Welcome To Desolation
The world had forgotten about us.
The air down in the Districts had only enough oxygen to keep us alive. The lubricants and oils that cleaned the death-dealing Reapers stained the concrete streets. The same streets that were home to the nest of snakes and vipers that were known as the Numbers.
The term "Numbers" was a name given by the Governor and his men to the people that lived in the Districts, because of the fact that they were nothing but figures to the elite of the world. We lived in the filth that was left over from their luxury, toiling in the factories that made the machines that supplied the police forces that kept us in line. We were the force that drove the miracles that gave the Government life, and it in turn drove us to death.
The Government had every bit of wealth stacked up in its skyscrapers and high rising buildings. Platforms and bridges connected the buildings high above the Districts, because the rich and privileged had seen themselves above the Numbers. Neon lights and bright colors spilled out from the darkness that was cast by those platforms, acting as our lighting for the nights we worked.
The factories that demanded our labor and our lives were the things that made that possible as well.
Well, it isn't all bad in the Districts. It could be worse. We could always be thrown out into the Desert to starve or get killed by bandits. The brutality of the soldiers that governed us could be avoided as long as you weren't seen.
Unfortunately, due to the fact that I was a girl, it was much harder for me to escape the leery eyes of the soldiers. I was always on the lookout for those men, since my friends and I were orphans and "street brats" we didn't have the luxury of running to our parents' sides for protection. We were just little kids stealing to survive.
My name is Blair. I don't have a last name, and I never plan on ever trying to find it. The streets of the Districts, the sewers of humanity, were my home in every sense of the word. Though I may not particularly enjoy the fact that we were being oppressed by a self-righteous government that had never stepped foot on real earth in their life time. My friends, like minded individuals that shared my talents for sabotage, mayhem, and thrill-seeking, agreed that we would make sure we did everything in our power to make the Government regret forcing us to live the way that we did.
Of the five of us, three were male. The remaining member of our group and I made up the female population of our little band. Of those three guys, two of them were runaways.
The first of those two was shorter then all of us, his brown hair crudely kept in check by the pair of scissors that we found a while back. His name was Mason, Mason Smith, and was of the tender age of eleven. He ran away from home because his parents were both avid drug users and alcoholics that sometimes perceived him as more of a punching bag than a son. He wore a tattered red shirt, the only one that we could find to fit his small frame, and dark pants that we had stolen from a booth at the market near our hideout. He had a pair of boots that he wore all the time, making sure to take good care of them since they were his only pair of foot wear. He was a smart kid, resourceful, and extremely good at working with wires. He was really close friends with the other runaway, seeing as they both made the brave decision to make it out on their own despite their age.
Which brings us to the other runaway, Grayson Reynolds, whom we called Gray. As his nickname suggested, he had a mellow, docile type of personality that made it seem as though he were in some extended form of shock. He had black hair and a scar that he was rather proud of on his chest. That scar was from the night that he escaped from his home, where one of his mad-man parents lived while the other was away on a business trip. The story he always told was that the night he ran away was the same night that his crazy father had sliced his shoulder and chest with a knife in a fit of unexplained rage. The wound, though not deep, had scared nonetheless. To show off the scar, Gray tended to wear no shirt whenever he found a reason to, though it was mostly retained to when he slept. He had stolen green pants and black shoes, along with a smuggled pocket knife that he used for just about everything. He had thirteen years of life under his belt.
And the last of the trio of testosterone, my personal name for the males, was Aiden. Aiden was a strong-willed fighter, the leader of our little band of delinquents. He had some sort of aura that made us far more confident then I thought we deserved. He wore a leather jacket that he won in a pit fight, hand-sewn pants, and boots that came with the jacket. The shock of blonde hair that he kept short and swept up with a bit of grease was is defining feature at first, since it was rare for a person to have natural hair of that color. He always had a smile on his face, but a serious look in his grey eyes. He was the one that protected us and taught us how to fight. He was fifteen years old, practically an elder of the streets compared to the ages of the rest of us. Though he did nothing to teach us how to survive on the streets, something that we all had to learn on our own before we met him, Aiden still made it seem like he did. We all respected him, but thankfully didn't lean on him for support. If we did something like that, the group would fall apart. That wasn't to say that Aiden couldn't handle pressure, it was just the simple fact that we needed to be strong ourselves to survive.
