approached, but the empty room amplified her labored breathing. Payle knew better than to assume anything, but his gut said that this girl was no spy. Spies were trained to withstand torture; they were strong, confident, defiant, and difficult to break. But this one was frail. Weak. Passive. She wasn't just broken, she was shattered.
"What is your name, girl?" he asked.
She took another breath before responding. "Liah."
"And what were you doing in our warehouse?"
"We didn't know," she whispered. "I swear, we didn't know. We were hungry. So much food is diverted to the war effort these days. It's hard for us. We scratch and claw for every bite we can get." She finished the sentence with a pained grimace.
It didn't sound like a cover story, but again, Payle didn't want to assume. Her speech had a slight Luncian accent to it, but then again, so did his own. Finally, he circled around to get a look at her face.
"Please," she said, raising weary eyes to meet his. A long laceration ran down her cheek, and another above her eye. "Please let me go. I have no information to give you."
She was younger than he'd expected, but that wasn't what surprised him. He recognized her face. She and a number of other youths often milled about near the river to the east. "I've seen you before," he said. "More than once, actually. It is no secret to the locals that this is a Viochiati installation. How can I believe that you did not know?"
Liah shook her head, wincing again. "No, it wasn't like that. We were in trouble. It's not our fault, we were just trying to survive. The local tribes wouldn't share with us, and we've no coin for merchants. We were running, and we lost our way. By the time we found ourselves behind your warehouse, we had no idea where we were."
Payle filled in the missing pieces of her story. "You tried to steal food from one of the local tribes?"
This time, she said nothing. Instead, she closed her eyes.
"That is a serious crime," he told her. "I am well within my authority to hand you over to your accusers for judgment."
"I know," she murmured.
She didn't answer.
"Which tribe?" Payle demanded.
Another moment of silence passed. "The Rieoti tribe."
Payle snorted. The Rieoti were the least civilized tribe of the lower class. Bluntly put, they were barbaric savages. "If I give you over to them, you will be dead before sunrise. You know that, right?"
"Yet you'd rather be handed over than tell me the real reason that you were in our warehouse?"
Now Liah looked up, eyes wide. "You must believe me!" she pleaded. "Why would I tell you a lie that would put me in the hands of those animals?"
For a moment, Payle only looked at her. Every instinct told him that she was being truthful. Still . . . "Why would you tell me a truth that would put you in the hands of those animals?"
Finally, the girl seemed to accept her fate. She lowered her head and spoke quietly. "Then do with me what you will. Whether by your hands or by theirs, it does not matter. I am as good as dead."
This time, it was Payle who sighed. After a moment's thought, he reached up and unclasped her shackles. Liah tumbled to the floor with a whimper.
The storeroom was barren save for a single cabinet on the far wall. Inside were various tools and instruments used to facilitate interrogations. Payle withdrew a black satchel and a linen shroud from a lower drawer and returned to Liah. She did not look up at him.
"Close your eyes," he instructed. Whether she complied or not, he did not know. He put the satchel over her head anyway, leaving the synch loose at her neck. He then took her arms and lifted her to a standing position. She cried out in pain but did not resist. "Can you walk?" he asked.
"I . . . don't know," she panted through the bag. "How far are you taking me?"
"Only a short distance," he assured.
"I'll try. Just, please . . . no more lashes."
Payle frowned, glancing at the whips in the corner. "Your punishment is finished for today."
Trista shuffled along blindly with her gruff captor's heavy hand gripping her arm. Every step hurt. Even the slightest muscle contraction sent searing knives across her back. Hope was the only thing willing her legs to continue—hope that somehow, someway, the others would find a way to get to her. There would be no surviving another torture session.
Don't pass out, she told herself. Just keep breathing. Someone will come for you. Jack or Misha or Hodge . . . They'll get you out of here. Just hang on a little longer. If she had any information to give, she'd have given it. But all she had was the truth, and the truth was not what the Viochiati wanted to hear. They suspected she was a spy—believed it, even—but the reality was nothing so glamorous. She was no spy.
She was a runaway.
"Stop," the large man ordered. Biting her lip to hold back tears, she held her position as commanded. She could hear what sounded like the fumbling of keys. Have we reached my cell? Through the musty bag, she listened for the sound of her prison mate. The dirty old letch was probably asleep by now, but he'd surely awaken for her return. And in her condition, fighting him off was no longer an option.
A door opened, though it sounded different from the prison door. Again, Trista felt herself being nudged forward. She took one jittery step and buckled, collapsing to the concrete floor. Thankfully, the Viochiati hadn't bothered to bound her hands, giving her at least some ability to cushion her landing. Pain wrenched another cry from her lips.
"Come." Again, she was lifted to her feet. "You must take two steps down here. Are you ready?"
"Y-Yes," she stammered. Steps? There had been no steps on the way from her prison cell.
The man eased her forward, and a sudden but gentle breeze of warm air enveloped her. Were they outside? She made it down the first step without falling, but her strength was beyond drained. "I can't," she finally. "I can't."
When the reply came, it carried with it a sense of urgency. If Trista didn't know better, she might have mistaken it for concern. "You must."
Knowing there was no arguing with a Viochiati, she grit her teeth and extended a foot. Again, her strength wavered, but this time the man held tight. Using his arms for support, she made it safely down the second step. Her bare feet came to rest on what felt like packed dirt.
Without warning, the hood was pulled from her head. As her eyes adjusted to the light, the smoky skies of Irius came into focus. She was standing in an alley beside the Viochiati facility. A tall wooden fence separated her from the street. Which street, she had no idea, but it didn't matter. She was outside!
Trista turned to her captor with a questioning look. He stood in a doorway atop a small stoop, the white shroud dangling from his outstretched hand. "This is all I can give you, I'm afraid," he said. "Take it and go. But be warned! If you are caught inside a Viochiati installation again, you will be put to death." He closed the door before she had the chance to question his generosity.
