Chapter 5: The mines

Kierah dragged herself out of bed long before Terula came to wake her up. It was still dark out, but she couldn’t get herself to fall back asleep.

It wasn’t because her bed wasn’t soft enough, or the room wasn’t quiet enough.

Maybe it was just a little too quiet. There wasn’t anything to drown out her thoughts.

After tossing around and punching her pillows a few times, she still felt like her eyelids were being pried apart by a spring. At last, she gave in. Pulling on the plush robe hanging on the chair next to her bed, she shuffled over to the window, the floor-to-ceiling glass offering an unimpeded view of the gardens far below.

It had been a week since the colonel had spoken to her, and she hadn’t seen him again. But she’d played his words over and over in her mind. “Look out for yourself. No one else will.”

Why had he told her that? And why hadn’t he turned her in?

She hugged her arms closer around her, wishing she could sink into soft folds of fabric and just disappear. It was ironic, really: All her life, she’d held on to the hope that things would get better someday. That was what had kept her going.

Now, “someday” was here. She was living it. All she’d ever hoped for, was actually happening. Real. In front of her. 

Why then did she still feel so empty?

By the time Terula came to get her ready for the day, she’d already made her bed and washed up.

“Well, look at you, missy,” Terula chirped as she bustled in. “All ready to go, I see.”

Kierah didn’t answer at first, not feeling much like conversation. But she decided silence was probably rude, so she forced something out of her mouth.

“I would have gotten dressed, too, but I figured you know this whole fashion thing better than I ever will,” she shrugged. 

It was true. The world of high class designer clothing was one of the more alien concepts for her to grasp.

Something in her voice must have sounded out of place, though, because Terula paused in her trajectory toward the closet. “Is everything all right, dear?”

Kierah shrugged again. “Couldn’t sleep.”

“Something on your mind?”

The maid’s face was a picture of concern. She had nothing but good intentions, Kierah knew, and she almost considered telling her about what the colonel had said, about her own doubts and the irony of it all. 

But she didn’t. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Terula, or thought she wouldn’t understand. It was more because she didn’t really understand it herself.

“Nothing really,” she brushed it off. “I’m fine. Guess just still getting used to actually sleeping during the night, instead of working. Every now and again, my head seems to think I should be awake.”

That seemed to at least partially put Terula off the scent of the actual trouble, and they set about getting Kierah looking presentable.

“So what’s the plan for today?” Kierah asked, hoping to get her mind off everything else.

“According to your itinerary, you’ve got another field trip after classes today,” the maid replied as she pulled out a fitted gray dress. 

Kierah eyed the outfit. Surprisingly, it wasn’t terrible, as far as dresses go. “Another trip? Fantastic. Where to?” she asked.

“You know what Kelmar is?”

Kierah frowned. “The mines?”

“Indeed.”

“Why would they make us go there?”

Terula handed her the dress and went back to digging in the closet. “Parodesium is a major factor in our economy, dear. Which, of course, you know. My guess is that they want you to see where it comes from.”

“Which will help us become better citizens how, exactly?”

“The same way that visiting the dusty old royal archives will, I suppose.”

“So all proper Trythians must be routinely bored to death.”

Terula laughed, the sound muffled because she was still halfway buried in the closet. “Something like that. Which is, of course, why you have me around, to keep that from happening.”

“You don’t say.”

“I do say. Ah hah!” the maid finally reemerged, proudly clutching something in her hand and looking very much like a hunter who had just snared prize prey. “Put this on.”

Kierah looked at what she was holding up, and wasn’t sure whether to laugh or wince.

“Please tell me you’re kidding,” she cocked an eyebrow, suspiciously appraising the round, gray front-brimmed hat Terula handed her. “You know I hate hats.”

“I am indeed aware of that,” the maid replied, an unmistakable twinkle in her eye. “And I am indeed not kidding. The hats you hate are the big, obnoxious, froofy ones, which even I won’t make you go near. But this one is different.”

“It’s still a hat,” Kierah objected. “They’re all the same.”

“Oh, come now. You should give them a chance. Think of how it will broaden the horizons in your closet!”

“My closet’s horizons are already broader than I want them to be, thank you,” Kierah muttered, holding it gingerly from her fingertips.

“It’s not that bad,” Terula coaxed her. “Seriously, I could make you wear much worse than that little thing. Now put it on — and stop looking at it like it’s carrying a contagious disease.”

“I’m not entirely sure it isn’t. I might catch the fashion sense that seems to be sweeping the country.”

Terula laughed again, shooing her off to get dressed. “This little guy is very tame, and you know it. Besides, it’s practical: You’ll be walking around a mine — it’s not like you want your hair all done up fancy and flying around in that dirty place.” She paused, then added conspiratorially, “Plus, wallowing in your comfort zone is just as bad as dying from boredom, dear. I’m just trying to keep life from getting too dull for you.”