The other girl was actually my twin, both of us having grown up together on the streets of the Districts since before we could remember. We'd slept in cardboard boxes together, in trash cans, and under buildings, to escape the evil men that came out at night to try and kidnap us. Her name was Lilith, and she tended have a bit of a short fuse and a bad mouth that got us into trouble. We both wore the same tattered shirts, mine white while her's was black, and the same black skin-tight pants. We both made ourselves crude, yet worn jackets with the limited cloth and material that we had on hand. Seeing as the majority of those materials were all black or very dark in shade, so too was the end result. We had the same face, same body type, and same tastes, so it used to be difficult to tell us apart. So I made sure to wear a white pair of stolen hair pins so that I was discernible from my sister. We'd lived eleven years on this sad excuse for a planet. We had the same lazily curled black hair and blue eyes, something that made it even harder to tell the two of us apart.
The Districts were cruel to us in our earliest years, forcing us to grow up way too fast for it to be healthy. Not very many kids should have to go through the horror of a near-death situation over and over again, only to sleep in filth every night afterwards as they starve the entire time. Aiden made sure that the group knew how to fight, how to hide, and how to make good choices. He assured us that we were way better off then the others in the Districts, because we had each other.
Now, we were sitting around in our hideout, while Aiden went around to get supplies for us. We were currently in hiding due to a mishap with some wiring that Gray and Mason had been caught tampering with.
"What're we gonna do next, man?" Mason said to no one in particular, groaning as he stared up at the roof of our hideout, "I'm bored..."
"Oh, stop complaining, idiot," Lilith snapped, shaking her head as she leaning against the same wall as me, "I can't stand it when you talk like there's nothing to do."
"But there isn't!" Mason said, exasperated, "Aiden says one word and you two obey him like he's God! Who cares what he says if it means being cooped up in this dump for weeks?"
"The Soldiers are looking for you, and they're looking for Gray," I said, not opening my eyes as I leaned against the wall of the hideout that was opposite the entrance, "Lilith and I don't wanna get caught up in your mess, so we're waiting it out with you. You should be thanking us."
"Can it, Blair," Gray said from the holey and torn mattress next to where Mason lay, messing with a protruding spring as he looked at me, "You're as bored as we are."
"I don't know what you're talking about, Gray," I shrugged, keeping my blue eyes shuttered from the limited afternoon light that was shining through the window of our shack.
I heard Gray sit up, the old springs of the mattress groaning, "Do you really want to start something with me?"
I snickered, shaking my head as I finally opened my eyes to look at my friend. He was, as he had been sleeping a few minutes before, shirtless and pumping out his childish chest to boast his scar. I scoffed and looked around the room.
The floor was littered with trash and scraps. The walls were made of a mix of recycled materials, like sheet metal and wooden planks, with the windows being composed of the absence of part of the wall. The floor was concrete, since the hideout was located in a ruined and bombed out building that remained after the Radiation War. Where we were was also home to countless other poor people, of whom about a fourth were kids. Just a mere small slot in the vast areas of the Districts. Home to us and the Numbers.
There was a table that we had, adorned with mugs that each had one of our names on them, which was one of the first projects that we completed as a group. The legs of the piece of furniture made of four different materials that we cut to the same height, all nailed and stapled to a large section of ply-wood that was stained with oil along with the food and drinks that we had spilled onto it. It was a symbol of our bond, since it was the place that we all gathered around as friends when it was meal time. We all sat in the same personalized chair and in the same spot. We were as close as we could get to family, aside from my twin sister and I.
Other than that table, the only other furniture was the pair of hammocks that Lilith and I slept in, the worn out mattresses that Gray and Mason used, and the nicest mattress where Aiden was forced to sleep. All of those things added to the atmosphere of poverty that the Districts showed. The stains that were splattered onto the material, the signs of age, the patches that where crudely sewn onto our things to keep them from falling apart reeking of the absence of real supplies. The stitches that we used on our clothes made them look like they were scarred as they crisscrossed the material were another addition. The smell of urine and garbage had assaulted our noses so much in our childhood that we had gotten used to it, the stench of oil and gunpowder bringing a headache with every breath that was just a little too deep.
I shook my head at the unsightly place we called home, finding it funny that we all considered it home to begin with.
"Whatever you mean by 'start something'," A familiar voice said through the cloth curtain that acted as our door, "I doubt that Blair would be the one to do it, idiot."