Is this a trick? she wondered. As if to answer her question, a solid click came from the door's lock.
She was free. Beaten, broken, and bloody, but free.
District Four bustled with activity. Hundreds of men and women lined up outside of the distribution center to trade their work tickets for rations. Food wasn't scarce in Karris—not among the upper class, anyway. But for the peasants and lower-ranking tribes, hearty meals were a rarity. On occasion, the wealthiest leaders would emerge from their havens to throw the dogs a bone, but any man or woman expecting to rely on the generosity of leadership to survive would surely go hungry. It was the sad reality of the class system, and it epitomized what Irius had become since the beginning of The Great Migration.
More than two hundred years had passed since first contact, the day when Luncian starships swarmed the skies of Irius, terrifying the primitive natives into believing that the gods had moved to destroy them. Fearing for their lives, their culture, and their homeland, the Iriuns attacked the invaders with what simple weapons they had. It was a fruitless effort; the Luncians subdued the natives and conquered their land. They built colonies that grew into villages and brought down more ships every day. In time, villages became cities, leadership was established, and laws were written. The Iriuns who did not assimilate with Luncian culture were exiled to the wastelands where they struggled to survive, waiting and praying for the opportunity to take back their land.
That was how it started. At least, according to the Viochiati. The historical records of Irius were written and maintained by the upper class, and in Jack's estimation, that made them unreliable at best. The poor only knew what the rich allowed them to know. And the Luncian narrative of events was somewhat different.
Whatever the truth of it was, by the beginning of the second century, Luncia had set up colonies on every habitable planet in Athena. Four of seven welcomed the Luncians, but the rest viewed their arrival as a hostile act of oppression, an occupation by foreigners bent on imposing their traditions, laws, and way of life upon a people that neither wanted nor needed them. Those three worlds—Auestus, Geovena, and Irius—eventually came together to form the Viochiati, or the Voice of the People. Their goals were admirable; they would accept nothing less than the complete liberation and preservation of their people and culture. Their methods, however . . .
Well, that's why Jack was in District Four begging an old friend for a huge favor.
"Come on, Jass. You've got to have something that will work."
Jass tilted his head, grey eyes considering the youth in front of him. He was a portly man a hair or two shorter than Jack, but he had an air about him that commanded respect. "My boy, you must understand," he finally said. "I've got a wife to feed. Children to consider. Their children. If I let myself get caught up in this, I put 'em all at risk."
They stood in the middle of the ration distribution line, inching forward every moment or two. Jack had no tickets—no one would employ a known thief—but Jass held a few. He'd played party to a number of Jack's schemes and heists over the past few years, but this time it was different. This wasn't about smuggling rations or blankets or setting fire to Viochiati literature in the square. Jack was asking for help infiltrating District Seven to rescue a Viochiati hostage. That was a big deal. And Jack knew that.
Brushing dirt from his old brown breeches, he struggled to find some argument or reasoning that might sway the man. Born on Irius fifty-six years ago, Jass spent most of his life fighting the Viochiati and their anti-unification movement. A futile war with futile goals, he called it. In his estimation, so much of Luncian society had seeped into Iriun culture that the essence of what was once Irius was long gone. The battle was already lost, and the forced continuation of war meant a continued increase in the death toll. A death toll which was already in the millions.
"But Jass," Jack pleaded, "she needs us! Maker only knows what they're doing to her in there! She's suffered more than most already—you know that! Can you really stand by and let her become the next casualty?"
He was tugging the right strings; he could tell. Jass' eyes fell downcast at the mention of Trista's name. "She may already be lost," he said softly. Thick graying eyebrows drooped over worn creases that lined his face. "Poor girl deserved better than this."
"Then help her! I'm not asking you to go to with me, but I know you've got to have something useful."
"I don't think ya realize what you're up against," Jass said, scratching fingers through his silver hair. "Do ya even know where she is? How to get in? How to get out?"
Jack tugged on the cuffs of his fingerless gloves. "I'll improvise," he replied, forcing a grin. Despite his outward confidence, he truly didn't know what he was going to do. District Seven was the central hub for Viochiati in Karris. And while the area wasn't officially off-limits, anyone passing through would have their destination and intentions subjected to heavy scrutiny. Breaking a hostage free without raising suspicions would be practically impossible. Unless, of course, Jass agreed to help.
"Ya can't improvise with these men," Jass told him. "If you're caught, the Viochiati won't care what kind of excuse ya come up with, and ya won't be able to wiggle your way out of it like ya do with the merchants and traders. Get caught freeing a hostage, and you'll be marked as a traitor destined for the gallows."
"What happens to one of us happens to all of us," Jack said, putting a solemn but firm tone to his words. "If I have to risk to the noose to save Trista from it, I'm going to do it. And I'd do it for Misha, Hodge, Ellie, or Fynn too."
Jass' response was just as solemn. "How do ya think Ellie would handle the news that you two were killed?"
"We're a family," Jack replied. "You know that better than most. We've all put our necks on the line for each other at one point or another. Even Ellie. Without each other, half of us would be dead, and the others would be slaves in the wastelands or something. If I don't go after Trista, Ellie would wonder why I abandoned her, and in turn, she'd wonder if I'd ever abandon the rest of them."
After a long silence, Jass looked at him again. This time there was resolve in his eyes. "All right. Meet me a block east of the pier before dusk. Near the wharf. I'll be there."
Jack almost leapt with joy. Then Jass' words registered. "Wait. Dusk? No, we've got to go right now! Trista can't—"
"Dusk," Jass said again, waving his work tickets in Jack's face. "I have a responsibility to my family too, kid. If I leave this line, Gwen and Nilly go hungry for another couple of weeks." His scowl faded. "Don't worry. I'll be there. Ya have my word."
