It wasn’t fair.
Why was he so sick, and she so healthy?
The question would plague her for the rest of her life.
Riley came only an hour later, and instead of anger when Gwen looked at him, she felt sadness. She’s not sorry, though. She’ll never be sorry over that.
“Why is he getting so sick so quickly?” She asked, her voice hushed. Ryan was asleep in the next room, and she decided the best thing for him at the moment was to sleep.
Riley gives her a sad smile - they seem to be more common than happy smiles lately - and shakes his head. “The disease affects some people worse than others. It could take a day for it to infect you fully, or it could take years.”
“But I should be like him. I should be sicker than him; I was infected before he was.”
“It doesn’t work that way, Gwen. I’m sorry. I know he means a lot to you, but you’re going to need to accept the fact that soon he will be gone. There’s nothing we can do about that.”
She shook her head, and asked the next question that had been sticking in her mind for the last few days. “Why are you lot not getting infected? I’ve been waiting for it to happen, to you, to Austin. I see Austin every day, I shake his hand every morning, and I wait for it, I keep on waiting for it to happen, but he’s still healthy, and so are you.”
And Riley froze, voice becoming tight. “I can’t tell you that.”
“It has to do with that building, doesn’t it? The one that’s all locked up?”
“Stay out of it, Gwen, before you get hurt.”
“I’m already hurt.” She told him truthfully.
Riley doesn’t say anything to that. He just leaves.
Ryan wakes up, and his eyes are glazed, dark. His skin is pale and feverishly warm when she touches him. “I’m sorry.” She whispered to him. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have let you come with me. I’m sorry.”
He shakes his head. “Don’t be.”
“No.” He says, firmly. He sits up, and his hands are trembling but his voice is still strong, stronger than she’ll ever be. “I made my choice. Don’t be sorry.”
“I’m sorry.” She says, and he gives her a smile, and it’s not sad but not happy, just empty, and Gwen decides that’s worse than the sad smiles.
“It’s okay.” Ryan tells her, reaches up and wipes away her tears. “Just promise me, when I get down to my last days, you won’t sit here and mope, and don’t you dare let me turn.”
The tears keep falling. “I can’t promise that.” Her voice is nothing more than a whisper.
“Promise me.” And his voice is strong, and for a moment she can see the man she set out for the city with. Alive, healthy and oblivious of the colour, and it’s enough to make her sob into his shoulder when that memory passes, leaving a sick man lying in bed.
“Tell me what’s in the building.” Gwen says, and her voice is hoarse. “There’s something there. Something that can cure everyone.” Cure Ryan, goes unsaid but they both hear it anyway.
“I can’t tell you that, Gwen. It’s one of those things where you’ll be executed if you knew.” Riley sounds sad, regretful. “I’m sorry, but we can’t save Ryan.”
She closes her eyes. “I hate this. He’s so depressed all the time.”
“That’s just a side-effect of knowing you’re going to die, Sweetheart.” Riley says, and he opens his arms for her and despite her hate for him, she collapses into them.
She doesn’t cry, and she considers that an achievement.
“He means something to you, I know that.” Riley murmurs into her hair. “But no amount of begging, of first aid or investigating is going to save him. Don’t you think if we had a cure, we would’ve released it by now?”
She sighs, pushes away from him. “I know. I know. I just-”
“I know.” Riley says. “I know.”
“Do you, really?”
And it’s Riley’s turn to sigh, because his eyes look pained when he speaks. “Yeah.”
And she knows what he went through; because she’s going through the same thing know. “Just tell me something.” Gwen said. “Did you love them?”
“More than you’d ever know.”
And Gwen smiles sadly.
“Do you love him?” Riley asks, and she does but she doesn’t know how she loves him, if he’s a friend or a lover, or perhaps even a brother.
“Yes.” She says eventually.
Ryan is deteriorating slowly, and day by day she can see him cracking, eroding and fading away, and even if he pretends he doesn’t see it, she knows he can feel it.
“There’s something in that building.” Gwen whispers to him. “I want to know what. I’m going to find out what.”
Ryan pushes himself and shakes his head. “Don’t, Gwen. I don’t want you to be punished. They could banish you. They could kill you.”
“Doesn’t matter.” She tells him. “If there’s a cure, I’ll find it, and I’ll give it to you as soon as I possibly can.”
“And what if it’s too late for me?”
“It won’t be.”