"Aiden!" Lilith exclaimed, her personality switching from volatile to loving in an instant as she ran for the blond haired teenager.
I smiled and ran for him too, the overwhelming sense of happiness filling me with the sight of my sister and I's first true friend since we were left to fend for ourselves, "Welcome home!"
He smiled as we both hugged him from either side, "It's good to be back, ladies."
"Yo," Gray said, interrupting the scene, "Did you bring the stuff I needed?"
Aiden nodded, "Yes, of course."
I shook my head, disengaging from Aiden's side as I snatched the plastic bag he produced in his hand, "You have to ask nicely for it, though."
Gray grumbled, "Says who?"
"Me, idiot," I rolled my eyes and smirked.
Aiden chuckled lightheartedly, "Calm down, you two, there's plenty more where that came from."
We watched him move towards the table, sitting in the best chair that we could make, and relax. We idolized Aiden, trusted him completely. The two boys feared him, respecting him because of that. This was because Aiden was mentally screwed up, making him a strange form of bipolar with everything concerning me and my sister. It was almost like a split personality that only showed itself when it was needed to save our hides. Aiden, who never remembered anything pertaining to it, blamed the condition on some experiments that he was forced to go through when his parents sold him to a lab when he was two. We never talked about that, since it made Aiden mad.
"What the heck do you think you're doing, stupid?" Mason growled from where he lay on the torn up mattress on the floor.
The exception to the fear that we felt towards Aiden, as well as the respect that we felt for him, was Mason. The brown haired boy held a grudge against the older boy, something that went back to the first time that the two of them had met. Though neither Aiden nor Mason talked about it or hinted at it, everyone knew the biggest reason that Mason was still here was because he and Gray had gotten along so well.
"What do you mean, Mason?" Aiden said, giving him a discrete glare that I barely caught.
"I mean," Mason stood, giving Aiden his own, very obvious glare, "That you need to stop going on useless runs to get toys. We need important things like food and supplies!"
Aiden had a wry smile that he got when someone backed themselves in a corner, "Then why don't you go with me to get the next toy?"
Mason blinked, then got as close to sneering as he possible could, "What?! Why the heck would I do that?"
"If stealing a toy is so easy," Aiden said, the smile still present, "Then show me that it is. If you can do that, then we'll start getting these 'more important' things. Sound good?"
We all looked over to Mason, who's fist was clenching so hard the knuckles had turned white. The temper that Mason wrestled with everyday made him impulsive, rash, and irrational at times. He had a strong mind, a good heart, and a fierce loyalty to our group despite his spite towards Aiden. Because of these two things, all of us didn't know what to expect anytime Aiden made a request of Mason. The two of them were a volatile pair, both pretty strong fighters for their age, but what stopped them from being a good team was whatever had happened when they first met.
"...Fine," Mason said, his fist releasing, "Fine. I'll do it."
The air of the Districts was stale and as harsh as the sun. I tried to see far enough ahead of me so I knew where I was, but there was too many people for me to find a landmark. I was only eleven, after all, so being vertically challenged tended to go with the territory. Lilith was close behind me as we brought up the rear, both of our eyes scanning the area for threats. The soldiers that patrolled the area were the type to overlook something like an unsupervised group of children.
As Aiden lead Gray and Mason along ahead of us, our job was to make sure that no one snuck up on them so that the three of them could focus on the areas in front of them. The hard packed dirt of the streets was kicked and tossed around with every step of the hundreds of thousands of people that milled about the market we strolled through. We had to be vigilant, and make sure that all five of us returned home safe and sound. The area of the Districts we were currently walking through was on the outskirts of Cyanide, the nickname of the city that we lived in since it stole your life away with every single breath. One thing that was always hanging over the heads of the Numbers was the eyes of the soldiers that corralled them like cattle.
We were heading towards the Marketplace for the bet. Mason was gripping the plastic bag he was to use tightly, the weight of the items in it making the plastic taunt enough to bite into his hand. Aiden held a similar bag, and so did Gray. Their uniformity was the way that Mason planned to go about the robbery, his strategy was to confuse the people that would chase them with multiple targets.
For kids that belonged in elementary school, we had pretty high intelligence. Because of this fact, we were very good at what we did. People had a very high likelihood of underestimating us due to our appearance, child-like interests, and age. Aiden had recognized this, back when he was our age, and made good use of it before he gained notoriety from his actions.
