Emmalina Clurie stared at the giant metal behemoth before her. Every so often puffs of steam would escape an exhaust pipe on top, the steam rising up to small shafts dug out of the tunnel. They would eventually escape through carefully timed releases, up to the surface above. Casual onlookers would assume nothing out of the ordinary; the steam resembling smoke exhalation from underground heating pipes. It was rather ingenious, really.
The whole thing was. This was no frivolous operation. Emmalina knew that this was probably the only train to exist outside of the District, and it was certainly the only train that the Control didn’t know about. It was the Center’s most well-kept secret, an operation of freedom that even the Order hadn’t been able to track down.
Biting her bottom lip and pushing a dirty strand of red hair out of her face, Emmalina handed her ticket and ID to the guard before her. He eyed her, then the ID. She tried to keep her breathing steady, reminding herself to not look guilty. Technically, she wasn’t doing anything that should cause guilt. She was boarding the Midnight Train as ordered. She was identifying all passengers, as ordered. She was taking stock of any high-value targets, as ordered. She wasn’t sure about the last order, though. And maybe that was where the waves of guilt and fear were coming from.
“Emmalina Clurie,” the guard muttered. He eyed her again, then slowly handed her the ID and ticket. “Have a safe trip. And good luck with your new life.”
She nodded, quickly moving away from the guard and onto the train. She slid into the first seat that was open, shakily exhaling as she clutched the ID and tickets. She took a quick look around, seeing the train was almost full. She recognized a few older men as veterans of the last Order War, and a few others as escaped prisoners from the District. Women huddled together, some clutching children or babies close. There was even a larger number of children who sat alone; she imagined they were orphans, or children of Exclusionists finally taking the journey outside the Hubs, or even Banished - though it was rare to be Banished at such a young age.
She lowered her head again, fighting tears that threatened to overwhelm her. The final order... take the train out of commission, whatever means necessary. She shook, silent sobs wracking her body. If she could, she’d leave this place far behind. She’d leave their missions and objectives and commands behind, if she could. She’d leave the Order behind.
“Is this seat taken?”
Emmalina froze. That voice. She slowly exhaled, shaking and sobbing stopped, replaced with a sudden rush of unbridled fear. She couldn’t even bring herself to raise her eyes to check, to confirm her suspected apprehension. She simply slid over, eyes still glued to the floor in front of her, allowing the man to take the seat next to the aisle.
“Thanks,” he said.
Once again she didn’t respond. Her hands quivered ever so slightly, but she hid it behind a curtain of hair. He didn’t seem to recognize her, or at least he didn’t make any effort to ascertain her identity. She turned away, staring out the window at the latest line of passengers attempting to buy their passage aboard the train. Hers had been paid for well in advanced, but for the latest gathering of people on the platform, it looked increasingly likely that the overworked guard would turn them away.
“Sad, isn’t it?” The man remarked. She flinched slightly at the sound of his voice, with each word becoming more certain of the identity of the person to who it belonged. “The train doesn’t come often... And if you can’t pay, well, you don’t get the opportunity for a new life. Even the so-called freedom fighters have their limits. It’s a problem that keeps cycling. What the Order left, the Control filled. And what the Control can’t fill, the rebels, the vigilantes, the revolutionaries... They come calling and fill in the holes.”
“It makes me wonder if freedom is nothing more than an illusion, these days.”
“Was it ever more than an illusion?” Emmalina asked softly. She turned towards him, the man she’d once known so well. The man she loved. Flynn.
“I think... Something can be an illusion and still be freedom. What we had before may have been an illusion, but at least we had believed it, so much so that we made our own freedom.”
Emmalina remained silent for a while. When she glanced at him again, he was back to work, scribbling notes into his book. It’d been a while since they’d seen each other, and yet it felt like the last time she’d been this close to him had only been yesterday. It was like staring at a ghost, a fragmented memory. If she reached out he’d shatter like glass and she’d be left alone once more. She reached out a hand, tentatively touching his arm.
He turned his gaze to her, eyes still shining with that same radiant intensity she remembered so keenly. She tried to speak, but all she could manage was a whisper. “Why are you here, Flynn?”
“Why are you?”
Her mouth opened, but the torrent of words she wanted to say wouldn’t come. Instead, her shoulders fell and she stared down between them. Why couldn’t she have just listened to Darryn’s warning when Flynn had left? Why hadn’t she left with him?
“Because I’m scared,” she blurted suddenly. It was the answer to her internal questions, not his, but she realized it worked just as well. “Because I can’t get out,” she whispered. “Not like you.”
A hiss behind them signaled the doors being closed. They started moving, plunging into the darkness of the tunnel. Neither of them spoke as the shadow enveloped them, but she felt Flynn’s hand on hers, squeezing it tightly.
“You can leave,” he whispered. “With me.”
She locked her eyes on his. “No,” she whispered. “I can’t.”
She stood, pushing past him. He tried to grab her arm, tried to stop her, but she shrugged him off. “You need to get off.”
Flynn stood, following her. “What are you talking about? Em, what are you going to do? What are they planning on doing?”
She glanced over her shoulder at him. “It’s already done.”
They were near the front of the train now. The glow from the headlight momentarily blinded them, but she showed no signs of stopping. She turned, facing Flynn. “Get out of here, Flynn.”
“Not without you. Not this time.”
She glared at him. “I’m not coming with you. Not yet.” The air around them began to vibrate, small sparks of what to the untrained eye looked to be electricity. The two engineers glanced at each other, suddenly realizing they were no longer alone. They ducked, avoiding the flying sparks as the air around them grew more and more dense, more and more charged. Flynn stared at her, eyes widening as he glanced behind and saw a man on the tracks.
“There’s someone out there!” He yelled.
Emmalina smiled. “I know.”
He looked between the two of them, stumbling backwards as the energy began to reach him. He swatted stray energy particles as they landed on his skin, flinching at the small burn marks appeared. “Emmalina, whatever you’re doing, you have to stop. You’ll tear the whole tunnel down!”
She didn’t answer. Her eyes closed as the air grew more charged, wind from an unknown source swirling around them. Flynn braced himself against the sudden force, but was flung against the side wall of the train. He fell to a heap on the floor, struggling to his hands and knees. He squinted against the brightness of the particles that swirled between him and Emmalina, the man on the tracks coming closer and closer as they sped forward.
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