Late help was better than no help at all. "Thanks, Jass. Please hurry."
The sun was a quarter past its peak when Jack started back toward the Garmaine River. With a population of close to five hundred-thousand, Karris stood as one of the seven most powerful cities on Irius. One would never glean such a perception from walking through District Four; of the seven districts of Karris, the fourth was the poorest. Poor by Iriun standards, anyway. Back on Luncia, luxury was commonplace. Cities were furnished with gold and silver and the finest in technological advancements, most of which were gifts from the Aedens. Even the homeless had shelters and workhouses furnished with communication and research terminals, large beds with sheets of cotton and linen and silk, and top-of-the-line hygienic facilities. By comparison, Jack's memories of Luncia made everyone on Irius seem poor.
Why anyone voluntarily traveled to Irius was beyond Jack's comprehension. He certainly hadn't come by choice. But The Great Migration, triggered by the formation of the planetary unions, had scattered men, women, and children from every nation of every world. As a result, some cities—like Karris—were populated with a smattering of the various races, classes, and professions from across Athena. It was not uncommon to see a lower class tribesman draped in rudimentary animal hides browsing the marketplace alongside robed Luncian defectors. The diversity had the potential to become something beautiful if the factions ever managed to progress beyond mere coexistence. But truthfully, the only thing uniting the people under the Viochiati banner was their hatred for Luncia and her allies.
Foot traffic thinned as Jack neared the river. Warehouses and storefronts gave way to open plains dotted with small cottages and stables. The dirt path became muddy and uneven, littered with trash and oddly shaped rocks. Settlements along the edge of District Four were sparse; some who thought the soil might be fertile enough to sustain crops had set up small farms where land had yet to be claimed. Now and then Jack would see a cart half-filled with small bundles of produce bouncing down the disfigured road toward the market. It wasn't a lucrative business, but it was something.
The river was just beyond the plains. When the path turned north to follow the water's edge, Jack continued east toward the brown embankment that served as the cove's outer perimeter. As he did, an Aeden starfighter roared overhead, cutting through the sky to the left before heading south. One of the Viochiati's stolen ships, no doubt. Unbelievable. The people live in poverty, yet their leaders have access to some of the most advanced technology in the universe. He often wondered what could be accomplished if those in power weren't so preoccupied with killing each other.
A voice called from ahead. "Any luck?"
Jack pulled his attention away from the shrinking starfighter. Hodge peered over the far edge of the hill and waved.
"Not yet, but Jass agreed to help!" Jack shouted back, picking up his pace.
"Great," Hodge said with a nod. The breeze made his straw-colored hair flutter. "Come on, let's go. Fynn should be back soon."
At the hillside's crest, the camp finally came into view. Set at the base of a concave slope, their home remained hidden to most who passed through the area. From where he stood, the embankment stretched around the cove on either side and descended into the Garmaine where dirt and sand transitioned to rock. Only those who walked as far as Jack would be able to see the tents and campfire thirty or so paces from the water's edge. Behind the tents, Misha chased little Ellie around; her tiny squeals of laughter echoing in the distance.
If Trista had been with them, she would have been reading by the fire. She loved to read; she had an endless thirst for knowledge. Whenever Jack brought a new book back from Jass, her eyes would light up and she'd grab her old blanket to get cozy for the evening. By morning, she'd be going on and on about what she'd read, whether it be the history of distant planets or fairy tales about gods and angels. Now, her blanket was neatly folded in the girls' tent, and the fireside was barren. Everything seemed incomplete without her.
"Come on," Hodge called again. He was already halfway down the slope. "Aren't you hungry?"
Jack's stomach growled. Fifteen year-old Fynn spent much of his time wandering Karris in search of work. He was an excellent carpenter, and for the group's first few years on Irius, he'd been able to put that talent to good use. His goal was to save enough coin for supplies to build a house at the cove. But in recent years, business had slowed tremendously. The Viochiati were systematically taking over every industry in Karris. They had better tools, workers, and supplies at their disposal. As they took control of the market, less work was available for independent crafters.
Now, Fynn's goal seemed more like a distant dream. Occasionally he'd come back with a few coins or work tickets, but neither yielded much in the way of food. Still, he'd promised a big dinner before leaving that morning, and Fynn seemed to find a way to keep his promises—no matter how big.
"Can't wait," Jack said, chasing after Hodge. "We're going to need our strength tonight."
When Ellie caught sight of the two bounding down the embankment, she screamed and ran toward them. "Papa!" she called. "You're back!"
Though Jack was not her biological father, she treated him the same. Being the eldest of the group at nineteen, the others tended to look to him as a voice of leadership and direction. It was not a responsibility he took lightly. "Of course I'm back!" he laughed, scooping Ellie into his arms. "Did you think I'd gotten lost?"
The little girl's big green eyes sparkled in the waning sunlight. "You said you got lost in District Seven the other day!"
Jack forced a smile. She was, of course, referring to the incident at the Viochiati warehouse. The day when Trista was captured. He couldn't bring himself to tell her the truth, though Hodge, Misha, and Fynn were aware of the situation. "Well don't worry," he said, pulling a crude drawing from the pocket of his breeches. "I drew a map this time. No more getting lost for me!"
Ellie cheered, her golden pigtails swaying as she threw her head back. Jack gave the map to her and set her down. Misha stood a few paces away, her face solemn.
"Did you . . . " she glanced down at Ellie. "Um, were you successful?"
Jack shook his head. "Not yet," he said. He had to chose his words carefully so as to not panic Ellie. While she knew Trista was gone, she didn't know why, and the cover story they'd put together would only satisfy her curiosity for so long. "I have a good idea of where, but not the how."
