We were well away from the house by the time there was a response to the fire I had set to my childhood home. I watched for as long as I could as the angry red and orange tongues of flame licked across the house, reaching for the sky that was just starting to blush with the approaching dawn. Just as it disappeared from view, emergency vehicles went screaming by us. Such an old house filled with antiques, wood paneling, tapestries. There wouldn’t be much they could do besides contain it to just the house by the time they got there. Hopefully there would be enough to destroy the lab beneath the house as well. A small smile touched my lips at the thought of the horrors that place had been witnessed being cleansed by fire. If only the burning of it could wipe away all the atrocities that had happened there too.
I blanked out the rest of the ride to the CGP headquarters. It felt like I blinked and we were there. One minute I was watching the smoke rising, blocking out the stars in the distance behind us, the next we were descending back down into the basement of the CGP. The cages still standing, witnesses to horrors that awaited their victims. There was minimal light in the underground room, it being the middle of the night and no one was supposed to be coming in through here, it didn’t surprise me. But the yellow of the few lights that there were cast an eerie, buttery hue across the concrete floors. There was a transport truck there, waiting for us. It didn’t surprise me in the slightest when I saw who was leaning against the side of it. Apparently, the last day was for everything to come full circle.
“I thought you were too smart to come back here.” Anthony chided me.
“I didn’t have much choice,” I hugged him. Despite having only known him for a short time, I was glad to see him alive and well. He looked exactly like I remembered him. Blue eyes not missing much, dark hair curling around his ears. He was wearing a CGP officer’s uniform though. “I’m glad you are okay.”
“I almost wasn’t. Laura’s connection to Darian is the only thing that saved my ass.” He looked over at her and Gerard as they came around to us, shaking hands with them. They had shed their coveralls and were also wearing CGP uniforms.
“This is Kagan, Kalea, and Nakoa,” I introduced my friends to him. “This is Anthony. He helped me get out the last time I was here.”
“Is everyone ready?” Darian materialized from behind the transport truck. He wasn’t in his usual, classy attire. He was wearing the white coveralls that the medical technicians inside the facility wore, mask and hood down for the time being. He looked down at his watch. “We only have a few more minutes of the cameras being down before we’re busted.”
“Yup,” Anthony pulled down the tailgate of the transport truck. Holding a hand out to help us all in. “The benches have been modified, just lift them and climb inside, then latch them closed once you’re in. We’ll be following Gerard and Laura in the official vehicle, so it looks like we’re headed out for another round up.”
We all climbed into the truck. I helped Kalea climb into her compartment, hugging her briefly before closing the lid on her. Nakoa was just above her. Kagan and I were to be across from them. I walked over to him as he stepped into his compartment, and handed him the file I had been carrying.
“This is for Grandmother. It’s about her daughter, Tama. And me.” I avoided his gaze.
“You can give it to her yourself.” He dropped the file into the compartment, grabbed my shoulders, forcing me to look up at him. I had to swallow passed the lump rising in my throat.
“No, I can’t,” I said simply, pulling his hands from my shoulders and holding them in mine. “If I leave, it will bring down hell on you all. On everyone at home. Knowing what I am, they’ll never let me go. And now they know where I would be because there’s documentation on where Kalea was taken from. You will never be safe with me.”
“What are you talking about? You’re a person, nothing more. You don’t owe them anything. We can leave. We’ll go to Sullied Country.” He squeezed my hands, anger rising in his voice.
“Read the file when you get home. You’ll understand. And then give it to my grandmother. Your family is going to need you. Keep them safe.” I was pulling him down as I knelt beside the compartment, him inside of it.
“Don’t do this.” He went to climb out of the compartment again. But I pulled him back down. “You were supposed to say goodbye to your ghosts and come home.”
“Turns out, I was the ghost I needed to say goodbye too.” Tears dripped down my face. “If I stay, you all have a chance of surviving. If I go, they’ll kill you all to get me back. If you stay, they’ll kill you or worse. So just go.”
“Time is almost up, Astra!” Darian knocked on the side of the truck. I knew he had been listening. The truck rumbled to life beneath us.
“Please.” His voice cracked, tears spilling down his face. His grip on my hands tightened again. “I just got you. I don’t want to give you up.”
“You’re not giving me up. You’re letting me go. You’re giving yourself, your sister a chance at life. You’re giving the babe in her belly a chance.” I whispered the last part. His head whipped towards where she had sat up again, listening to us. I looked over at her. Tears were streaming down her face as she nodded confirmation at us. When I turned back to him, I could see his will cracking down the middle. Borderlanders commonly thought every life was precious, and I knew he wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize his sister, or her children.
“I’ll come back for you,” he landed on, finally laying back. “When I know that they’ll be safe, I’ll come back for you.”
“I need you to hear me,” I leaned over, grabbing his face. “You will not find me again. Let me go and keep them safe. Don’t risk any more lives for me. Too many have died just so I could exist.”