“Gwen-” He says, reaching out for her arm, wrapping his fingers around her arm. There’s still strength in him, she knows, but it’s nothing like before. It’s a fragile strength, like the strength of a young child, and she hates it. She hates it, she hates it, she hates it.
And he gives her that hollow smile; let’s go of her arm and curls up on his side.
She hates it.
Ryan grows weaker.
Gwen feels herself break a little inside.
It’s the morning when Ryan’s breath turns raspy and sharp that she makes up her mind.
“I have to find out what’s in that building.” She whispers to Ryan, but Riley’s in the room, standing by the door and gives her a look. “Gwen-”
“Save it, Riley.”
And he shuts up.
She has to know what’s in there, if there’s a cure. Because if there’s a cure, she can save Ryan, and Ryan would become strong again. They could leave the city, and go find their camp. They could go find Zeke and James and Chris, and everything would be okay again. There’d be no more sad smiles, only the ones of happiness. The disease would no longer be a threat to them, and they’d die, old and happy.
But it’s just a fantasy that Gwen knows will never happen, even if Ryan is cured.
When Ryan falls asleep, she turns to Riley. “You won’t stop me.” She tells him.
“I know.” He sounds regretful. “I’ve grown quite fond of the two of you, and I really wish that you’d listen to me, but I’ll try my best to keep you safe, but there’s only so much I can do. If they catch you in there…”
“Thank you.” She says. She doesn’t know when he had a change of heart, but she doesn’t worry over it, only appreciates it.
“Even I don’t know what’s in there.” Riley admits. “I’ll try my best to put Isiah or Ariana on guard there, and I’ll tell them what’s happening. They won’t like it.” He warns. “But they’ll help.”
“Thank you, Riley, it means a lot to me.”
“Don’t thank me yet.”
“Go tonight.” Riley tells her. “Don’t wear the wristband, or anything to identify yourself. Isiah and another guard are on watch for the building tonight.”
“Why are you helping me all of a sudden?” She asks. “Only a few days ago you didn’t want me going near there.”
“You need to learn for yourself. If there’s anything that can help Ryan, it’ll be in there, but I know that you’ll never forgive me, and you’ll never leave me alone if I don’t help you out. And Gwen?”
“If you find a cure, you help him, and then you get out of here.”
She doesn’t ask why.
She sneaks out quietly that night, when everyone is in their apartments. Riley stays with Ryan that night, keeps him company. Riley doesn’t tell the sick man about the plan, but Ryan knows anyway. He’s too smart for his own good sometimes. He refuses to sleep, and calls out after her when she leaves the apartment.
It’s hard to leave him behind even if she knows that she’s coming back.
She turns a deaf ear to his cries, and makes her way into the City Square. It’s not hard for her to find the building; the two guards standing outside are a dead giveaway.
One of the guards is Isiah, and the other one is a man that Gwen hasn’t seen or heard of before. They’re both laughing, while the man smokes. They both look completely at ease, like it was just another night. She stops for a moment and braces herself, because she has to be ready to go in there, to help Ryan, to save Ryan. He’s all that matters at the moment.
She breathes, and walks over to the pair, trying to put as much spring into her step as she could, holding her shoulders up high. She knew that it was supposed to make her look more confident, but she felt as though she might look a bit like a duck walking on stilts.
“Hey, Gwen.” Isiah nods at her, winks. “You lost?”
It’s an act, she knows. Riley told her that there would be, in case there were any people in earshot, but it doesn’t stop the slight panic she feels at the idea of Isiah being completely unaware of the plan, and that Riley had set her up.
“No, I just wanted to talk. It’s kind of a boring night, and there isn’t much to do around here.” She says, forcing any panic away from her voice, trying to sound casual, though she had a feeling she ended her sentence a pitch louder than she had started it. “Who’s your friend?” She nods to the other man, who was built similarly to Isiah, but a little more muscular. His hair was bright and unnatural, like the colour of the embers from a fire.
“Kel.” The man says before Isiah can, dropping his cigarette and snuffing it out with the toe of his boot. He holds out his hand, a friendly smile on his face, and his grip is firm when they shake hands.
“What did you want to ask?” Isiah asked, and god-damn he was a good actor, sounding so casual like they were having a normal question, not like they were about to break into a building that they were banned from, that they could get executed for their actions tonight.
She laughs nervously, because she didn’t plan this bit, but Isiah had her covered. “Oh! About the other day, right?”
“Yeah!” She says, no small amount of relief in her voice.
“Yeah, no worries. Kel?”
