Darkness enveloped us. Our breathing echoed loudly in the narrow hall. Laura was rummaging around in the bag she had with her. A moment later a small flashlight clicked on, illuminating us huddled together.
“Stay close, it’s easy to get lost in here. And be quiet.” She whispered
She didn’t have to tell me twice. I stayed a step or two behind her as we moved through the passageway, careful not to scrape along the walls for fear that someone might be on the other side. I could see footprints in the dust that lined the floor. There were several sets coming and going in both directions. They were all pretty consistent in size, so they all must have been Laura’s. It appeared she used these passageways more than she let on. As we moved down stairs, made sharp turns, I had no idea how she kept track of where we were. There was no real reference for where we were in the house. It was dizzying. My back was beginning to ache from leaning in awkward angles to avoid brushing against the walls, sinuses burning from the dust in the air and my pinching of my nose anytime I felt a sneeze itching to get out.
After what felt like hours, but was probably more like 30 minutes, we approached a dead end. There was a thin strip of light where the wall and floor met. A small latch stuck out from the door. Laura paused, motioning to me to keep quiet as she leaned close to the door to listen. Carefully, she opened it a crack and peered in, slowly opening it wider. After being in the darkness for so long, the light was blinding. I inched in behind her, blinking away the stinging in my eyes. Once I was able to open my eyes enough to take in my surroundings, I saw that we were in appeared to be the pantry in the kitchen. There were shelves with various kinds of foods lining the walls from floor to ceiling. There was another door at the other end of the pantry where Laura did the same pause, listen, and inch through. Naturally, the other side was the kitchen, empty for the night. The only light was the one spilling out from the pantry, pooling at our feet. I’d been in here plenty with Laura as a child, or begging sweets from the cooks. For the most part, the kitchen flowed in a curve, one thing leading to the next. The floors were dark gray stone tiles that matched the dark bricks that lined the walls. Deep sinks were on the far wall under a window. Wide, wooden counter tops spanned the distance between the sinks and the large range stove. Next to the stove were double ovens stacked on top of each other. In the middle of it all was a rough work table, now cleared off for the night.
On the far right side of the kitchen was a door that lead to the side of the house, often used for deliveries. It was open, and standing in the doorway was one of the men that worked the landscaping. I had noticed when he started, which wasn’t too long ago, as he was younger than the men that usually worked the grounds, and rather handsome. He was taller than I was, with dark, curly hair and striking blue eyes. He stood with his arms crossed across his chest, work gloves hanging from his jeans pocket, green vest over a brown, long sleeved shirt that was tucked into his pants. He saw us immediately, straightening, and motioning us to hurry.
“I was beginning to wonder if you were coming at all.” He whispered.
“Calm down, Anthony, we are only a few minutes late.” She whispered harshly back.
He smiled at that, until he took me in. The smile died on his face.
“This is the patrician daughter from this household, not the plebian maid we agreed to.” He looked like he was ready to bolt out into the darkness.
“She was her lover. They were caught together. The Mother had the maid killed. Now she’s fleeing all that comes with her position.”
“We’ve never had a patrician run before.” He stroked his jaw, scratching at the stubble on his cheek.
“Are you from the Sullied Country too?” I whispered.
“No. I’m Puritan.” He said it with such distaste that I didn’t need to ask him why he was doing this. Some aspect of our society had wronged him as well. Wronged him deep enough to risk his life just to hurt them back just a little.
“Nobody’s perfect.” I shrugged. He laughed a little at the slight I made at the whole belief structure of our country.
“Astra, there’s some food, water, and a change of clothes in the bag. Once you’re out of the city, you’ll want to leave the uniform behind. Anthony will be taking you to the border, where he’ll hand you off to a different carrier that will take you to a border town. There, you’re going to get on a train that’s going to take you to a coastal city. Someone will be waiting for you when you get there. They’ll help you get established.”
“How did you get this all set up so quickly?” I studied her curiously.
“I started the process about the same time your mother set up this last match. I had overheard her saying she was going to ‘kill that fucking maid if she doesn’t accept this time’. She’s not one to make idle threats. I just didn’t expect it to be like this. I was on my way to you, to get her out, when they came for you.”
“What will they do with her?” it was a question I was afraid to ask. But if this was the last chance I had, I needed to know.