“Ah ha, so that’s what’s behind this,” Kierah replied from behind the folding dressing screen, slipping into the dress.

“I would be remiss if I let you get too comfortable.”

“Terula, you do realize you’re talking to an Ender who still can barely walk in the ridiculous heels these etiquette classes shove on my feet, right? I don’t think I’m in danger of getting too comfortable.” She emerged from behind the screen, still holding the hat down by her side, as far away from her head as possible.

Terula looked at her for a moment, until Kierah wondered if she had put the dress on backwards. When the maid finally replied, she seemed to mellow slightly.

“You know, it is possible to get too comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

Kierah was taken a little off guard by her change in tone. “What?”

“You said you were bored by the archives. Which I can’t really fault you for, honestly. But it’s not just the archives, is it?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, you seem to be bored with pretty much everything. Or just not interested. I don’t know, I’m just concerned that you’re just … going through the motions with all of this. You don’t seem like you actually care about any of it.”

“How did we get to this from talking about hats?” Kierah tried to grin, but knew Terula was on to something.

“Because it’s not just hats that you don’t like. It seems to me — I could be wrong, but — it seems you don’t actually genuinely enjoy much around here.”

Kierah almost winced at the maid’s accuracy. “I’m … sorry?”

“No no no,” Terula shook her head as if searching for the right words. “This isn’t an apology thing. This is — this is me trying to understand why it all seems so pointless to you.”

“Pointless? No, I know it’s not pointless,” Kierah swung her arms, beginning to pace around by the window. Standing still was making her feel suffocated. “Of course it’s not. I mean, the future of the Ends depends on how we — I — perform here. It’s a big deal.”

“Spoken like a true parrot,” Terula raised an eyebrow. “Look, I just don’t want you to feel like you’re jumping through a bunch of hoops.”

“Isn’t that what I’m doing?”

“Yes. But it can be more than that.”

“How?”

“You didn’t choose to be here — but you can choose what you do with the fact that you are here. It’s your life, and it’ll be whatever you make it. That part is up to you.

“If you can get a different perspective, you might find something about it that isn’t so bad. Instead of just sitting in the discomfort, find something that makes it … worthwhile. Maybe if you look at it differently, it will change the way you feel about it, too.”

Kierah tried to follow the logic of what Terula was suggesting. “And how do I do that?”

Terula walked up to her and took the hat from her fidgeting hands. “Kind of like this.” Wrapping Kierah’s hair into a bun, she set the hat on Kierah’s head and pulled her toward a mirror.

“You hate hats. But maybe because all the other ones just haven’t been the right one.” She stepped back, letting Kierah have an unimpeded view of herself. “You have to find the one that’s for you. And to do that, you have to dig a little, look in the right places. You don’t think this hat was just sitting there waiting for me to find it, do you?”

Kierah looked at her reflection. She had been expecting this round dark gray thing to stand out on her head like the dot on an “i,” to draw all attention to itself and obscure the person beneath it like all the other hats that she’d tried on before. 

But instead, this one was actually small and unassuming enough to not overwhelm her like the others. In fact, it seemed to complement her face rather than fight with it, giving her a different look without making her look like someone else.

Maybe Terula was right.

“So you’re saying, if I look in the right places, I’ll find something in all the madness that actually makes sense — even though nothing else has so far,” she tried.

“It might be a stretch as an analogy,” Terula admitted, “but yes, that’s what I’m trying to show you. Everything you’ve tried before hasn’t worked for you — hats or otherwise. But if you look, you might find something that actually fits you. It’s your life, not anyone else’s. They may control a lot, but they don’t control everything.”

Kierah looked in the mirror again. “Honestly, I doubt it’s as easy in real life as with a hat, but I guess I can give it a shot.”

–   – –—– –  – –

Classes seemed faster and the ride to Kelmar shorter than Kierah had expected. 

She spent most of the day thinking about what Terula had said, about finding something she could say she honestly cared about. Because the maid was right — there wasn’t much there.

There was combat training, she told herself. But did her fixation on that class actually amount to “caring”? It was more a release for her other frustrations than a source of enjoyment in and of itself. It didn’t really give her a reason to be happy, just an excuse to be less aimless. Unlike everything else they made her do, it was at least practical.

She sighed to herself. Pulling her gaze away from the plain plastark wall she realized she’d been absently staring at, she looked around the transport at the other Enders. Talking, laughing, smiling. They all seemed focused on their own social circles, their own entertainment.

Did any of them feel like she did? 

If they did, she didn’t know how they hid it so well.

When the transport pulled smoothly to a halt and they all disembarked, even the wind wouldn’t let her forget about what Terula had said, whipping in and tugging insistently at the object lesson she was wearing on her head.

Grabbing onto the brim to keep the hat from gusting away, she hurried from the exit ramp. As she did, she looked around, surprised to find that they were pretty much in the middle of nowhere. There was nothing but rocky fields and deserted plains for miles. No houses, no buildings, no people, no nothing.

