Nothing had changed since I had been gone. I don’t know why I had expected it to. I had expected it all to look so much more sinister than it did for what it had meant for me. There were still the gaunt, hungry faces peering out from between buildings in the Burgs. But there weren’t shadows lurking to drag me back to my mother, people weren’t being subjugated in the streets, blood didn’t stream down the buildings. It almost felt wrong that it didn’t look like how it felt for so many people. Instead, the sun was rising over the horizon, throwing streams of golden light like it didn’t know that there was something dirty lying under the surface. I never could figure out why I couldn’t accept my people’s ways. It just always felt so wrong to me.
“You okay?” Kagan nudged me with his shoulder.
I sighed deeply, turning to meet his green eyes. They were especially bright in the morning light. But I could also see how heavily everything weighed down on him.
“No, but yes.” I offered him a wry smile.
“Vague.” He chuckled. “Grandmother gave me a message for you before we left.”
“And you waited until now?” I raised an eyebrow at him.
“It didn’t really make any sense to me.” He reached up with his cuffed hands and rubbed his face in his cupped hands. “She said to make sure you say goodbye to your ghosts while you’re here.”
“Of course she did.” I rubbed the pendent around my neck. Nakoa shifted uncomfortably next to me.
“So, what does she mean?” he asked expectantly.
“Oh, you know. Everyone has something in their past that haunts them. Only she thinks I need to officially say goodbye to mine.” I deflected.
“I see.” His tone said he was annoyed I wasn’t more specific, but he wasn’t going to push the issue.
I could feel him watching me, but I pointedly avoided his gaze while watching out the front window. We were well away from the Burgs now, deeper into the city center. I didn’t know of any prison in this area though. The CGP headquarters were in the area we were headed towards though.
“Anderson, where are we going?” I asked, an edge crept into my voice that I didn’t bother hiding.
“The CGP,” he glanced up into the rear-view mirror. “The underground parking garage has been…renovated.”
Looking back out the window, that was indeed the building that was directly in front of us now. I could see the vehicles at the front of our convoy starting to go down the ramp that had once led into the underground garage. I scanned all the way up the skyscraper, trepidation settling back into me. My mother was probably somewhere in there. From the outside it looked like any other office building. But there were doctor offices, laboratories, and fertility clinics inside. I had visited it often when I was a child as both of my parents had worked there. But also, I vaguely remember the doctor appointments I had come here for. I don’t remember being overly sickly, but my parents were like any other paranoid new parents. They had me there getting checked out so much that I had started to believe I was dying at one point. After I asked my father if I were dying, and he had assured me I wasn’t, the visits stopped. In retrospect, it was probably a little weird how often they took me. This wasn’t going to be an innocuous child’s doctor appointment though.
“They’re going to place you all into holding cells, and then process everyone in groups.” Anderson said over his shoulder as we dipped down into the dark belly of the CGP. “Try to stay together. You won’t be on any registry since they weren’t looking for you. They’ll tag you for deportation and move you to a less secure area. Once there, someone is going to unlock the door to your holding cell. You need to make your way back to the lower level where your friend is. You can let everyone out as a distraction. But you four will need to get out on your own and quickly. I will be waiting at the back loading dock for you with a truck to get you to a gateway. That’s as far as I’ll be able to get you.”
“I think we can manage from there.” Kagan said with more confidence than I felt.
“Listen,” Anderson looked me in the eye in the mirror. “Use violence when necessary. But do not, under any circumstances, kill anyone. They will not let that go.”
“Wasn’t planning on it.” I said, more than a little confused.
He nodded in reply. That was all he had time for as we had come to a complete stop, officers getting out of vehicles and approaching from the sides the transport vehicle. We watched helplessly as they unloaded the two dozen prisoners, marching them into separate holding cells. I couldn’t discern any pattern or reason for how they separated everyone though.
“Show time,” Anderson said to his partner, who nodded once.
They got out of the vehicle, put their helmets on, and drew their guns. They opened both doors, pointed their weapons at us and started shouting at us to keep our hands up, and to exit the vehicle in a calm manner. We silently stumbled out, and were herded around the SUV, occasionally being shoved. People were crying, shouting; someone was screaming profanities at the officers. Some of the officers would strike anyone that got too loud, or just looked at them wrong. We were placed in a cell with several other people, some of which were trying to argue with the officers. Their words incomprehensible over the din. It was deafening.
We barely had standing room, shoved in like animals to slaughter. Looking around, every single person I could see was in the same general age group, late teens to mid-twenties. No elderly, no small children. Just like Anderson said, they were mostly women. There were men, but the vast majority were women. Kagan had maneuvered me behind him into a corner while he and Nakoa protected me from the worst of the crowding. The cells were more like pens made from chain link fencing. Looking out through the fencing, I realized that there was more than just the two-dozen people that got off the truck we followed. There were at least a dozen other holding pens, each holding at least a dozen people each. How could so many people be taken and no one noticed, or said anything?