“Probably send her to her family after they cover it up. A mugging or something. Alright, get going.” She pushed me towards Anthony who had been standing to the side, patiently listening in.
“Thank you, Laura.” And I meant it. She pulled be back and embraced me.
“I could never show you before, it wasn’t appropriate. But I raised you, and I loved you as my own. I just needed you to know that.”
“Will I see you again?” I wrapped my arms around her, hugging her tightly. I hadn’t realized how much she meant to me until that moment. She was the only constant in my whole life.
“Maybe. Astra, before I forget. Keep your glyphs covered. Puritans defecting is nothing new. But you’re a patrician. The first to leave. Some will not take kindly to that. So just keep them hidden. Now go.” She released me reluctantly.
I hauled the backpack over my shoulders, looking back just once to see Laura wave before turning back inside. Anthony grabbed my hand, and pulled me towards the back of the house. I heard the door click shut behind us, Laura on her way to being blameless in my disappearance. Anthony tugged on my hand, spurring me into a jog. He ducked down low behind a wall that went around the house, broken in places with walkways. I mimicked his posture, doing my best to keep pace with him. We hid behind anything that would block us from view of the house, and an occasional guard that walked around the perimeter of the grounds. There weren’t very many guards, and the ones that were there were too focused on looking at what be trying to come in rather than what was trying to get out.
At the edge of our grounds, trees formed a wall around the entire property. An extra degree of privacy. Despite our land looking like it was in the country, we were actually in a large city. The back side of our property had several dirt roads that lead on and off the grounds. Of course, Mother had never wanted deliveries, or workers coming in the front way. Pretentious bitch. Passed the trees, on the edge of one of those dirt roads was an old, beat up pickup truck. It was hard to tell in the moonlight, but it almost looked like it was a light blue color. The paint chipped in several places, dents and scratches adorning it. Anthony helped me climb into the passenger side before climbing behind the wheel. Even though it looked like it had seen better days, the engine sprang to life readily, smoothly; running deceptively well. He kept the lights off until we were far enough from the house that they wouldn’t be noticed.
We sat in silence as the truck bounced along the dirt road. He flipped the lights on, and turned onto a main road, merging easily into the flow of traffic. I could feel tension rolling off of him, increasing each time he’d glance into my direction.
“Just ask whatever it is that will make you feel better about this,” I asked on a sigh after the fifth time he glanced over at me.
“You had everything you could ever want. You’re trading stability for uncertainty. It just makes me feel like you have ulterior motives.” The seat creaked as he adjusted his weight.
“I just got dragged naked from bed and watched as my mother ordered the love of my life to be shot, and her subsequent death.” I covered my eyes with my hand, rubbing them in an outward direction, coming back to pinch the bridge of my nose to fight off the headache creeping in from crying all night. “Her needless death, as I had already agreed to and signed the contract to accept a match of my mother’s choosing to save her life. I stabbed my mother in the neck with the pen she forced me to sign the contract with. I learned that the woman who raised me my whole life was a spy, and that everything I had known about our history could very well be a lie. I haven’t even wrapped my head around everything that has happened yet. I just know that if I had to stay there for just one more minute, I’d either hunt down my mother and finish her off, or I’d drown myself in my bathtub. So, I just don’t really care how you feel about me so long as it gets me away from here.”
“Did you really stab her?” he gave me a sidelong glance. I turned to look at him straight on, even though he had to keep facing forward.
“In the soft spot just below the ear. I felt her flesh pop as the pen went in.” I tapped the place on my neck where I had stabbed her. The laugh that bubbled up out of him startled me. I frowned in confusion at him for a moment, but his laugh was infectious. I couldn’t help the small laugh that slipped out.
“Damn that’s good stuff.” He wiped at his eyes.
“I know why I hate her, but why do you?” I settled back into my seat. We were reaching the busier parts of the city now.
“How much do you know about what your mother does?”
“Admittedly, not a lot. I know she works for the CGP, and does research at the university.” I hugged my pack closer.
“She oversees the department that processes breeding requests. My wife and I were turned down. More specifically, I was turned down.” He gritted his teeth.
“Wife? Not mate?” I cocked my head to the side.
“Mate is a patrician practice. Your social class is a whole other world. Patricians test genetics in vitro, and terminate pregnancies that aren’t adequate. That’s not something that is practiced by the plebs. Besides the fact that it is expensive to do, we recognize how precious life is and consider every child a blessing.”