Except for one thing. Right in front of them, in the middle of the sprawling landscape, rose up a structure so huge that it blocked out the sun from their view. Black against the sky, its imposing walls towered above them. 

Kelmar.

“Kierah, there you are!” called Zera from one side of the group of Enders gathering outside the transport. She was smiling quite happily, standing next to one of the soldiers that had been assigned to accompany the Enders every time they left the palace grounds. 

This particular soldier was tall, handsome, perfect, and just the kind of guy Zera would find herself standing next to. Kierah had seen him before and knew his name was Hudsen, but that was about all she knew. Or cared to know. Zera, however, didn’t share her disinterest.

She pasted a smile on her face and walked over to them. So this was why she hadn’t seen Zera during the trip — she’d been busy with someone else.

“Kierah, where have you been?” Zera asked, with just a little too much bounce in her voice.

“I was just … sitting around, ya know, enjoying the ride,” Kierah shrugged casually, trying to keep her smile from slipping. “Didn’t see you, though.”

“Yeah, well, that’s because — I want you to meet someone!” she gestured to the soldier standing next to her. “Remember after combat class the other day, I was going to meet someone? This is him! Kierah, this is Hudsen. Hudsen, Kierah.”

Hudsen nodded politely, his back straight as a rail and his hands clasped militarily behind it. “Pleased to meet you.”

“You too,” Kierah nodded back.

“So, Kierah,” Zera continued, “Hudsen said he’s been here before and he’s gonna show me around the place.”

Kierah frowned a little. “On your own?”

“Oh, no,” Zera laughed. “With the group, obviously! But he’s just gonna … ya know, walk with me.”

“Okay,” Kierah’s smile nudged back into place. “Uh, have fun.”

“You don’t mind, do you?”

“Why would I?”

“Well, just because Hudsen tells me this isn’t exactly the most exciting stop we’ve visited. And walking through it alone might be, well, boring.”

Kierah’s smile became slightly more genuine, if ironic. Boring, huh? Now where had she heard that before. “Nah, that’s okay. You go ahead, I can handle myself.”

Zera seemed pleased, though Kierah knew she wouldn’t have actually done anything differently if Kierah had been less compliant with her plans. “All right,” she chirped. “See you later, then!”

Kierah smiled and waited for the two of them to walk off, but they didn’t. For half a second, she was confused, then realized why. Hudsen was a soldier, and as such likely had certain posts he was required to maintain during trips like this one. That probably meant he had to stay standing on the outskirts of the group, right where he was. Kierah was the one who had to leave.

Zera hadn’t been saying goodbye; she’d been dismissing her.

Her smile angling with a hint of annoyance, Kierah walked past them to the other side of the group and waited to be given further instruction. 

Meanwhile, she took another look at their destination. Kelmar’s walls just behind them were nearly as large as the ones surrounding the palace, and from her vantage point, she guessed just about as thick. Except unlike at the palace they weren’t for keeping people out — there was nobody else around for miles. No, these were for keeping people in. 

The topic of Kelmar and the other major mines had already been thoroughly covered in the Enders’ daily classes, so Kierah knew exactly who was being kept in. She’d seen pictures of the enclosure from all angles, and knew what to expect to see on the other side. But the pictures and the discussions hadn’t prepared her for sheer size of the place; despite the preparations, it still felt more intimidating than she’d expected.

And this was just from the outside.

As she scanned the walls, her eyes were drawn to small knobs protruding from the top edges. She frowned, trying to remember what they were; they had probably been described in class, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.

Taking a few steps away from the group and closer to the wall, she tried to get a better look at them. Not that a few feet closer would make much of a difference with the walls being so high, but —

A hand fell on her shoulder, stopping her.

She turned around to see another of the chaperoning soldiers looking sternly at her, his hand holding her back.

“Stay with the group, please,” he ordered calmly.

“I wasn’t going anywhere,” she told him.

He pointed at the ground, to a plastark-like white band a few inches wide, just a few feet in front of Kierah. “You see that white strip there, that goes around the entire facility?” he asked. 

She did now.

“That’s the receiving end of the energy shield,” he explained. “The shield is generated by those portals along the top of the wall, and forms an invisible dome over the entire facility.”

So that’s what those knobby things were. That sounded about right.

“You walk over that line, from the inside or the outside,” he said, “you get fried by the field.”

“Which would be bad,” she nodded. 

He didn’t acknowledge her. “Please, stay with the group. Security here is high for a reason.”

He stepped back and waited for Kierah to return to the others before going back to his post. She complied, and soon they were all being herded toward the one thing other than the shield generator portals that disrupted the featureless surface of the walls: A large tunnel-like archway, jutting out into the surrounding plains. A set of guards stood at the mouth of the arch, armed with blasters. In combat lessons, Kierah had learned that these particular guns were called BEAMs, or blaster energy amplification machines. Very nasty things.

