From the sound of the click, it must have been a magnetic latch. All I would need to do was push and it would pop back open. Without putting too much pressure on the door, I ran my hands over it. There was a small loop of rope where a knob or latch would be. I held on to it as I pushed against the door. It popped open, but only a sliver as I was holding onto the makeshift handle. I peer through the sliver, trying to watch what was going on.
I couldn’t see or hear much. They had stopped using a speaker to be heard over everyone. Just one of the officers was walking in front of everyone, talking to them. But I couldn’t make it out. Officers started moving through those kneeling on the ground, looking at faces, comparing them to whatever list they had in their hands. A couple of times, they selected someone, and they were dragged off while their friends and family shouted, trying to get up to stop them. Those people were shoved back down, and a gun muzzle shoved in their faces, threatening them if they moved.
Sweat beaded on my face, I could feel it slide down between my shoulder blades. My breath was echoing in the small space while my heart galloped in my ears. It smelled like horse and dirt in the closet. Several of the horses were not pleased with the commotion outside, stomping and snorting in their stalls. I felt much like them at that moment. They couldn’t do anything other than wait until they left. I couldn’t do anything other than wait until they left. The biggest difference was that they were trapped where they were. I was hiding like a coward.
It didn’t take them long to find who they were looking for. The whole ordeal was over in a matter of minutes. I could hear car doors slamming, trucks speeding off. People started murmuring loudly, anger evident in their voices. Still watching through the crack in the door, I watched as people were starting to get up off the ground, confusion and turmoil rising in the air. I pushed through the door, using the light from the doorway to guide myself out of the barn.
Kagan was off to the side of the chaos with his parents, who were holding each other, sobbing. He looked up just as I was coming out of the door. His eyes flared in warning just as a hand clamped down on my arm, jerking me around. I crashed into someone for the second time that night. But this time was much more jarring, my teeth clacking at the impact. I heard swearing as I looked up into familiar brown eyes that I didn’t think I’d ever see again.
“Anderson?” I asked in shock.
“You!” he whispered harshly at me. “You’re supposed to be dead.”
“What is that supposed to mean? Did you send people after me?” I jerked my arm from his grip.
“No”, he gripped my elbow again and urged me back into the barn as he scanned our surroundings to make sure no one else was watching. “I saw the report about Jasper’s body. Said it looked like another body was dragged from the vehicle. Your DNA was discovered at the scene, but nothing of you was ever recovered. They had you announced officially dead.”
The news of my death hit me harder than I thought it would. I had spent the last few years living in fear for no reason. I had hidden from any officer that came through, waking in cold sweats because I had dreamed they were there and dragging me from bed again. I had felt the breath of my mother down my neck for years for nothing. As soon as she lost any and all control of me, she had stopped caring about my existence enough that she had me pronounced dead. The fact that she didn’t care made what she did that much more awful and painful. Elia literally died to protect my mother’s ego.
“What about Laura and Anthony?” Despite the anger that had ignited in me, I needed to know about the others that had helped me.
“Both alive. But your disappearance brought down hell on all the gateways. At first, they tore the city apart looking for you. Hell hath no fury like a Vaylen denied her genetic legacy.”
“Yeah, that’s my mother alright.” I crossed my arms. “Why are you here?”
“We were supposed to round up some very specific people,” he waved off the next question before it even hit my lips. “I don’t know why. I can tell you it’s not for the reason they’ve been telling everyone.”
“What are you doing?” Kagan’s voice startled me as it vibrated through me. I snapped my head to him. He heavy footsteps echoed through the barn as he stomped towards us. What little I could see of his face was twisted with rage.
“Kagan, stop!” He had started to reach for Anderson with the intention of attacking him. I stepped between the two of them, shoving against his chest. I might as well have batted at a tornado. But saying his name brought his eyes to mine. “Stop. Anderson is a friend. He helped me get out of the Pure States.”
“They took Kalea. And a handful of others.” His eyes flipped back up to Anderson, who took a step back.
“What? Why?” I stepped back into his line of sight, forcing him to look at me rather than Anderson.
“They said they had witnesses that saw them participating in an ambush of Puritan supply vehicles.” Again, he looked over me to the man who had once helped save my life.