Misha's eyes glistened, but she visibly took hold of her emotions. "How much time do we have?"
"I don't know," Jack admitted, removing his blue vest as he started toward the tents. "But we'll find out tonight. We're meeting with Jass at sundown. He's going to give us some supplies before we head north."
Now Hodge spoke up. "We're going at night? With the Kinsem out there?"
Jack swore internally. He'd completely forgotten. The Kinsem liked to patrol the streets by moonlight to reaffirm their claim to the northern section of the city. Getting out with Trista was going to be difficult by itself. Adding to the Kinsem to the mix pretty much turned it into a suicide mission. "We'll figure it out," he said. "We don't have a choice."
"Papa, this map isn't very good," Ellie said, bouncing along behind them. "Can I redraw it for you?"
Jack smiled at her before entering the boys' tent. "I was hoping you'd offer!"
Inside the tent, he donned a fresh shirt and vest and rinsed his face in the makeshift washbasin between the bedrolls. When he turned around, Misha's melancholy face met him. Strands of auburn dangled into her eyes as she bit her lip out of either nervousness or heartache. Though she said nothing at first, her expression spoke volumes.
"It's going to work out," Jack said softly.
"You always say that when things go wrong." Misha's voice was a whisper. "But what if she's already gone?"
"She's still out there," he said. "I refuse to believe otherwise."
"Be reasonable," she pleaded, her voice cracking. "You know as well as I do that they don't keep prisoners alive for very long."
Finally—and against his will—tears began to well in Jack's eyes. "I can't, Misha. I can't accept that she's dead. I can't."
She stepped forward and wrapped her arms around him. If Jack was the father of the group, then Misha was the mother. Just one year younger than he, she served as the nurturing caretaker for Jack and the others. She was the voice of reason amongst a wily bunch of rambunctious teenagers. A difficult job, for sure, but her calm sensibility brought a needed measure of balance to the otherwise free-spirited family of runaways.
"We'll make it right," Jack told her. "I promise, we'll make it right."
"And if we can't?" Misha asked, resting her head on his shoulder. "What am I supposed to tell Ellie?"
None of them wanted to lie to Ellie, but the poor girl had already seen more trauma than most eight year-olds. At age three, she was taken from her family on Geovena to be conscripted as a child bomber for the Viochiati. One year later, when Jack, Trista, and Fynn stowed away aboard a transport to escape Luncia, they found Ellie caged in the cargo hold. They would later discover that the ship's crewmembers were Viochiati in disguise, a ruse to ferry Luncian defectors to Irius.
By then, the Viochiati had already begun conditioning Ellie to the harsh reality of war through violent imagery and other influencing techniques. Jack and Fynn managed to release her, and they escaped together once the ship touched down on Irius. Jack vowed to return her Geovena, but since then, escaping Irius had proved exceedingly difficult—especially once transport services began exclusively serving the Viochiati.
"We'll figure it out if that time comes," Jack finally said. "For now, we have to hope everything will work out."
"Jack!" Hodge's head poked through the tent flap. "Fynn's back, and he caught the biggest fish we've seen in months!"
Jack wasn't exactly a fan of Iriun seafood, but beggars couldn't afford to be choosers. "We'll be right there."
Hodge disappeared, and Misha's big brown eyes met Jack's once again. "I want to go with you tonight."
The request caught Jack off-guard. Misha usually elected to stay as far from Viochiati facilities as possible. For her to volunteer to join the evening's rescue suggested she still had hope of successfully bringing Trista home. "Good," he said with a smile. "We're going to need you."
The bunker where Jass stored most of his contraband was hidden under a wide storage shed beyond the wharf. The man had amassed quite a collection over the years, though he readily admitted that most of it was junk. Still, anything that could be useful in rescuing Trista was worth investigating at the very least. After all, three homeless teenagers wandering the streets of District Seven after dark were bound to attract some unwanted attention. Any help was better than none.
Misha stood near the door while Jass rummaged through various old storage boxes with Jack. Her insides churned; it had been a long time since she last stepped foot inside District Seven, let alone a Viochiati installation. The mere thought summoned images of old memories, flashes of cruelty that cast an unbearable weight upon her shoulders. She was taking a great risk in returning. But like Jack, she'd do anything for the family.
To her right, Fynn flipped through an old book. Both he and Trista were addicted to them. Whether literature, history, or instructional, nothing made them happier than finding a book they had yet to read. There were times when Misha couldn't help but feel jealous watching them pour over the latest novel. Learning to read was a luxury she was never afforded back home and a shortcoming she was anxious to be rid of. But at least she wasn't alone; neither Jack nor Hodge could read, either. At least not very well.
The decision to leave Hodge behind had been a difficult one—both he and Fynn were exceptional at using the shadows to their advantage—but Ellie needed someone to look after her, and Hodge was great at weaving stories. He could come up with a fantastic tale to explain the rest of the group's absence then distract her with children's tales until she fell asleep. Part of Misha disagreed with lying to the poor girl about both their whereabouts and Trista's situation, but Jack always insisted on protecting Ellie from as much of life's cruelty as possible. It was an argument Misha never won.
"Ah, here we go," Jass said, reaching behind a cluttered bench. He lifted a small box with faded yellow and red stripes. The top slipped off after a couple of tugs, and Jass handed it to Jack. "Take a look at these."
Rows of red cylinders filled the box. Jack took one and inspected it. "What are they?"
"They're called 'flares,' I think. It's a beacon of sorts used by the Aedens. Burns a brightly colored flame that sends up smoke of the same color. Helps them coordinate movements and positions, I figure."
Jack raised an eyebrow. "This is Aeden equipment?"
Jass laughed, a scratchy kind of laugh that made Misha want to clear her own throat. "Sure! A lot of the stuff here is. Been doin' this for years, ya know."