The group got through the security checkpoint at the front entrance of the archway, and a guard punched some buttons on a panel embedded in the wall, releasing the energy field to let them in.

Kierah waited to see something change, or even to hear a “whooshing” sound. But the field dissipated with barely a fizzle.

Through the archway, a set of heavy steel gates slowly swung inward as they approached, and closed silently behind them once they’d all passed through.

They were officially inside Kelmar.

If it had seemed enormous from outside, it felt even more impressive on this side of the gate. The walls surrounded what amounted to a miniature city, with stark, geometric buildings constructed into the walls themselves, rising up several stories high. There weren’t any freestanding structures, though, Kierah realized.

And instead of a weaving network of roadways, there was only one main stretch that could be considered a road; it was several dozen yards wide, running from the gate they’d just entered straight ahead until it was diverted by another vertical enclosure directly opposite them — not another wall, but a much shorter fence, half solid and half metallic links, more than twice Kierah’s height. The road ran right up to it, then split and followed it in a giant circle in the center of the compound, around — around what?

Beyond the fence, there was nothing. Nothing at all, for what must have been nearly a mile. Far away on the other side where the fence circled back around, more huge buildings climbed the walls, stockier and even more stark than those nearer the entrance, giant windowless structures that looked like stacked toy blocks from this distance.

And inside the center circled by the fence — Kierah couldn’t see it, but she knew what was there. And what wasn’t there. If she remembered correctly from the diagrams of typical mine structures, the ground dropped away completely on the other side of those metal links. Down there, in the depths of the chasm the fence guarded, were the mines themselves.

If they looked down on Kelmar from the sky, she thought absently, it would probably resemble a target, the way it was built in concentric circles: the wall guarding the outside, followed by the buildings and the road, with the fenced-in chasm in the center — the mines as the bull’s eye. 

“You all are in for a treat today.”

The nasally voice of one of their lead chaperones called Kierah’s attention back to the front of the group. She caught a glimpse of where Zera was standing next to Hudsen off to one side, and half grinned to herself. It would take more than the chaperone’s rambling to pull Zera’s attention to the front of the group.

“Usually, we have a local expert guide you through the tour,” the wiry man continued. “Well, this time around, we have the privilege of being led by a particularly notable local expert. This individual is not currently stationed at Kelmar, but he is a very respected former commander who has agreed to take time out of his busy schedule to share with us the ins and outs of operations here. Enders, I present —” he paused, clearly for dramatic effect — “none other than the highest ranking military official in the Trythian army, General Azor.”

Gasps escaped from a dozen or so lips of surprised Enders. The general? The general?

“What many of you may not know,” came a booming voice from one of the nearby buildings, “is that not only am I a former commander, but I built nearly my entire career here in Kelmar.”

Azor was standing at the top of a set of stairs leading down from what might have been a guardhouse of some kind. Kierah had seen him only in passing, but she knew enough to recognize him. Incredibly muscular and stocky, with a thick neck supporting a bald, square-jawed head, he seemed built to fit in alongside the squat, boxy architecture here. 

She couldn’t say she particularly liked the man, but then, aside from Terula, there weren’t many people she could say she did particularly like.

“That, of course, was many years ago,” he began descending the stairs, his voice carrying easily over the crowd. “A lot has changed since my first days as a guard here, but I’ll always think of Kelmar as home. That’s why when Prince Terzahn mentioned to me his plans of having you all come here for look around, I volunteered to be the one to lead you myself.

“But enough about that for the time being. Let’s get on to the tour. If you’ll all follow me.” He began leading them down the road where it hugged the fence, following it along the circumference and toward the other side.

“As I’m sure you’re aware,” he said as they walked, “our planet, our culture is dependent on technology. Here in Trythia we have one of the most advanced technological systems in the galaxy. That is what makes us as successful and powerful a world as we have become, not to mention one of the most envied.

“But all that technology would be meaningless if we didn’t have a way to power it. So really, it is not only our technology, but our energy source that makes modern culture possible.

“Here in Kelmar, we have the foremost producer of parodesium in our entire world,” he announced, clearly proud of his association with the location. “These mines are in fact the reason the capital city was built where it is — for its proximity to the largest parodesium ore deposit in Trythia.

“Now, I’m sure many of you have preconceptions about what this tour will be like — probably not all of it good — but let me assure you, this is one of the most important stops you’ll be making during your stay at the palace, if only for its economic significance.”

Kierah consciously held back a yawn. Fascinating stuff, really. An important stop? Yeah. Economic significance was just the kind of thing that kept her riveted.

Her mind started wandering. She was walking on the side of the group nearer the buildings, and took a closer look at them as they passed, trying to find something to attach her attention to.

They were even more stark closer up than they had looked from a distance; their walls were featureless, soaring straight up without any break until they reached their roof. But unlike the buildings at the far end of the facility, these did have windows, iron-barred ones staring at the Enders as they passed. For some reason, they made Kierah suddenly feel cold, like she was being silently interrogated, a stranger they didn’t trust. 