“That doesn’t make any sense. That isn’t Kalea.” This time I turned to Anderson myself. Letting the question hang in the air.
“I just told you I don’t know the real reason. But this isn’t the first time this has happened. They’ve been raiding small towns all up and down the Borderlands, taking mostly women. Besides the fact that there have been no reports of convoys of any kind being attacked, why would it be just women orchestrating them?”
“What do you mean there’s been no reports of attacks?” I asked. I was thinking of the day Jasper died. That had been their excuse then too. I never knew what had happened with the people at that particular farm as it wasn’t a part of the community I ended up being a part of. Kagan said that he’d been out there that day because his father had sold livestock to a different farmer in the area.
“I mean just that. Our people haven’t been openly attacked since the Borderlands was established to separate us and the Sullied. We have someone that works inside the CGP that gets us information when possible.” He shifted on his feet; his unease obvious. “I need to go, or they’ll come looking for me.”
“Wait,” I blocked his exit. “Where do they take them?”
“I don’t know. They go into the city, and disappear. There’s no trials. Nothing. And we were all forced to sign contracts, saying we won’t discuss any of what we do and see at any point with anyone.” He smiled wryly at that. “I always did like to break the rules.”
“Can you get me into the city?” Kagan asked. Grim determination set into his eyes, his lips a hard line.
“Maybe,” he scratched at his stubble while he looked Kagan up and down. “It’s possible. But you’re going to stand out like a sore thumb.”
“And me.” We all snapped around to see Nakoa standing in the doorway.
“The three of us then,” Kagan turned back to Anderson, not even questioning Nakoa’s presence.
“Three? I’m not going back.” My stomach twisted at the thought.
“I see you need to work this small bit out. Let me go send the rest of my team on so they don’t come looking for me.” He walked towards the door. Nakao looked about ready to tackle him. But just stepped aside. “I’ll be right back.”
“Elodie, you have to go.” He grabbed my hands. “How will we find her without someone who knows their way around?”
“I was sequestered most of my life. I saw very little of the city.”
“That’s still more than we know.” His eyes were dark in the shadows, but I could see how wide they were. The desperation in them. Nakoa shuffled his feet. He wanted to argue the point too, I could tell. But he kept quiet.
How could I tell him that my mother believed I was dead? That I was free after all. How do I explain that if I go back and someone recognizes me as the daughter of a member of the CGP, that that freedom would be gone? How could I tell him that by going, I was more of a liability than an asset? How could I say no? When the whole town ignored me, looked at me like some sort of anomaly, Kalea was the first person to be truly kind to me. I had been with Grandmother for several weeks by that point, mostly healed. But I was still under water with my grief over Elia. I barely spoke, ate only at Grandmother’s insistent urging. I just didn’t feel like living. That day we had gone into town to buy supplies. She had no real reason to reach out to me, other than her brother had pulled me from a wreck. But there I was, standing next to the door, feeling like a ghost, watching Grandmother as she moved through the store gathering things. And Kalea came over, hooked her elbow through mine, and pulled me to the small sitting area behind the counter. She sat me down among her brother and friends, handed me a cupcake, and continued on like she had known me forever. That small act of including me, without requiring me to really participate, saved me in some ways that I didn’t realize until much later. How could I say no now when she was the one that needed me?
“Fine,” I sighed, pulling my hands from his to rub my face. Fear was snaking its way around my gut. “But I cannot be seen. I know you don’t really understand the depth of what is at risk for me. But please believe me when I say it would end worse for anyone with me if I am recognized.”
“She’s not wrong,” Anderson came back in, boots crunching through the hay on the ground. “Alright, the rest of my unit left, leaving me a vehicle. If we’re going to go, we need to do it now. We need to catch up to the transport truck.”
We followed him out the door, around the back of the barn. A way back from the property, a SUV was parked. I could barely make it out with what little light there was from where the party had been celebrating not too long ago. Kagan jogged off to go tell their families where we were going. I didn’t envy him that task. Another officer was waiting next to the SUV that I hadn’t seen until we got closer and he stood up from where he was leaning against the car. Nakoa and I stopped at the same time, suddenly suspicious of the new person.