That sent a chill down Misha's back. The Aedens had no claim to Irius—not yet, anyway—but they had attempted to invade several larger Iriun cities in the past. If their equipment was here, it was reasonable to expect they might come to Karris in search of it. The thought of Karris burning at the hands of Luncia's hired guns made Misha shudder.
Fynn must have had the same thought, because his eyes began to dart around the room. "How much of it?" he asked. "Do they know it's missing? Have they ever come looking for it?"
"Don't worry 'bout it," Jass said, waving a dismissive hand. "Compared to a typical military's stockpile, the supplies I have here are insignificant. And even if they did find me, they'd never be able to prove I knowingly stole anything from them."
Misha pursed her lips. "What makes you think they'll be so understanding?"
Jass shrugged. "I've talked my way out of worse." He looked at Jack. "Do you want 'em?"
"Sure!" Jack said, nodding. He already had several bundled in his hand. "These could make for good distractions."
As though coming to a sudden realization, Jass snapped his fingers. "If it's distractions you're lookin' for, I got somethin' else, too." He opened a cabinet behind Jack and withdrew a long brown tube. "I call this one 'the popper.' Shoots up high and explodes with all kinds of sparkly colors. Aedens usually fire them off at celebrations and such. Only got one, though."
"That could definitely come in handy," Jack said. His eyes were bright as the morning sky. "How does it work?"
Misha watched in silence, doing nothing to help them. It wasn't that she didn't want to; finding Trista meant everything to her. But the flashes of bloody corpses—scenes from memories she was all too eager to be rid of—bombarded her relentlessly. Anxiety usually summoned them, a relentless apprehension so strong that she spent more time trying to keep the images at bay than not. Beneath it all was the underlying fear that the visions would once again reflect the people closest to her, a possibility made more real with Trista's capture.
As Jass closed the cabinet door, Fynn spoke up. "Got any weapons?" he asked.
Jass leaned down and slid the lid from another box. "Afraid I can't help you there. If they track the flares to me, I can probably come up with some kind of story. Even the popper, I'm sure. But weapons?" He paused to chuckle, holding his belly as he did. "They'd flog me in the center of Karris for sure."
"We understand," Jack said.
Fynn looked disappointed, but he nodded in agreement.
After watching them search several more boxes, Misha finally stepped forward. She wanted to tell Jack that she changed her mind and would be heading back to the cove, but Trista was still out there. The images, the anxiety, the brutality—it would all have to be suppressed for her sake. "We should probably get moving. Trista may not have much time."
Reluctantly, Jack agreed. "I suppose you're right. Every second is critical."
Jass looked between them. "You sure you want to do this? You three aren't exactly trained spies."
"We don't have a choice," Jack told him, making for the stairs. "I'm not leaving her to die."
Irius' red moons bathed District Seven in a dull glow. Industrial lampposts lined the desolate road for several blocks in either direction. The area looked familiar, Trista thought, but she wasn't sure which path would take her back to the cove. Most nearby structures looked the same; warehouses and windowless buildings of stone and brick two and three stories high. Which of them did or did not belong to the Viochiati was anyone's guess.
She took two short steps and collapsed at the side of the road. Everything spun. Paralyzing pain surged through her back and arms, forcing her to stifle an agonized groan. The dusty breeze had tormented her exposed wounds until she wrapped the shroud around her torso. Never before had she felt such pain. Not even back home. "Jack," she mumbled, "where are you?"
In the short time since her release, Trista had managed to put very little distance between herself and the prison. More than anything, the enduring effects of her interrogation prevented her from gaining any ground. She was dizzy. She was in pain. She felt sick. Every time she stood, Irius rolled beneath her feet. Just keep breathing. Had it been up to her, she would've run for the district border and never looked back. You've got to hold on. But her body demanded rest, and it wasn't going to cooperate until that demand was met.
To complicate matters, the Kinsem tribe's curfew was in effect. They held no legitimate authority in the district, but that didn't stop Kinsem militiamen from enforcing their laws at every opportunity. If Trista remained out of sight, she'd have a chance of regrouping with the others. If they were still alive. Please be alive.
With nightfall upon Karris, the streets were quiet. Whether or not that was normal for District Seven, Trista didn't know. Occasionally, she could hear distant voices yelling about something, but nothing near her. Summoning her last remaining scraps of willpower, she struggled to her feet. After a quick glance in either direction, she hobbled across the street and into another alley on the opposite side of the road. Each movement drained precious strength, each step drawing her toward the brink of another collapse. The ground rocked back and forth like a ship on the open sea. She needed sleep. She needed food. She needed help.
Using the moons for guidance, she headed in the direction she believed was south. Home was a long way away, but if she could at least escape from District Seven, she'd have a chance of survival. Looking as she did, any Viochiati she might encounter would assume that she was an escaped prisoner. If they did not execute her on sight, they'd surely return her to the prison facility. She wasn't sure which was worse.
The alley opened up into a small fenced-in yard between the next two buildings. It appeared to be some sort of tribunal area; several rows of poorly crafted benches were set facing stocks on the north side. Whether it was the sight of the maroon stains in the dirt around the stocks or her body's continued decline, the sight caused her stomach to heave. Terrifying images flooded her mind. What if the others get caught trying to rescue me? She could almost see Fynn in the stocks while men lashed him with chains and cords. Then she thought of Misha. Ellie. Panic set the world spinning faster.
I have to get out of here, she thought.
All at once, everything shifted. When Trista opened her eyes, she was face-down in the dirt. How did I get here? Blood dripped from the now reopened cut on her forehead. Everything was blurry. Did I fall? I don't remember falling. The effort of raising to all fours was exhausting. Neither walking nor running were options any longer. And to her surprise, crawling actually hurt more than both. Desperation begged her forward, but the biological requirement for rest imposed its will. If she refused to allow her body at least some time to recover, she wasn't going anywhere. I just need to make it until sunrise. If I can last that long, I might be able to get back safely.