She shook her head. They were windows. Buildings. What was she thinking?

But it did make her wonder, what did those window eyes normally see in a place like this?

A they walked, dozens of guards and soldiers of varying ranks passed by them, on duty or leaving it, expressionless behind the helmets they wore, covering the top halves of their faces. Officers came and went on business, distinguishable from regular guards by their lack of headgear. Every once in a while, a speeder whizzed by.

But somehow, despite the activity around them and the general’s voice droning on from somewhere ahead of them, the place seemed strangely quiet. Kierah couldn’t quite put her finger on it, because it wasn’t like there was no sound. There was; but the sound didn’t seem to penetrate anything. Not quiet like it had been in the archives — a different sort of quiet. More like a morgue.

Inexplicably, a shiver ran down her spine.

Slowly, she began edging her way sideways through the crowd of Enders. Maybe the side closer to the fence would feel less — less what? Less like she was being watched, she told herself. If only that hat of hers was big enough for her to actually hide under.

The general was still talking at the front of the group, and Kierah tried tuning back in. But he was still just rambling on about parodesium. When was he going to actually show them around, not just give them a history lesson?

She turned her attention back to the task of getting to the fence side of the group. It took some squishing and near-collisions, but she finally broke free on the other side.

There it was. Like the buildings, it seemed much taller and more stark from up close.  

The bottom half of it was thick, impervious metal, the top half circular metallic links. She wished she was taller so she could see through the links, but they started just too high over her head. She knew what was on the other side, but she still wanted to see it. It would at least be something to occupy her attention, something to look at other than the harsh, haunting buildings.

Finally, Azor came to a stop. They’d arrived at — something, at least.

“We’re going to get a closer look now at where parodesium actually comes from,” he announced, nodding to a guard standing against the wall. With a wink at the Enders, he added, “I hope you all aren’t afraid of heights.”

Unlocking an incredibly wide set of gates in the fence, he gestured for them to come through. Slowly, almost hesitantly, they did; apparently they all remembered the same diagrams that Kierah did about what was on the other side.

For Kierah, though, it was the one thing she wanted to see. Pushing her way — politely — to the front of the crowd, she reached the gates and stepped through.

She found herself standing on a scaffolding of sorts, high above the ground of the chasm below.

She had never been a fan of heights, but curiosity was stronger than her fear just then; inching toward the railing, she glanced down.

It was a deep chasm, plummeting down for levels upon levels of exhausted and abandoned mine shafts, dozens — hundreds — of holes puncturing the chasm walls.

The size of it was staggering. Kierah gripped the railing, almost freezing to it as she took in the view. She felt impossibly dwarfed by it, in a way she hadn’t quite felt since her first day at the palace. By now, she’d thought she was used to all the things that used to impress her: sprawling gardens, soaring walls of glass, indoor waterfalls. 

But this was something else. Something about the immense emptiness of this hole seemed to suck her in like a vacuum, and she held onto the railing even tighter.

“Those openings you see in the chasm walls near the ground are the entrances to different corridors of the mines we’re currently excavating,” Azor was saying. “We’ve been digging here for several hundred years, and have barely scratched the surface of the potential this deposit represents. Let us go further down for a closer look, shall we?”

The group filed across the scaffolding to a set of stairs descending to the next level. The scaffolding itself, too, was a bit larger than life, almost as if it was built to accommodate a group as large as the Enders — maybe even larger. 

The wind was picking up, still tugging at her hat. She clamped her hand on her head to keep it in place, and kept walking.

As soon as they all were regrouped on the next level below, Azor stopped them. “Before we carry on, let me take a moment to talk to you about the workers here.”

Kierah frowned. Of course they would have a talk about the workers. Any tour of “economic significance” likely wouldn’t be complete without it — even though most present already knew what he was going to say.

“As I’m sure you can imagine, given the size of the place, the workforce here is equally sizable,” he said. “To fill our requirements with employed working men would be, well, difficult, as far as costs go. Paying that many men — not just here, but in every parodesium mine throughout the country — would eventually become a burden on taxpayers, driving up prices on the parodesium they consume, strictly to cover production costs.

“That’s why we’ve developed a system that allows us to accomplish the work with minimal cost to the taxpayer. You see, as you may already know, we do not have high-security prisons, as a country in general. And here in the northern sector, when a criminal is convicted of a serious offense, he is sentenced to serve hard time, like anywhere else in the galaxy — but instead of letting him sit all comfortable in a prison cell, we turn him into a tool to benefit society. We bring him here.”

He waved his arm out over the chasm before them for emphasis. “He becomes a worker of Kelmar, paying back his debt to the country through his own sweat.

“Also, in addition to these hard-core criminals — murderers, thieves, terrorists, and the like — we also employ the services of debtors to the crown. For example, when a man refuses to pay his taxes or fulfill a loan he received from the royal treasury, he is brought here to work until his debt is paid off.