"We almost there, Sis?" Lilith said, looking suspiciously around while making it seem that she was just sight-seeing.
I looked around again, spotting a certain blue stripped awning that I'd remembered as a landmark, then nodded, "Yeah, we're in District 6, I think. Shouldn't be much further."
"I really hate it when Mason tries to beat Aiden..." My sister suddenly muttered under her breath.
I nodded, instinctively grabbing onto her arm as a old man shoved past me rudely, "Yeah, me too. It always ends bad."
"I mean," Lilith said, sighing as she patted my hand while glaring at the man, "That toy was for Gray's birthday, for cryin' out loud."
"Mason didn't know that, though," I said absentmindedly.
"Who gives two craps?" Lilith countered, "I'll frickin' punch you in the nose if you keep defending the idiot, Blair."
I blinked, a wry grin touching the corner of my mouth, "Like you could ever do something like that to your little sister."
Lilith rolled her eyes, "Being five minutes younger doesn't save your hide if you side with an idiot like Mason."
I faked a flinch, "Harsh."
"Life's harsh," Lilith snapped back.
"So's your singing..." I barely mumbled.
"Hey!" Lilith scowled and punched my shoulder, but not enough to actually hurt for more then a few seconds.
Had we been in the hideout, we probably would have started to spar for ten minutes unless Aiden told us to stop. As the fact stood, we were in the middle of one of the more dangerous areas of the Districts, which wasn't the best option. There were times when we would fight in the open and in front of everyone else, but that was to cause a distraction for others to use. When people saw two of the five of us fight, they generally circled around and started to place bets on who would win. Since we knew that, we sometimes would fight and cast a large amount on the one we chose would win and we'd get a large stack of Marks for our efforts and bruises.
That, however, was besides the point. As we approached the location of the toy shop Mason was supposed to steal from, Aiden gave the command. He put a hand behind his back, scratched it twice and held up two fingers in a peace-sign.
Lilith and I instantly broke off from trailing the three boys, weaving expertly through the bodies and into the alleys in between the buildings that remained to be used by the people of the Districts.
Peeling paint and exposed reinforcement bars in the concrete met our eyes as we crawled into the shadows of the ruined buildings. There was mold and undergrowth rising out of the cracks in the concrete, since there was no money or people here to maintain the old structures. We moved through the ruins, silently so that the people living nearby didn't hear our footsteps. Glass shards and chunks of concrete that corresponded with the multitude of bullet holes were strewn about the floor, presenting a challenge to our silence.
Moving carefully around the rubble, we reached an opening in the structure of the building. From there we slipped under the sill of the window-like opening, making sure that no one would see us. Once past the sill, with scrapped knees we moved for the stairwells that lead to the higher levels of the ruined structure. Less people were likely to live in the higher stories of the heavily neglected structures of the Districts, since they could possibly be killed if it were to collapse. Yet, because of that fact, we were able to both find a high vantage point and a place that people wouldn't look for us.
"Alright," Lilith said, taking a deep breath after the fifth flight of cracked stairs, "We can see everything pretty good from here, and they can't see us."
"Right." I nodded once, pulling out a pair of bird-watcher binoculars.
We weren't facing the harsh sun, so the was no need to worry about being detected from the glint off the lenses. The overgrowth of vines also aided to mask our presence. Now, all we could do was watch and wait. Our job was to watch the crowd and look for long distance threats like large groups of soldiers. The crowds moved like the tides we'd read about in stolen books, in and out with the time as some left their shifts in the mines and factories while others moved towards the facilities for their shifts. They all had the same dead expression in their eyes, defeat was there as well.
Mason weaved through the crowds fluently, Aiden and Gray moving ten feet behind him. The looked forwards, clutching the bag in his hands as he neared the target shop. We collectively held our breath as the worst pickpocket out of all of us slipped into the shop with a nervous look in his eyes.
A heartbeat passed, then another. I peered through the binoculars as Lilith scanned the area. A minute passed with no apparent change in the situation or Mason's position. Lilith and I looked at each other as the time passed, non-verbally communicating our thoughts. We were both thinking about what could possibly be holding Mason for such a long time. It was stealing from a toy store, which shouldn't take more then a minute or two tops. Could the store-keeper have caught him and was scolding him now? Or was he getting the soldiers called on him?