He frowned, going to sit up again. I leaned down and pressed my lips to his, kissing him deeply. I felt him relax ever so slightly beneath my hands.
“Just read the file. You’ll understand.” I pushed him back down. His jaw was flexing as he grit his teeth. He was fighting against himself. One part wanted to get up and chase me, the other demanding that he do what was necessary to protect his sister and her baby. I smiled sadly down at him as I closed the lid over him, listening for him to slide the bolt into place a moment later.
I stopped by Kalea again before I jumped down. I pressed my forehead to hers briefly, wiping the tears from her face. I knew she wouldn’t try to stop me. She was a Mother now and would do what she needed to protect that little life inside her.
“I am so grateful I met you. Be happy.” I didn’t look back as I jumped down. I heard her close her lid, and slide her bolt into place. But I didn’t hear the sobs I knew was shaking her body.
“You should go with them,” Laura said next to me. “War is coming. The Borderland went to my people, they made an alliance and are on their way here.”
“Good,” I looked over at her. Her eyes were softer than I had ever seen them. “Someone needs to fix this mess that my parents created.”
“Be safe,” she hugged me. And turned to the SUV she was going to be riding in. Gerard and Anthony already in their seats.
Darian stood next to me as we watched them pull away. He wisely didn’t say anything until they were out of the garage. He checked his watch and slid his mask, goggles and hood back into place.
“We don’t have long to get inside before the cameras start turning back on. Come on.” He turned and ran, with me close on his heels. We went into the small office that had been right off the main floor of the caged area. Inside, there was a duffel that he pulled another clean suit out of, handing it to me. I took it, eyeing him. “I knew there was a possibility that you wouldn’t go, if you were smart. And here you are. Put it on over your clothes, quickly.”
I slipped it on, pulling the zipper up to just under my chin. He handed me a mask that I put on over my mouth and nose, goggles next. Then tucked my hair into the hood as I pulled it up over it all. The elastic edge holding tightly around my face. He adjusted his mask and goggles again before checking his watch. He looked up to the corner where a camera was hidden inside a bubble in the ceiling. A moment later, a red light inside the bubble switched on.
“Cutting it a little close.” I said.
“It took a little longer than I thought it would to convince your boyfriend to get in the box. But it all worked out.” He shrugged, stashing the bag behind the desk.
We walked through the door into the garage again, not even trying to be stealthy about it. I followed him in silence as we went to the door where I had been ushered through yesterday morning. He touched a key card and typed in a passcode. The door beeped and a lock clicked open, and clicked back into place behind us once we slipped through. We didn’t see another person all through the hall where my friends and I had discarded our shoes, been sprayed down and forced to change our clothes. At the final door before we entered into the main facility, he swiped the card again, entering the same passcode again. The door unlocked for us and we slipped inside. Once inside the box that branched off into either direction, there was a guard on either side of us. I swallowed passed the panic starting to rise in my throat, but Darian just kept going like this was any other day. Like he had done this a million times. Key card, pass code, the guard barely even acknowledged us as we walked on by. The next windowless door opened just as readily as all the others. We passed through it and were again alone in the office portion of the underground prison.
“How did you get credentials?” I leaned in close to whisper to him.
“Your friend, Anderson. He reached out to Laura, and her to me when you guys weren’t deported according to plan yesterday. I knew you were back before your mother called me to invite me to the house.” His eyes were dark, jaw tight. He had been unaware of what was going on in this building before I told him. But seeing it was a lot different than hearing about it. And he didn’t even know the half of it yet. “We have to hurry. Right now is shift change, so there aren’t as many people around. But that will change soon. Our wondering about will soon become suspicious.”
“Where are we going?” I whispered again; the swish of my suit was near deafening in the silence.
“We need access to a computer, or server port, preferably an administrative one. Do you know where your mother’s office is?”
“Yes, but we can’t go there.” He stopped in his tracks turning to me sharply. “You don’t know? She’s here. She left last night after dinner. And she never came back.”
“No. I didn’t know.” He went to drag a hand down his face, but stopped, remembering the mask in place. “We’ll have to take that risk.”
“And if she is there?” I chewed my lip, trying to breath passed the tightness in my chest.
“We’ll have to subdue her before she can raise an alarm.” I could feel him watching me as I grappled with the possibility of another confrontation with her. He must have mistaken my obvious anxiety though. “Don’t worry, I’ll handle it. And I won’t kill her.”