“These are the men that work here — criminals and debtors. It’s a regrettable reality that so many low men exist in our society, but it’s still a reality we must acknowledge and, if possible, harness to our advantage. And that’s what we’ve accomplished here in Kelmar.”

Kierah had managed to secure a spot near the railing when they’d gotten to this level, and she took another chance to look over it. Straight down, far away on the ground below, she could see dozens of tiny figures scurrying around, most pushing what looked like hovering carts. So these were the workers the general was talking about. Criminals.

“Now,” he was saying, “let’s continue our descent.”

Kierah followed along with the rest, wondering how far down the general intended to take them. How close to the … workers.

“By the way,” he added, “if any of you have any questions, feel free to speak up.”

“I’ve got one,” one of the Enders took up the offer. “What’s this thing we’re standing on right now? I mean, what’s it used for? Wouldn’t it be easier just to have a hovercraft to go up and down?”

Azor nodded. “Actually, yes, a hovercraft is exactly what the guards and officers use on a daily basis. This scaffolding we’re standing on is for the prisoners; they use it to access the mines each day, because the barracks they live in is at ground level — which you’ll also get to see when we return to the surface. That’s also why it’s so large, to accommodate the large number of workers that need to climb it.”

He kept talking, they kept walking, and the wind kept playing tug of war with Kierah over her hat.

“Every day, the workers are required to fulfill a quota of ore mined. Everything they excavate is collected in one place — if you look over there, in the center of the chasm, you’ll see another hole in the ground. It’s called the Pit.”

Creative, Kierah thought.

“Inside the Pit is a holding bed, somewhat like what you’d see on the back of a dump truck,” he explained. “The workers transfer all the ore in hovering carts called shifters, which you can see them pushing down there,” he pointed to the scene far below, “and they dump it into the Pit. When the bed is full, a specialized transport comes to pick it up, replace it with an empty one, and carry the full one off to the refinery.”

“But if all the workers drop their ore into the same place, how do you keep track of how much each worker has mined in a given day to measure quotas?” asked another Ender.

“Again, an excellent question,” Azor acknowledged. “We are privileged with the highest levels of technology available: Each worker is assigned his own mining pick, which is to be used by him alone, and each pick is equipped with a unique energy signature that differentiates it from all the other picks in use. That signature is then transferred to any ore the pick touches — that means every piece of parodesium excavated by an individual pick is tagged as having been excavated by the owner of that pick.

“When the ore is compiled in the Pit’s transport bed, sensors detect the energy signatures emitted from the individual pieces of ore; the sensors evaluate how much net weight is fulfilled by each signature, and that information is applied to the worker’s quota for the day.”

“Question,” somebody else spoke up. “Since you have such advanced technology, why use picks? Aren’t there more efficient ways to break down the rocks?”

“Yes, indeed there are,” Azor acknowledged. “I can see how picks, even advanced ones such as ours, would appear fairly — how should I put this — primitive. But think about it. Whatever we use, we’re putting it in the hands of convicted criminals. If given the time and motivation, they would concoct a way to make the technology work in their favor. And with many serving life sentences, neither time nor motivation is lacking. So since the system is working without the use of equipment that could potentially backfire on us, we keep it this way.”

With each level they descended, the ground got closer, and with it, Kierah’s view of the workers.

She watched them with something that almost amounted to interest. So these were the criminals that made the lifestyle of the Royals, the Nobles and the Middles possible. It was a little disconcerting to think about, how parodesium production relied on these people. She’d thought about it before, when it had been covered in class — but seeing them this close, in person, brought it home a bit more.

They looked like the kind of people that shouldn’t be messed with. Despite the distance separating her from them, it was easy to tell they were burly, tall, imposing. Even the shadows they cast were long and foreboding. If looks could define a person, these men fit their role.

They didn’t seen to pay much attention to the group observing them from the scaffolding. Occasionally, they looked up, but soon went back about their business, pushing their shifters along, emptying their cargo, returning to the tunnels.

Randomly, it occurred to Kierah that most of them were probably Enders themselves. They were probably used to well-dressed people gawking at them, staring like they were a blight on society. Her own days at the market ran across her memory, the sidelong glances, the whispers, the glares.

Yeah, she knew what it felt like to be simultaneously a novelty and a pariah.

Now she was the one doing the staring; the well-dressed, well-to-do observer, on the inside looking out. It didn’t mean she was any less under a microscope herself, being part of the experiment, but for the moment, she was the one doing the watching.

Or — maybe she wasn’t. Frowning, she realized one of the prisoners was returning the stares directed at him from the scaffolding.

The young man looked up at them when he exited a tunnel, driving a shifter ahead of him with one hand. But unlike the rest, he didn’t drop his gaze as he walked.