I digested his words. I didn’t know that was something that was practiced. But my parents had kept me largely sequestered the majority of my life. I did attend a secondary school with my peers, even then I was very much an outsider. Beyond that though, I was tutored at home, only allowed to attend social functions with a chaperone, usually Laura. I had a lonely childhood. How much did I not know about my own culture?
“Why were you denied, and not your wife?” I asked quietly.
“I have ‘undesirable traits’.” I could see his knuckles showing white as he gripped the steering wheel tightly.
“That’s not a practice. We practice purity, to ensure that there are no more children born into suffering and eventual death.”
“Is that so?” he chuckled without humor. “’Undesirable traits’ is what they say when they just don’t want you specifically to breed. And it happens often in the plebian class. We appealed the decision. Your mother over saw it. She not only denied the request, she had our union annulled since I wasn’t allowed to reproduce. I was forcefully sterilized, and my Anita was forced into another union since approved, fertile women are required to breed. She has two children now. But the light in her that I loved has dimmed. And your mother doesn’t even recognize me now.”
“That’s awful.” It was all I could think of to say. And it was true. I thought unions for patricians were cold. But this was something else. Being with someone and forced to someone else, how was that any different than rape?
“Any puritan that helps you along the way will have a similar story. Some are worse than others. Some won’t take kindly to you asking.” He glanced over at me again.
We continued on in silence for a while. We were skirting around city center now. To the left of us was skyscrapers, parking garages, and all that accompanied large city life. To our right was more like a warehouse district. The juxtaposition of the two was drastic, especially for me as I had never been on this side of town before. With traffic piling up, I got to get a better look at the dirty buildings with people living between them. All the car lights cast an eerie, red and yellow illumination to the area. Their pale, hungry faces standing out against the darkness of their surroundings. I could feel Anthony watching me again as I studied them.
“They’re sterile, like me. The Puritan faith truly only cares about those that can contribute to their ideals. Those that can’t breed aren’t of any use, except as menial labor.”
“As if I needed more reason to hate them.” I sighed, rubbing at my temples. “Why is there so much traffic this late at night?”
“There’s a check point up ahead, but it looks like they are checking every car. They don’t normally do that.”
“Do think they are looking for me?” My chest constricted at the thought of being hauled back to that house, that room where she died.
“It has been less than an hour since we left. I don’t think they have had time to discover that you are missing, report it, and get men to the check points in that time.” He scratched the stubble on his cheek. “No, I don’t think it is you. But they are looking for someone.”
“So, what are we going to do?” The thundering in my ears from my heart racing was getting louder the closer to the check point we got. I could see officers leaning in to question passengers now that we were only a couple cars back. They wore black uniforms, with a Kevlar vest on under their shirts, a gun at one hip, baton on the other. They wore patches of their department on their shoulders, a badge on their chest.
“You’re going to hand me the papers in the glove box and keep your mouth shut. The documents that the network gave me should get us through fine. Don’t speak unless you have to, your patrician accent might give us away if any of them have an ear for it.”
Maybe this was a mistake. Risking myself to stoke my mother’s ire was one thing. But there were already two other people besides myself that could be burned if this didn’t go right. Laura was right earlier when she pointed out my tendency to do what I wanted without considering how the people around me were affected. Confronting my mother about the wire in my room would have hurt Laura. Trying to escape my duty, my responsibility had gotten Elia killed. And now, still trying to escape who and what I am, I had put these people at risk. A whole network of people whose only purpose seemed to be helping those that had been wronged by the Puritans to find freedom. How could I risk that? But before I could voice that concern, before I could say I was not worth it, and to let me go back, we pulled up to the gate, an officer already shining a light down as Anthony cranked the window down.
“Papers.” I couldn’t see much of his face with the light shining in my eyes, but his voice was deep, brusque, leaving no room as to question who was in charge between us.
“Here you go,” Anthony handed them through the window.
“Work permits? What are you doing out together this late?” he shined the light in our eyes again. I couldn’t help squinting, and looking away.
“We travel to and from work together. She got held up at the household she works for, so I waited around until she was free to go. Now we’re headed home.” He gestured to the neighborhoods behind the officer.
“Alright, well we are looking for an escaped prisoner. So, we are going to have to search your vehicle. Please pull to the curb and get out. Both of you can stand over against the wall.” He had pointed to the right, where a handful of cars had also been directed to pull off into. It was not much more than a half circle drive way next to a sidewalk and brick wall of the abandoned warehouse that lined the check point.