Kel nods, and walks away. Isiah leans in towards her, murmuring into her ear. “He’s checking the perimeter. If there’s no one nearby, he’ll take you in while I stand guard.”
“Why can’t you go in with me?” It’s not that she didn’t like Kel, but she was already on edge, and the idea of a complete stranger watching her back didn’t help matters all that much.
“He’s not supposed to be here tonight. He can’t get away with standing out here and being on duty, and, he’s not in uniform. It’ll raise a lot of questions we don’t want asked.”
“Alright.” They stand around, making small talk. If someone were to pass by them, they’d just think of them as nothing more than old friends. It’s a few minutes later when Kel strides back towards them when Isiah rolls his eyes, breaking out of their small talk. Obviously, he hated it as much as Gwen did.
“There were a few stragglers.” He says, “I sent some back to their rooms and others to do jobs. We’ve probably got maybe half an hour before anyone comes back around. That long enough for you?” He asks.
She nodded, and Kel smiled at her, a genuine smile that isn’t sad, and it’s such a rare sight these days and she loves it.
Isiah turned to her, his voice serious. “I have to stress that you can’t tamper with anything. This is everything we’ve been working for and we shouldn’t even be allowing you to see it, and if you find whatever you’re looking for, you take it, and you run. Don’t stay in the city.”
“Okay.” She said, nodding.
Isiah sighed before nodding to Kel, who stepped forward and pulled out a set of keys. He set to work, quickly unlocking the door. He glanced to Gwen before twisting the knob and swinging it open. He passed the keys back to Isiah. “Lock it back up after we go inside. They’ll be furious if they see that the locks have been played with.”
He gestured for Gwen to go inside, and stepped in after her.
It hadn’t been anything Gwen was expecting. She was expecting lab desks with test-tubes and chemicals and maybe paperwork strewn about. It wasn’t quite like that.
The first thing she noticed was that were cages, like jail cells but much smaller like the ones seen in vets. She stepped forward, feeling anticipation, wrapping a hand around a bar. She had almost expected for something to jump out at her, and was infinitely relieved when nothing did.
“What are these even for?” She murmured, looking towards Kel.
“You don’t want to know.” Kel told her. “Just- hurry. I don’t want to be in here long.”
She nodded, and walked further into the room. There were lab desks and chemicals like she had expected, as well as racks and racks of vials.
“I don’t even know what to look for.” She admitted. “They don’t have labels on them.”
“It should be a clear liquid with a thick consistency, I think.”
“How do you know?”
Kel gave her a sidewards glance with a smirk. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“I would.” She said, but continued looking at the test-tubes, knowing that the people in The City were very good at talking in circles if there was something to hide.
A while later and there had been a few false calls, where they had found a clear liquid, but it had a much too thin consistency, and Gwen was quickly finding herself getting frustrated.
“Gwen, we need to hurry.” Kel told her. “I’m not comfortable with spending this much time in here. Someone could need access in here at any moment.”
“I know, I know. I’m trying.” She walked further down, stopping at another desk, rifling through the racks. She sorted through the colours, shaking any that might look like they are of interest. Finally, she picked one up, and shook it. It was like syrup.
“Kel!” She called, and the man strode over to her side.
“That’s it.” He said. “There are going to be more. Grab some more if you find them, we’ll get out of here in a few minutes.”
Together, they searched through the vials and found several more serums. Just as they were ready to leave, Kel suddenly froze, and put a finger to his lips.
She stopped breathing once she heard the voice of Isiah arguing with another person. “I’m sorry, sir, but I didn’t see your name on the roster to come inside tonight.”
“But I got it authorised by Catherine!” The man was angry, and he obviously didn’t want to leave anytime soon.
“We’re so fucked.” Kel breathed, echoing her thoughts.
“What do we do?” Gwen whispered.
Kel shook his head. “We hope that Isiah can stop him from coming in. If he comes in, then we hope that we can jump him and knock him out before he sees us.”
“Sir, I don’t care who it was authorised by, you weren’t on the roster, nor do you have a signed note. I can’t allow you access.”
“I watched her write my name on the roster!” The man snapped.
“Could it have been for tomorrow? I can check the roster on my phone now, but I’m positive your name isn’t on there for tonight. There isn’t anyone scheduled until three am.”
“Check!” The man demanded. There were a few moments of silence before Isiah spoke again. “Sir, your name is on the roster for the next two nights, but not tonight.”
“That’s ridiculous. I watched her put my name on the roster for tonight. I have to watch the test-subjects tonight!”