I strode by him, leading him to where the elevator was, waiting for him to use his key card and passcode. We stood side by side in silence, waiting for the elevator to reach the floor we were to get off on. With each floor that passed, the silence felt heavier and heavier. Tension making the air tight around us. I could tell he had questions, and so did I. But this wasn’t the time or place for them. So instead we rode in tense quiet. The relief that flooded me when the bell dinged before the doors opened was almost palpable. He stepped out first, peering around the corner, up and down the hall before waving me to take the lead. The quiet that had weighed on us in the elevator followed us into the hallway. Though this time it wasn’t coming from us. When I had come through here the last time, I hadn’t seen anyone, but I could still hear people working in the various offices that lined the hallways. Now it was just quiet. Like a ghost town. But that didn’t keep me from being on edge. It was dawn, but that didn’t necessarily mean that there wasn’t anyone else in the building. So I walked quickly, but carefully.
My mother’s door was open when we reached her office. But she was not anywhere to be seen. Her computer was also gone. But that didn’t stop Darian. He quickly closed the door behind us, instructing me to stand by it to listen for anyone walking by. I leaned against the closed door, listening, and watching as he removed his mask, goggles and hood. He unzipped his clean suit, and a jumper underneath, reaching inside to pull out a small laptop. He plugged them into the ethernet cords that were coming up through the desk where my mother’s laptop had been before. An intensity settled over him as he went to work, alternating between typing and touching the touchscreen. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes before he had announced that he found what he was looking for and was downloading it. But he sat there, his eyes darting across the screen. He was reading over whatever it was that he had found. His eyes shot to mine at the same moment I heard the footsteps in the hall. The sharp click of heels echoing off the walls. He made quick work of whatever he was looking at, closing and unplugging the laptop before stowing it away inside his suit again.
He motioned me to trade places with him, to take off what was covering my face. I did so quickly. He hid behind the door just as my mother pushed through into her office. She looked confused at first, before her eyes settled on my face, taking in what I was wearing. I crossed my arms across my chest, waiting for her to respond. She just simply closed the door behind her, and strode towards me.
“They wouldn’t let me leave the building when the news of my house blowing up reached us. Apparently, they thought it was the work of a terrorist. Since no one knew that you were back. And there were no bodies found in the house so far.” She stopped mere steps from me, clasping her hands in front of her. Her foot started tapping on the floor. I looked down at it, feeling nothing but annoyance. It was a stance I had seen often as a child. Her way of telling me she was waiting for an answer, an explanation. Instead of answering her, I took up the same position, tapping my foot back at her.
She scoffed in frustration at me, stepping to grab my arm. I jerked back, out of reach just as Darian stepped in close, a cocked gun held to her head. Apprehension replaced the disgust that had touched her face a moment before.
“I thought you said you weren’t going to kill her?” I asked evenly as he stepped around her to stand by me.
“She’s not dead, is she?” he snipped, though there was a small smile on his lips. “Though I must admit, killing her does hold some appeal. Her treatment of you, of me, of the Borderlanders.”
“You told him?” my mother narrowed her eyes at me.
“She didn’t tell me anything. Which is fine,” he said glancing at me for a moment. “I can read though. And I just scanned over your notes on your experiments. Trying to solve the fertility issues that have been plaguing our country for the last couple of generations.”
“Then you see how important my work is.” She visibly relaxed a notch, talking over her shoulder at him. Darian hadn’t though. She believed that he was going to be on her side. The arrogance of that small action burned, anger rising in me.
“Did you think you were the only one trying to solve it?” He was barely containing his own anger. “Though I can honestly say that I’m impressed by the level of depravity you’ve sunk to in order to meet your goals. Truly, you’re disgusting.”
Watching as her face went from arrogance, to confusion, to humiliated rage was probably the highlight of my life. The laughter that slipped out of me drew looks from them both. It had shocked even myself. I tried to smother it, failing horribly.
“Sorry, Darian,” I said, wiping tears from my eyes. “I know this is a serious moment. But watching her face as your words hit her was just truly memorable.”
“What are we going to do with her?” he asked.
“I don’t know.” I chewed my lip. “Do you have everything you need?”
“I have enough.” He was glaring at the back of her head, muscle twitching in his jaw.
“Don’t talk about me like I’m not right here.” She crossed her arms.
“What do you need to do next?” I continued to ignore her.
“Broadcast it. If I had a large enough signal, get it out as far as I can. Internet, TV.”
“How?” My heart was racing again. I could feel time running out.
“I have a program, a virus really, that will just run it over the airwaves if it is connected to a strong enough signal.” He shifted on his feet, still not taking his eyes off my mother.
“The roof.” His eyes shot to me. “There’s a satellite.”
“That’s right. The CGP uses it to broadcast too. I can set it to bounce off a satellite in orbit and it will make it around the world.”
“You won’t make it.” My mother scoffed. I narrowed my eyes at her. I closed the distance between us and grabbed her arm, pulling it away from her. A phone fell from her grasp. It was connected to another line. Someone had been listening to everything we just said.
“Damn it!” Darian hit her on the back of her head with the butt of the gun he held. She fell unconscious to the floor. “She’s not dead. Come on. We need to hurry before they get here.”