Though she wasn't exactly a believer in prayer, Trista found herself silently pleading to the Maker for some kind of help as she dragged herself back into the alley. Something. Anything. Please, send help. I can't do this on my own. A shadow enveloped everything. Why is it getting so dark? She was lying in the dirt again. The world faded. I don't want to die.
From somewhere in the distance, footsteps approached.
Night had long since fallen when Jack, Misha, and Fynn crossed into District Seven. The streets near the border were quiet; the concentration of Kinsem patrols thinned further south. But if Misha's hunch was correct, Trista was being held somewhere in the northernmost part of the district. The Viochiati ruled Karris from there—or tried to, anyway—with their primitive brand of justice being doled out in the form of hangings, floggings, and other barbaric practices meant to punish traitors and instill fear in the general populace. For the most part, it worked. The average peasant fell in line and served the Viochiati with both physical and monetary contributions—whichever could be afforded. Those who did not were either banished to the wastelands outside of Karris or publicly beaten and executed.
Jack glanced over at Misha. Raised by the Viochiati, Misha lived in District Seven for the first decade of her life. It wasn't until her twin sister was sent to the gallows for suspected treason that Misha fled to the wastelands. Mila's death was the final atrocity in a list of unspeakable crimes Misha had been forced to witness, a memory that would surely haunt her beyond the grave. There were days when she could do nothing but sit in her tent sobbing while her brain mercilessly replayed each event again and again. That she would stand against those memories to return to District Seven spoke volumes about her strength of character and love for the family. She might has well have been walking through fire to rescue Trista, because in her mind, the streets were paved with brimstone.
"Does everyone understand the plan?" Jack asked, looking down at the map Ellie had so beautifully redrawn for him. It was based off tips from Jass and a few other informants as well as his own memory. "Fynn will take the flares and set them off around the district to draw attention. Misha, you and I will push north to the Viochiati facilities to search for Trista. Once we have her, we make for the nearest border." He pointed to a dark black line that marked the northern edge of Karris.
"Are you sure?" Fynn asked. "The nearest border will take you outside of Karris. I know we want to avoid the Kinsem and all, but the tribes in the wastes are even worse!"
"If we can get out of the city, we should be in the clear," Misha said, eyes fixed on the end of the street. "I know a few routes through the wastelands that will take us back to the cove. Besides, most of the wasteland tribes settle further north."
Jack nodded. "OK. Then all we have to focus on is finding Trista. Fynn, take the map with you. Misha knows her way around."
"All right," Fynn said, slinging the sack of flares over his shoulder. "If you two think we have a chance, I'm game."
The three came together and embraced, each whispering a soft "Good luck" to the other. Then they separated; Fynn headed west into the residential quarter while Jack and Misha set their sights to the north.
Jack remained silent at first. Misha seemed distant. Mostly, she spoke only when spoken to and avoided eye-contact. The walls she'd built around herself had reinforced themselves—something Jack had anticipated when she volunteered to come. Surely, she was afraid of what they might find in the coming hours. But even more so, Jack thought, she was afraid of the memories.
A warm breeze brushed specks of sand and dirt against their faces. It was a pleasant evening by Irius' standards, though Jack often missed the crystal clear skies of Luncia. Irius' atmosphere was clouded with dust and dirt which created a smoky effect that blocked out the stars most nights and amplified the crimson glow of the planet's two moons. Before The Great Migration, stargazing had been one of Jack's favorite evening activities. He longed for a time when he could again see constellations and starship trails across the skies. One day, perhaps.
For now, however, the focus was Trista.
"Keep an eye out for patrols," Jack said as they walked. "Viochiati won't arrest us on sight, right?"
"No," Misha confirmed, "they don't enforce Kinsem law. But they will have questions for us if we're seen."
If he could keep her talking, maybe it would get her mind off the anxiety. "I've never understood why they would put up with the Kinsem," he wondered aloud. "They aren't an official arm of the Viochiati, so why is this curfew nonsense permitted?"
"Were the Viochiati organized and unified from top to bottom, they probably wouldn't allow individual factions the free reign they've been afforded. Within individual tribes—whether upper or lower class—there is great unity. But when multiple tribes of differing classes, races, and ideologies try to work together, the alliance becomes far less stable."
"It's been two hundred years. You'd think they'd have found some way to get on the same page by now."
Misha shook her head. "The very thing that unites them is the thing that divides them. Each and every tribe desires its sovereignty. They don't want anyone telling them how to live, grow, or develop. So if Viochiati leadership tries to tell the Kinsem, the Aryo, or the Rieoti what to do, they take as much offense as they do when the Luncians do the same."
"When you put it like that, it's hard to believe they haven't turned on each other," Jack said.
"They believe in each other's sovereignty as much as their own. In that way, the very thing that divides them is the thing that unites them."
They covered several blocks unhindered. Misha remained quiet, so Jack chattered on about whatever random subjects came into his head. A celebration for Trista's rescue, plans to finally escape Irius, his dreams of traveling the stars and seeing the universe—whatever it took to pull her mind away from the images. Away from the pain. Away from Mila.
"I know we can catch a transport once they reopen the trade routes," he said as they came to a crossroads in front of an extravagant mansion. A Viochiati tribe leader's home, he assumed. "We just need to be patient."
Misha wasn't as optimistic. Glancing behind them, she muttered, "The trade routes have been restricted to Viochiati for years. What makes you think they'll be reopened?"
A shout came from the left, a single voice that interrupted Jack. "You there!"
A man, a sturdy figure wearing an ornate silk robe, exited the mansion's courtyard thirty paces away. He did not appear to be Kinsem—they garbed themselves in far less refined attire—but his brow sloped in a heavy scowl as he marched toward them. "What is your business here?"