“What’s to search? The bed is empty, what you see is what you get.” Anthony argued, I could see the tension rising in the muscles at the back of his neck and shoulders.
“Are you refusing?” he asked, reaching for the car door, one hand going to the gun on his hip.
“Of course not.” Anthony started pulling to the side, with an impatient sigh. We pulled up and got out. I took the back pack with me so they didn’t feel inclined to search it along with the truck.
I looked down the row to where three officers were going car to car. Two of them were getting in and going through things, looking in the trunks and under hoods. The third was walking around the vehicles with a dog that was sniffing them up and down. I was bit by one of the dogs the security team had once when I was younger. It wasn’t bad, just a bruise on my shin. But it was enough that even now I got a little nervous around them. Some dogs were fine with that, sensing my trepidation and giving me space. Other dogs, particularly dogs that were trained to look for criminals and illicit substances, would get riled by my obvious anxiety. I swallowed hard against the fear climbing up my throat.
“Hey, come here,” Anthony steered me closer to the wall, whispering. “Listen closely, do you see the neon sign on the edge of the Burgs? If this goes badly, I want you to get to that sign. If I’m not there in 20 minutes, you’ll go directly south. Do you know where that is? Good. A few miles passed that and you’ll reach the border gateway. It isn’t much different than this is. There will be a sergeant there, with an orange stripe on his helmet, he will be there all night. His name is Anderson. Just tell him you were with me; he’ll get you through.”
“You’re joking right?”
“Not even a little bit. This doesn’t usually happen. I need you to know what to do, just in case. Now repeat it back to me.” He crossed his arms, but still leaning in to hear my whispering.
“Fine.” I crossed my arms too. “Sign. Wait 20 minutes. Then head south to the gateway. Find Anderson with the orange stripe on his helmet, tell him I was with you.”
“Good girl. Now be quiet, here they come.”
We stood to the side as they got in the truck, making a show of looking under the seat, and behind it, rifling through the glove box. One hopped up into the bed of the truck, stomping around. He hopped back down, got down on the ground to look closely underneath. The third officer lead a dog around the truck to sniff it. It was an absolutely ridiculous display; the needless excessive nature of their search was obviously on purpose. They were nettling him, but I wasn’t sure if it was because he talked back or because he was a pleb. Either way, I made no effort to contain my annoyance as I stood to the side with my arms crossed, rolling my eyes with each new tactic. Despite them doing their best to be obnoxiously thorough, it only took a few minutes before they were done and we were back in the truck and on our way.
“You made me worry for nothing.” I chided him once we were away.
“I wouldn’t say it was for nothing. Isn’t it better to be prepared?” He grinned over at me, anxiety still in his eyes.
“I’m not going to give you the satisfaction of agreeing with you.” He chuckled at that.
We rode in silence after that. I watched out the window at the dilapidated buildings we passed, with the stark, white faces that peered out every so often. The contrast to the world that I grew up in, and this one that was so close to it was astonishing. I was always led to believe that the poorer citizens weren’t much different than we were. But the fact that they weren’t, especially the treatment of those that weren’t allowed to breed, didn’t really surprise me all that much. The underlying cruelty in my mother alone engendered that belief that perhaps all of our society was like that. The isolation certainly didn’t help any of that either.
“Shit,” we weren’t very far from the checkpoint when red and blue lights lit up the interior of the truck. This late at night, there wasn’t a whole lot of traffic on this side of town. But there was still some.
“Maybe they’re aren’t coming for us.” I didn’t bother hiding the tremble in my voice.
“Better safe than sorry. I’m going to turn this corner up here, and slow down. You’re going to jump out and run between the buildings and go behind them. If they go around me, then I’ll pick you back up on the other side. If they stop me, I’ll just tell them I dropped you already, and try to get rid of them. Then get you again.”
“If none of that happens?” He looked me dead on.
“Then you know where to go. Ready?” he turned the corner sharply, slowing not quite to a stop.
“Too bad. Jump.”
There was not much choice in the matter as he reached across me and pulled the handle and shoved against me. I stumbled out of the truck, and around the building. I heard him drive off, lights following him a second later. We had managed our clumsy escape maneuver just in the nick of time.