Kierah watched him, curiosity peeking out from behind her general boredom and indifference. He looked different from the others, nearly as tall but not half as stocky. Even from this distance, though, she could tell he was handsome, his dark hair falling into his face as he stared up at the scaffolding with piercing eyes. And something was on his arm, something blocky and grayish, which made him stand out. He was looking up at them — but he seemed to be looking off to one side of the group in particular. Toward the front?

Kierah leaned a bit over the railing to follow his gaze. At the front, not far from where she was, the general was standing still, looking out over the chasm like the rest of the group. There was a slight twist to his lips — was it a smirk? And was it her imagination, or was he looking toward the young man?

“What’s wrong with that one?” an Ender asked, breaking above the general murmur of the group. “What’s that thing on his arm?”

Kierah looked back down at the young man, realizing the question was about him. His face was impossible to see in detail from this distance, but it seemed like he wasn’t just watching those watching him; he was thinking something, he knew someone. And there was only one person up there that he could possibly know.

Azor’s deep voice came back measured and calm, but with something else there that wasn’t there before, something — something Kierah couldn’t quite put her finger on. “It would appear he has broken his arm,” the general replied. “That ‘thing on his arm’ is a sling.”

Kierah looked over at the general, and almost caught a glimpse of — yes, it was a smirk. So he had been singling out that prisoner down there. 

“How?” another Ender asked. “Is the work that dangerous?”

The general gave a slight sniff of amusement. “The work? No, indeed not. While I’m not aware of the circumstances surrounding this particular injury, I think it’s safe to say it came about as a result of … unsanctioned activity.”

Unsanctioned activity. There was only one thing that could probably mean.

“He was in a fight,” Kierah whispered.

The general was close enough to hear her. “Did you have something to add?” he asked, sounding just a little too pleasant. It caught Kierah off guard.

“Oh, um, no, I was just —” she stumbled, hating the sound of her own voice right then. “I was just realizing you meant, he was probably in a fight. Right?”

That shadow of a smirk crossed Azor’s face again. “May I remind you, these are convicted criminals — criminals of heinous crimes — that we’re dealing with here. These things do happen.”

Kierah bit her lip to keep something she’d regret from slipping out. The general must have forgotten he wasn’t talking to a group of average Nobles; fights weren’t exactly foreign to most Enders.

“If it was a fight, did he win?” someone asked.

Kierah rolled her eyes, hidden safely beneath the brim of her hat. But Azor seemed willing to answer, looking back down at the young man again as he did. “Knowing him, probably not.” 

So there was history here. And something about the way the general’s attitude changed suggested that the history wasn’t exactly amicable. Perhaps not surprising, though, considering one was a criminal and the other a man of the military.

At last, the young man broke his gaze, reaching the Pit and unloading his shifter. Not long after, Azor announced that they would be returning to the surface. They still had to tour the barracks, the guard buildings, the energy shield generator … Kierah stopped listening.

Overall, something was bothering her about the place. And the situation surrounding the broken-armed young man just brought it all to a head. The way Azor looked at him, talked about him… What crime had brought him there? Maybe Azor had good reason to despise him, but it still didn’t sit right with her.

She fell off the pace of the rest of the group, eventually picking up the tail end as they ascended the scaffolding. Once, she glanced over her shoulder down into the chasm, but the young man was long gone, back into the tunnels.

Where he belonged, she told herself. He was a prisoner, a criminal.

Azor was the general, the respected military man; his side was clearly the justifiable one. Whatever that young man had done to earn his disdain, it would probably earn her disdain too, if she knew what it was.

But a thought from earlier resurfaced in her mind. Like most of the inmates, he was probably an Ender, too. Like her. And she knew what the military in general — and guards in particular — thought of Enders. It could be nothing more than that that was driving Azor’s attitude toward him. Maybe the general couldn’t quite be given the benefit of the doubt just yet.

In mid-step, she stopped herself. What was she thinking? Was she actually analyzing the dynamic between a prisoner she didn’t know and a general she didn’t care to know? 

Trying to turn down her thoughts, she shook her head and kept climbing.

The group reached the final few sets of stairs leading to ground level. These were only a few left to go when a huge gust of wind swept through the scaffolding. Like a gigantic hand, it grabbed hold of Kierah’s hat and scooped it off her head.

She whirled around, grabbing frantically for it — but it was no use. The wind swept it back in the direction they had just come from, skidding across the floor all the way to the other end of the level.

She caught her breath. That was the one hat she’d ever tolerated, never mind liked; she wasn’t about to lose it now. Not here.

Without saying anything to anyone in the group, she dashed off in the other direction, leaving them obliviously climbing back to solid ground.

The hat was moving much faster than she was, propelled by the powerful burst blowing behind it. She watched in frustration as it skittered toward the stairs at the other end and dropped down them, away from sight. She rushed to the railing and peered down, hoping to get a glimpse of just how far it had fallen.

What she saw was far better than the worst-case scenario. Its short, round form had snagged against one of the posts next to the stairs two levels down. At least it hadn’t gone all the way to the bottom. 