Above all the noise, I could hear the trucks that had brought us all here leaving. A metal door slid down over the opening that we had come through. Once they were gone, a lot of the noise diminished. There was less shouting and screaming. But there were still people sobbing and trying to argue with the officers. They all basically had the same thing to say. We haven’t done anything. We are innocent. Why are you doing this?
All the cells were positioned in a semi-circle, with chain link walkways connecting each cell to an open area just outside a double door that was currently closed. Having been the last truck in, we were placed in the cell closest to an office of sorts. A man in a lab coat was standing just outside the door writing on a clipboard. One of the officers approached him.
“That was the last of them, sir.” His words were polite, but there was a bite to them. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he wasn’t pleased about where his position had landed him.
“Very good,” he didn’t bother looking up from what he was writing. “We’ll start processing them right away. Some will be going to our second center on the other side of the city tomorrow.”
“Get me a schedule and I’ll arrange the transport.” The officer ground out.
“Of course.” He finally looked up. “Just start with the last cell and work your way around.”
He turned and walked back into the office they were standing next to. I could see through the window that he picked up a phone. I watched, pressed against the chain link, as the last cell was opened up into the walkway. The people inside were herded along, some being poked with batons or maybe cattle prods. They reached the central area outside the double doors. The double doors opened and they started disappearing through them. They closed again. They did not come back out again.
Horror gripped me as I watched them clear out each cell, one by one, in the same manner. I glimpsed Kalea a couple of times. But I didn’t dare call out to her. I was already in a precarious position; I could feel the glyphs on my arm nagging at me as if they’d woken up. It would take just one glimpse at them for any of the Puritans to immediately know who I was. She would know we were here soon enough.
It was our turn to be hurried through the walkway. I stumbled over my own feet, struggling to keep my balance with my hands still cuffed. I could feel Kagan at my back trying to keep the people behind us from pushing me over as I bumped into those in front of me. I could see the double doors looming ahead of us. Cold sweat coated my skin, my mouth was dry from breathing heavily. A guard was at the door, clipping cuffs off of us as we passed through into a hallway that narrowed to the point that three people could walk side by side down it. The smell of antiseptic was heavy in the damp air. It was cloying enough that it drowned out the scent of crowded bodies and fear.
An intercom came on, instructing us to move single file through the hallway, and to remove our shoes and to place them in bins along the wall. Each bin was about four feet by three feet, and came up to my chest. They were near to overflowing with shoes. There were three of them. I had to swallow bile that rose in my throat thinking about the number of people that had been taken.
At the end of the hallway was a doorway with two guards on either side of it. They were wearing white, clean suits, hoods up with goggles on, and surgical masks. There were holding cattle prods in their hands. I wasn’t sure before, but now being closer I could see the prongs. A rage was starting to burn in my chest. I hadn’t noticed it until I confirmed that they were in fact shocking these people into submission. My shock, confusion, and horror had been riding in the front seat until this moment. I don’t think I had hated anyone as deeply as I did in that moment.
There were only two people ahead of me when we reached the doorway. Through it I could see that it was a long, rectangular room, the floor had several drains, and was wet. We were instructed to line up alone the left wall, a grate on the floor where we were to walk. On the other side of the room was two more guards in clean suits. One had a cattle prod, the other held the nozzle of a large hose. I only had a moment to register what was about to happen before the other guard pulled a lever on the wall, next to where the hose was connected. Near scalding hot water that reeked of the antiseptic that was heavy in the air came shooting out at us. It hit with a force that made me stumble back against the wall. Several people exclaimed in pain from the stinging force and heat that hit them. They went one by one, spraying us from head to toe as we struggled to breathe around the water hitting us in the face. They had us turn around, and then they sprayed the back side of us up and down as well. The thick stream of water hitting my back was almost worse than the front. I felt like my ribs were going to be bruised.
The intercom clicked back on, the man’s voice telling us to move to the next room through another door on the wall opposite the one we came in. I was still wearing my dress from the wedding. It was a pale blue, and thoroughly soaked. The shadow of my glyphs were visible through the wet fabric. I hunched over and hid behind Kagan as best as I could. We shuffled into the next room, which also had a drain as we were all dripping and was mostly empty. Except for the three more large bins filled with wet clothing. The door on the other side of the room opened and more clean suits came in and started handing out clothes and shoes to us.