"We have no business," Jack told him, spreading his hands. "Just out for an evening stroll."
The man appeared to grow larger as he neared. His cropped black hair identified him as a member of the Geovena army, but his robe was more consistent with Viochiati clothing. "You must be daft, the both of you."
Misha shifted behind Jack. She cautiously peered over his shoulder but said nothing. Jack was far more relaxed; he had more than a little experience talking himself out of tense situations.
"It's a nice night," he told the man. "I didn't see the harm in taking a little stroll."
The stranger crossed his arms, raising an eyebrow. "Are you a new arrival to Karris? Have you been here long?"
Jack shrugged. "A few weeks. Why?"
A shift in stance suggested the answer eased the man's nerves. "There's a lower class tribe that roams these streets by night, lad. A miserable collection of vermin called the Kinsem. Claim to own these streets, they do. Man eaters, that lot. They'll roast you live and feast on your flesh."
It was the first Jack had ever heard the Kinsem being referred to as cannibals. Though he couldn't say for sure, he had strong suspicions that this man was embellishing his point. "We'll keep an eye out for them."
"Best thing you can do is leave District Seven. It's not a place for sightseein'." The stranger's eyes narrowed as his focus shifted from Jack to Misha. "Something wrong, girl? You've got a bit of fright in your eyes. I am not one of them, if that's your worry."
Misha spoke quietly. "No. Nothing is wrong."
Several distant shouts interrupted them. To the west, a plume of bright green smoke rose above the rooftops, bent by the evening breeze that carried it south. The man muttered some sort of expletive before racing down the street into the residential quarter. Jack stared in awe for a brief moment, then turned to Misha.
"It's begun," he said. "Both the Kinsem and the Viochiati will be on high alert now, so we'll have to stay out of sight going forward." He took her by the shoulders. It was the only way she would look him in the eyes. "Are you ready?"
Misha nodded. "Let's go."
They continued pushing north, utilizing alleys and shadows to remain concealed along the way. For the most part, Fynn's distraction appeared to be having its intended effect. The streets were bare for much of the evening. Every so often, another column of colored smoke to the west would draw more distant shouts, but near Jack and Misha, all was quiet. It wasn't until they neared what Misha affectionately referred to as "Viochiati Central" that they encountered their first Kinsem tribesman.
They were just coming out of an alley when they saw him, a bald-headed neanderthal with a thick-sloped brow and chiseled arms. He marched through the otherwise vacant street with head held high. His clothing was finer than Jack had anticipated, but by no means elaborate. Most of it was made from tanned brown leather and was stitched together by cords along the seams. A leather belt holstered a long knife at his hip, and in his hands he held a long spear, a crudely crafted weapon that was as shoddy as it was dirty. Jack had little doubt of it's ability to get the job done despite not being pretty.
Jack and Misha held back as he passed, using the shadows to their advantage. Once he was out of earshot, Misha whispered in Jack's ear. "We need his weapons."
The statement surprised Jack. "That was never a part of the plan," he reminded her. "We can't afford to deviate now."
"Without weapons, we're easy prey!" she said, her words sharpening with each syllable. "We need to be able to defend ourselves."
Jack took his eyes away from the distant Kinsem and turned to face her. "That man is a warrior, Misha. A man raised and trained in the ways of battle. We aren't fighters. We wouldn't stand a chance."
She pursed her lips and looked away, crossing her arms as she did. "But we . . . I mean, it's just . . . "
It was obvious she was scared. He didn't need to see her face to know that. But somehow, someway, he had to find something he could use to build her confidence. To stave away the fears. "Fynn is out there distracting these guys for us. Right now, the attention is on him. If we are careful, we can get in and out with Trista before anyone even knows we're here."
Misha looked at the ground and shook her head. "But if we're caught—"
"With or without weapons, we're no match for these guys," Jack told her. "We have to focus on what we do best."
He could see her struggling with herself. Struggling with the past. "All right," she finally said, taking a deep breath. "Let's go."
As planned, Fynn's trail of colored clouds indicated he was moving north. As long as he continued to avoid capture, he would rendezvous with Jack, Misha, and Trista outside the Karris border. By the time they reached the innermost streets of north end, Fynn had set off eight flares by Jack's count. Jass' box contained eleven, leaving only three more before Fynn would start for the designated meeting place. Trista had to be found by then. They were running out of time.
The District was on high alert. Groups of both Viochiati and Kinsem dashed past more than once, each time moving west. Deeper north, Jack could no longer keep eyes on Fynn's progress as warehouses and other unmarked buildings blocked the skyline. The structures here were packed together tightly, creating a maze of alleys and smaller roads between them. Surprisingly, there were no patrols in sight anywhere.
"If things are still the same as they were nine years ago, then there are three prisons along this road," Misha said as they peered out of an alley. It was the first time she'd spoken without first being addressed. "The first is there." She pointed to a dirty brick building standing two stories high where the street sloped upward. "Of course, passwords and clearance codes have changed by now, so I won't be able to get us inside that way. We'll need to figure out—"
Another shout—this one from behind—sent their heads whipping around in unison. A Kinsem approached through the alley, his spear raised to attack. He looked less menacing than the other one; this man was far less muscular. "Arden fen!" he shouted. "Deion lente, Ka!"
Jack hesitated. If they ran out into the street, the commotion would certainly draw the attention of other Kinsem in the area. But fighting was not an option, either. With no time to think, his mouth moved instinctively. "Stop!"
Misha, however, had a different approach in mind. She dodged to the right and grabbed the knife at his belt. A scuffle ensued as Misha tugged and pulled at the weapon's handle while the Kinsem fought to get his spear into striking position. Jack immediately leapt to Misha's aid, grabbing hold of the spear's shaft. As he pulled against the man's strong grip, Misha finally yanked the knife free. Without hesitation, she rotated the blade and drove it into the Kinsem's throat just above the collarbone.