A quick scan disproved the latter, since the troop movements had no change from the normal schedule. It was always the same patrol of self-serving, pig-headed, and corrupt men that wielded the standard automatic rifles that the Government issued them along with four mags of ammo. Two grenades, a combat knife, and a pistol completed the standard armament of the soldiers that were given charge of us.
I shook my head before my train of thought could go down the slippery slope of hatred towards the horrible men that made up the Army. All I wanted to think about was the mission we were on and what we were going to have to do.
We were starting to get worried, to say the least. Aiden and Gray, whom had been sitting on a dry-rotting bench in the shade, started to get up once five minutes had gone by. But the sight of Mason leaving the toy shop with a bag more filled then when he went in stopped them. He moved on past the door, turning away from us and heading West. Aiden and Gray seemed to relax, and Lilith let out a breath that she had been holding without realizing it. The sense of relief that the three of them exhibited was almost enough to get us caught.
But what they couldn't see, and what I could, was a scary look in the boy's eyes. Not scary in the sense that it caused fear, but more in the sense that it showed that he was in fear. A dead expression, a hollow look in his eyes that told me that he had seen or heard something that had terrified him to the point of shock. I turned and pat Lilith silently twice on her shoulder, our sign to move out when we were close together. I stashed away the binoculars into my pack and turned towards the exit. Lilith followed and we began the long trek down from our high place in the forgotten floors of the ruined building.
The stealth that we had carefully applied towards reaching our spot was forgotten as we ran down the steps. The people that lived in the lower levels of the structure didn't even bat an eye towards two little girls running through the area, some of them too engrossed in a bottle of black market whiskey to care. Weaving through the tents and the camps that made up these people's home, Lilith and I made it back into the main street by sneaking from the building to the alley and out through there.
The sun was beginning to rise high enough, and that brought with it a sense of dread. At noon, the soldiers did a sweep of the area. If they found kids that didn't have any family, then they'd either send them to orphanages, or to reeducation camps if they were defiant. But there was a third option that we all had nightmares of getting. The Labs. The place where scientists experimented on orphaned children with a multitude of drugs and technology. Aiden went through that, since they had to try so hard to catch him, and look where he turned out. He basically had a split personality that made him a very scary person if anyone tried to harm Lilith and I.
We weaved through the crowds as we caught up to a slow moving pair of boys. They were tailing Mason carefully as we joined them while I held Lilith's hand. The messed up clothes that we wore, the less cared for articles having tattered edges and holes in them, allowed us to blend in perfectly with the tides of Numbers. "See anything, Blair?" Aiden said out of the corner of his mouth.
"Nope," I barely shook my head, "Nothing."
"The patrol's coming this way, though," Lilith added, "Right on schedule."
"Mason's footsteps seem off," Aiden said after a few seconds, "Did something happen?"
I gave him an innocent look, and shook my head, "I don't think so..."
Aiden gave me a look that was the equivalent to a shake of the head. My answer was akin to a shrug as we saw Mason round a corner. We followed after him quietly, sneaking out of sight into an alleyway between a large warehouse and a house with exposed brick. The shadows that were cast between the two structures shielded our small frames from detection. We stopped in front of Mason as he leaned against the wall of the warehouse.
The dead look in his eyes had not changed, and the growing sense of unease blossomed into anxiety was the four of us stared at our friend. Aiden approached him, though with a confused expression on his face. When Mason didn't respond to his hand waving in front of his face, Aiden clapped him hard on the shoulder.
Jolting, Mason looked up to Aiden with a dead expression.
"What's you're deal, comrade?" Aiden said, using the District's familiar name for Numbers.
"Th...Ther...." Mason mumbled, stuttering, "There's a n-new law..."
"What?" Lilith's gaze was fixed on the seemingly broken Mason.
"What's in it?" Gray asked.
"They're l-lowering the age for the labor c-camps," Mason managed, his expression unchanging.
"To what?"I asked.
His eyes moved to me, "Ten...Its ten years old now..."
Silence, the utter void that became our hearts on hearing those words. Aiden looked to each one of our faces. No doubt, they held the same dead expression that Mason was wearing. The labor camps were the place that people went when they didn't have an I.D. But you could only get an I.D. with parents and money. The age they forced people to have I.D.s was eighteen, while they simply just gave younger kids a slap on the wrist for not having one. But now that the age had been lowered, we couldn't be caught by the guards ever again. Because we couldn't ever be sent to the Labor Camps. And there was one fact that we found to be true...No one returned alive from the Labor Camps.