The intercom clicked on, telling us to strip of our wet clothes, and to put the new ones on. No one moved. I certainly couldn’t. My right bicep was tingling, screaming at me that it was still there. They’d see it as soon as I took the dress off. It was bad enough that it was nearly visible through the wet fabric. Fear crawled up my throat. A guard closet to the door we had come in from turned and shocked a slight, blond girl standing close to him. Her scream struck me sharply. Slowly, everyone started to strip of their clothes, trying to hide their nakedness as they shrugged on the simple clothes they had given us.
“Kagan,” I pulled him into the corner. “You have to block me as I change. If they see the Puritan glyphs on my shoulder, it will be over for us.”
He frowned down at me for a second before turning his back to me, and continued stripping his wet clothing off. I turned so my right side was facing the corner and started pulling my clothes off, quickly replacing it with the pale gray ones they gave me. They resembled medical scrubs, and were about two sizes too big on me. Thankfully, the pants had a drawstring I could pull and tie to keep them from falling off of me. The sleeve of the shirt just barely hid my glyphs, partially because it was too big for me. The shoes were white, thin soled slip-ons, which were slightly too small on me.
Once everyone was dressed, two of the people in clean suits that had brought in the clothes went to the end of the line opposite me. One technician held a tablet, and what looked almost like a small gun with a too short muzzle and a small screen in place of a hammer. It was a chip reader of some kind. The other had an air injector. The guards pushed the slight blond forward.
“Name?” The woman I now knew said.
“Cadence Long”, the girl whimpered.
“Alright, there you are. Chip her.”
The guards grabbed her arm, holding it out for the other technician to use the air injector to place a microchip into her right forearm. It happened so fast, but the girl let out a sharp yelp as the chip was pushed through her skin. The woman scanned the chip with her little gun, and then entered in the number into the tablet. I had once thought that my glyphs likened me to branded cattle. But this was so much worse.
They moved down the line towards us, chipping each person in turn. A few tried to struggle, but was quickly subdued with the cattle prods the guards carried. Once they were chipped, they were ushered through the door I was closest to. I could barely hear the beep of someone on the other side scanning their chips, and then directing them into one of three directions.
Nakoa, Kagan, and I were all that was left in the room. The woman technician stood still for a moment, typing information on her tablet, reading scrolling through whatever was on her screen. A few moments passed before she finally looked up at us, she spent another few moments studying us in silence before she turned to one of the guards.
“My list is complete,” she gestured blandly towards us. “We already have every subject requested. These are extras.”
“Deport them?” the guard asked, looking over her shoulder at us.
She turned back around, watching us with her cold, blue eyes, obviously trying to puzzle out how we had gotten there. Her eyes landed solidly on me. Kagan and Nakoa did their best to look cowed as they crowded around me. It wasn’t hard for me to appear as such. The fear I felt was real. I could almost feel my mother’s eyes on me.
“No,” she said at last, sighing deeply. “This is the largest batch we’ve received so far, so the oversight was anticipated. Deportations are normally caught before getting this far though. They’ve seen too much for us to safely take them back. The girl can be taken for testing. You can dispose of the other two.”
My heart shot up into my throat. Kagan and Nakoa exchanged glances before looking back at me. This was supposed to happen. They were supposed to take us to be deported.
“Ma’am?” the guard asked.
“You heard me.” She gestured to the door behind her. “Though do it in the wash room so they can clean the blood out easily.”
“No!” the word ripped out of me. “We won’t say anything! We swear! Just send us back.”
Three guards came forward, jabbing Nakoa and Kagan with their prods, herding them back towards the other door. Two technicians had grabbed my arms and started pulling be towards the opposite door. I yanked from their grasp, rushing towards the closest guard. I snatched the prod from his hands. He wasn’t expecting it and let it easily slip from his grasp. He flipped towards me just as I smashed it across his face. The crunching sound of his nose breaking was satisfying. I turned to use the electric end on the technicians as they tried to grab for me again. My friends had thrown themselves at the other two guards, struggling over the prods with them. The technicians backed a few steps away from me. I turned to hit another guard and found a gun pointing right at me. I stopped mid swing. Kagan and Nakoa were in a similar position as another guard had come in from behind them.
My eyes shot to Kagan, who was watching me intently. We had failed. The pain of that realization was all over his and Nakoa’s faces. They were going to die, and as soon as they ran my genetics, they would discover who I was. I would be back in my mother’s clutches. No matter how this played out, it was always going to come to this. I knew that now. Acceptance settled in my veins like ice.
“Stop!” the voice that came out of me wasn’t one that I had used in years. I dropped the cattle prod I held, drew myself up straight and ripped the sleeve hiding my glyphs up over my shoulder. “I am Astra Vaylen. And you will take the three of us to my mother.”