’Test-subjects?” Gwen mouthed to Kel, who shook his head.
“I’m sorry sir, but unless you can produce some authorisation for me, I can’t allow you in. Catherine will probably still be in her office, if you wish to go up there to get a note.”
The man grumbled for a good few moments, but soon they heard his footsteps leave. They heard Isiah give a soft sigh of relief before there was a slight banging on the door. “Come on,” Isiah said. “I’m unlocking the door now, be ready to run.”
There was the sound of the lock clicking open and the chains giving way. Isiah swung the door open. “Go,” he said, “hurry.”
They quickly exited the room and Isiah looked frustrated when he next spoke. “You’re both going to have to leave the city.” His voice was low, and he was obviously angry at the fact that his friend would have to leave. “Give the cure to Ryan and get out. All three of you. Ariana is on the outer walls tonight, she’ll help you get out.”
“Why does Kel have to leave too?”
“My fingerprints are all over the lab, just like yours are. If I don’t leave, they’ll execute me. We have to leave.”
Kel turned on his head, getting ready to leave before Isiah grabbed his arm. “Stay safe, my brother. I’ll see you on the outside.” He murmured, and Kel nodded, echoing the words.
“Come on.” Kel said to her. “We need to be quick. As soon as someone gets in there, the alarm will be raised.” They moved at a pace that was not quite a jog, and quickly got to the apartment, neither of them taking the time to slow down enough to keep their footsteps quiet on the stairs.
“Good. You’re here.” Riley said, striding out of the bedroom and grabbing a vial from her hands. “These are the correct cure, right?” He asked Kel.
“We need to be quick. Ryan needs it now.” He hurried back into the room, popping the cork off of the vial. They followed after him, arriving in the room to in time see Riley tipping the contents of the vial into Ryan’s mouth.
Ryan was pale, thin. He looked like a terminally ill person, and her heart jumped into her throat at the thought. She watched as Riley rubbed at the sick man’s throat to make him swallow, like he was a pet that fought against taking medication.
“Will he make it?” She asked, hating how small her voice had become.
Riley glanced at her. “It’s a fifty fifty chance at the moment. We need to get out of here.” It sounded like Riley was now also coming with them out of The City, and she wanted to demand that he stay because he was important here, but she struggled to find the words. She watched as he picked up Ryan’s arm, and Kel slipped from behind her to grab the other one. Together, they pulled him into a sitting position, and with great difficult, manoeuvre him into a standing position without dropping him. After a few moments, they managed, and Riley nodded towards Gwen.
“Let’s go.” He said. “Lead the way, Gwen. Through The Square and out through the entrance that you and Ryan sought refuge at.”
She nodded, and quickly led them out of the apartment, and felt useless as she stood to the side, watching the two men struggle to carry the third down the stairs without dropping him. She felt relieved that they made it down safely, thinking that it would just be her luck to get Ryan the cure and then have him die from being dropped down the stairs.
They quickly made their way to The Square, passing by Isiah who was looking rather annoyed. Obviously, the man had come back to bother him again. She nodded to him, giving him a grateful smiling as they passed, and he winked at her.
“Gate is to the left.” Kel called out quietly, and she internally thanked him, knowing that she would’ve gotten lost otherwise, and quite possibly gotten them somewhere that they really did not want to be. The gate came into view, and she led them out of it. Ariana and another woman were standing guard, and like Kel and Isiah before, they were in the middle of an easy conversation.
She almost thought that the two of them didn’t notice them trying to leave until Ariana grabbed her arm, stopping her in her tracks. “Follow the road left for a few kilometres and don’t leave the path. There’s a cabin you can stay in for a while.”
She watched as the three men passed through the gate, stopping at Ariana.
“Ariana, Isabelle, thank you for your assistance.” Riley said, offering them a strained smile.
“You’re welcome.” Both the women said, and Ariana continued. “Kel, don’t get lost trying to find the cabin this time. We’ll meet up with Isiah at shift change, and we’ll follow you lot down later.”
“You’re coming with us?” Gwen asked, shocked.
Ariana nodded. “We’re a part of this as much as you are. If they find out, we’re done for, that, and we can’t exactly let someone we consider our brother go out into the big, scary world without us, could we?”
“Good. We’ll see you then.” Kel said.
“Stay safe, my brother.” Ariana said to him, and he smiled at her.
“Stay safe, my sister.” He echoed.
And they left The City behind them.