"Misha!" Jack exclaimed. "What are you doing?!"
Misha paid him no attention. She yanked the blade free and let the Kinsem fighter fall to the ground. For an agonizing moment, she just stared at his body, eyes glazed over as though in a trance. When she finally looked at the bloody knife in her hands, they began to tremble. Jack silently begged her not to scream.
"Are you OK?" he asked her.
Misha didn't respond. Her attention was fixed on the blood-coated blade. On the streaks of blood running down the back of her hand. The crimson speckles all over her white sleeve. Her expression could only be describe as one of terror. If Jack could hear her thoughts, he had no doubt she'd be asking herself what she had done. "Misha," he began, stepping toward her, "it's going to be—"
"No!" she finally yelled, throwing the knife to the ground. "Stay away from me!" Panic filled her eyes, a fear unlike anything he'd seen in her before. She looked at Jack as though he himself had done the deed, as though he himself had told her to do it. "I'm sorry," she cried. "I'm sorry!"
She turned and ran deeper in the alley. Jack called for her to stop, but she kept running and running. Torn between saving Trista and consoling Misha, Jack made a split-second decision and raced after her. Trista had already been captured. If possible, he had to save Misha from the same fate. With the blood of the Kinsem on her hands, she would face the gallows if caught. He wanted call to her again, to beg her to stop, to console her in any way possible, but they'd already caused enough of a ruckus to attract unwanted attention. His only hope was that she would stop running. Come on, Misha. Slow down. Take a breath. Pull yourself together. Please, you've got to stop running!
She didn't. Misha exited the alley onto another street and bolted to the left, out of Jack's view. When he reached the street, she was nowhere to be seen. Numerous alleys and narrow roads ran between each of the buildings, giving her plenty of options for escape. Jack darted down the street and checked the first ally, but there was no sign of her. None at the second, either. A small dirt road cut between two larger buildings beyond that, but Misha wasn't there. Had he missed her? She was moving so fast. Could she have gotten further down?
Jack circled back to recheck the alleyways he'd already passed. He thought, perhaps, she was hiding in the shadows, but a thorough search turned up nothing. Hope was beginning to fade when he spotted an open area beyond two buildings, a grassy space that looked as though it might be a park or recreational area. It couldn't hurt to check, he thought.
It wasn't a park. When Jack exited the alley, he came upon a public hearing area, a fenced-in section of well-worn grass and dirt complete with rows of spectator benches lined in front of wooden stocks. Jack had never witnessed an actual hearing—he wasn't going to be caught anywhere near a Viochiati tribunal—but he'd heard enough stories around Karris. People had been beaten to death in those stocks. Tortured. Executed.
He shook his head. Focus, Jack. You've got to find Misha. Tearing his eyes from the stocks, he surveyed the area for any sign of her. The ground within the fenced area didn't show any signs of recent foot traffic. Around the fence, weeds and brown grass stood high where it had not been properly pruned. He scanned the perimeter in hopes that he might find Misha hiding amongst the foliage . . . and stopped.
On the opposite side, something that looked like a small pile of clothing lay crumpled just inside an alley between two brick buildings. Softly, he called out for her. "Misha?" No one answered.
Jack hopped over the fence and raced across to the opposite side. When he reached the far end of the yard, his breath caught.
She lay silent in the dirt, her limbs curled into toward her chest like a newborn. Blood soaked through a linen shroud wrapped around her torso. He couldn't see her face from here he stood, but she didn't appear to be conscious. Jack fought against panic as he jumped over the fence, but she was in bad shape.
"Trista! Trista, can you hear me?" Jack whispered. "It's me, Jack. We've come for you!" He dropped to his knees and shook her gently, but she didn't respond. Two dried lacerations on her face oozed fresh blood as though they'd recently reopened. He held his hand in front of her nose, hoping to feel breath against his fingers. "Please, Trista! Stay with me!" He couldn't allow himself the joy of finding her without knowing whether or not she was alive.
Finally, she exhaled, a short breath that dragged a pained groan out along with it. Jack's heart leapt with excitement. She was alive! "Don't worry," he assured her. "I'm going to get you to Fynn, OK? He'll get you back to the cove."
Only one task remained. Jack yanked the popper from his sack and raced to the stocks. The plan was to use the device to signal that Trista had been rescued. If it worked the way Jass claimed, Fynn would see the explosion from wherever he was and start for the rendezvous point. And though the original plan hadn't called for Misha to run off on her own, Jack hoped that should would also see it and do the same. If not, Fynn would have to carry Trista home while Jack searched for Misha. Leaving someone behind was not an option. Not this time.
He stood the popper on its end in front of the stocks and drew an old pack of matchsticks from his back pocket. "Here goes nothing," he muttered, wiping dust from his brow with the back of his forearm. A couple of strikes later, the popper's fuse ignited with a loud fizz. Jack ran back toward the alley, hopped the fence one last time, and scooped Trista into his arms as gently as he could.
He was already through the alley and headed north when he heard a shrieking roar that shot above the rooftops. The popper left a glowing white trail as it soared above District Seven like a starfighter cutting across the sky. Then it detonated, bursting into a sparkling sphere of brilliant greens and blues that illuminated the district like nothing Jack had ever before seen. It was hard not to stare, but his first priority was cradled in his arms, and he could already hear panicked shouts rising from not-so-distant streets. If he lingered much longer, he'd have a hoard of Viochiati or Kinsem or both on his tail.
"Don't worry, Tris," he whispered. "We're going home."
Trista didn't respond, but she leaned her face against his chest. Just keep breathing, Jack begged silently. I will not lose you again.