“He’s fine. If I’m driving you three alone, that’s going to raise questions. But as long as I have a partner, it won’t look as weird.” Anderson shook his head as he went around to get behind the wheel. Nakoa and I exchanged glances. He shrugged at me. What choice did we have?
Kagan came jogging back a moment later and we all climbed into the back of the car. I was in the middle, Kagan to my left, Nakoa to my right. The transport had a bit of a head start on us, so Anderson sped along the dirt road to make up time. We caught up with them about the time they reached where the dirt roads turned into asphalt. We fell into line and the back of the caravan that had assembled around the large transport truck.
“Why can’t we figure out how to get them back now, before we get to the city?” Nakoa asked. His hands were fisted in his lap so tightly his knuckles shown white.
“Because you’ll die. There’s no way that you would be able to stop all these trucks, disable all those men, and get your people away safely. You’ll have a much better chance following them to their holding facility, and sneaking them out. Besides that, we’ll gain helpful information through your infiltration. We’ve never had someone they believe belonged where you’re going. So, we’re going to use this opportunity to find out what is really going on.”
“You sound like a spy.” Kagan said, taken aback by what Anderson had said.
“You’re not wrong.” Was all he replied to him.
“Do you have a copy of the lists they were using to identify people?” I leaned forward.
Anderson’s silent partner handed me a bunch of papers stapled together, and a small flashlight. I leaned down to look at them so the light wouldn’t show as brightly through the windows. There were several pages with photos and medical statistics on them. Some people I knew, obviously from our town, some from surrounding areas. Most I had never seen before though. There were at least two dozen people in these pages though.
“This doesn’t make any sense,” I said, as I flipped through again, stopping on Kalea’s. “There’s genetic information here, blood type, physical descriptions, marital status. Most of this you shouldn’t even have since they aren’t citizens. But almost all of it is irrelevant in the search for a wanted criminal. Honestly, it makes me think of the pre-marital eligibility reports we sign before a union is officiated.”
“I thought so too.” Anderson said.
“Did Kalea go to a Puritan sponsored clinic recently?” I asked Nakoa.
“No, not a Puritan one. Just a regular one when we went to visit my mother’s family last month. They live in a bigger town.”
“I remember that. She had come back still sick.” Kagan answered.
I nodded at them. Either they had access to the information from that clinic, and others throughout the area, or worse, someone in the clinics was selling information. Either way, that was the likely source of the work up on the page I was reading. What possible reason could they need Borderlander’s genetic report? Or to arrest them? None of it made any sense.
We drove mostly in silence the rest of the way to the city and country border, while I mulled over the possibilities. It nagged at me. I felt like I should be able to puzzle it out, like it was staring me right in the face. But I came up empty. All the while, it just felt like it was tied to something truly horrible. But that was based more on fear than fact. Except the situation we were all in was already horrible enough. My lips were sore from my nervous chewing of them for the whole ride. Dawn couldn’t have been too far off by the time we reached the gateway. It was the same one that I had escaped out of three years ago. Seeing the city rise up behind the walls did nothing for the dread that was tightly wrapped around my heart.
“You have to look like overflow prisoners when they check us out. So put these on.” Anderson’s partner handed us cuffs made from thick zip ties, helping us tighten them around our wrists.
We fell into line at the end of the train of vehicles that had brought us here, stopping and going as cars were briefly inspected on their way in. The prisoner truck barely got a look over as it drove through the gateway. It was our turn next. I could barely breath past the panic in my throat. My heart was pounding so hard I couldn’t hear the explanation Anderson gave the guard at the gateway. He just looked in at us briefly before waving us on.
And just like that, I was right back to where I had started three years ago. It was the death of my love that had driven me out years ago. And it was the threat of losing someone else I cared about that had drawn me back. I was almost angry at myself for letting anyone else get close again, for allowing myself to be vulnerable to this type of disaster. But I remembered what it felt like to have no one in my life, to be alone, barely going through the motions. I would choose the fear and vulnerability every time over existing like a ghost. Ultimately, that was why I had agreed on this chase. I had lost so much, and Kalea saw me when I was still a ghost. I wasn’t going to let the Puritans take her too.