Down two flights of stairs she went. Arriving at the second level, her eyes narrowed as she spotted the runaway still caught against the post.

Sprinting across the platform, she pounced on it. “Gotcha!” she exclaimed. Gripping it tightly, she didn’t even bother to put it back on her head. Now she just had to get back to the group, wherever they had gotten to.

“Serves you right,” she said to the hat, not caring how dumb she would look if anyone was watching, because nobody was. “That’s gonna be the last time you ever get away from…”

Her sentence trailed off as she happened to glance out over the chasm as she was turning back toward the stairs. She stopped, eyes fixed on something down in the chasm.

Someone.

It wasn’t the broken-armed young man with the piercing gaze.

It was a boy. A little one, probably not more than eight or nine years old. She stared at him. There, in the midst of dozens of convicts in the chasm, this little kid was pushing one of those hovering shifters towards the Pit.

Azor had never mentioned children.

Then she noticed the grayish fabric on his arm — it was a sling, just like the young man’s. He had a broken arm, too? From what, another fight? Full grown serial killers, against an eight-year-old —

His face. She squinted at him, not realizing her pulse was starting to quicken. Something about his face — she stared at him, harder. He was so far away, but she had good eyes. There was a mark on the side of his head — no, not a mark, a discoloration. A bruise. 

A bruise.

The air left her lungs as images collided into each other in her mind — sad, scared eyes looking up at her — an accidental meeting in an alleyway — a loaf of bread — an arrest —

A bruise.

She grabbed the railing to steady herself. 

No, it couldn’t be.

She looked again, hoping to find something that dismissed what she thought she was seeing — what she feared she was seeing. But she couldn’t. 

It was him, it had to be him. The bruise likely wasn’t the same one he’d had when she’d met him, that was far too long ago. But it was similar, similar enough to draw her attention.

Rothan. That was his name. That poor kid who’d tried to help her that day — it felt so long ago. In the weeks that had passed, she’d ended up in the palace — and he’d … ended up here? How?

The last time she’d seen him replayed in her mind: When she was being chased by the guards, running, looking for him — throwing him the bread just before she was captured. 

The memory paused, almost as if a freeze frame in a recording. He’d caught the bread. But what had happened after that? Her stomach sank.

They must have caught him, too. 

By throwing him the bread, she’d drawn him out into the open, dropping the evidence of her “crime” into his hands. She’d been dumb enough to think he’d be able to take the food and get away, that she was the only one paying the price for the incident.

No. She’d been wrong. He was here — of all prisons, here. And most likely, it was her fault.

She felt sick.

Frozen, rooted to the spot, she watched him.

He carefully pushed the shifter across the rocky terrain, but it looked difficult for him. Even though the cart hovered, apparently it didn’t alleviate much weight — and having only one usable hand was compounding matters. His little face contorted with the strain.

Suddenly, he stopped — no, he didn’t stop, he lost his balance. He had tripped over a loose rock and was falling —

Kierah’s eyes widened, afraid for him.

Trying to catch himself, he grabbed for the shifter with his good arm, but his sudden lopsided weight on the machine jolted it too much. It tilted and flew forward, his hand twisting around the handle as it was yanked out from under him. His fragile grip broke and he slipped off, falling hard against the rocks beneath him.

The shifter’s hovering mechanism was enough to keep it above the ground, but it wasn’t enough to stabilize it — it was knocked off balance, rocking uncontrollably. Half its load spilled haphazardly across the ground.

A small cry escaped Rothan’s lips as he landed. It wasn’t audible by the time it reached Kierah.

He’d managed to shield his broken arm — but it was his other one that was the problem now. That upper arm had taken the brunt of the fall, and the rough, rock-strewn ground wasn’t forgiving. As he struggled to sit back up, Kierah winced. That arm was already dripping with blood, at least one shard embedded in the flesh just beneath his shoulder. He looked down at it, his tan face going pale.

He tried to reach over with his bound arm, tried to pull out the shard, but the sling held him back. He wouldn’t be able to get to it. Not on his own.

The shifter in front of him wasn’t swaying as wildly anymore, but the damage had been done. Chunks of parodesium lay scattered everywhere. Half his load was gone, half a load’s worth of work needing to be recollected.

Kierah looked around. The other workers seemed to be everywhere else but near him right then. Which, considering how he’d likely gotten the broken arm he already had, probably was a good thing.

But there were no guards either, no one to help him — if guards would be interested in helping him. And Kierah wasn’t ready to stake any hope on that. It had been guards who had hunted him in the Ends; they probably wouldn’t treat him any differently here.

The spilled cargo from the still-reeling shifter caught her eye, too. The guards definitely wouldn’t appreciate that. Spilled cargo meant cleanup, and cleanup would mean less time spent at regular work. Would they be angry enough to punish him for it?

Her heart was beating faster. Guilt overwhelmed her. She had done this to him.

She turned toward the stairs and started running. 

She wanted to go up them, to hide with the rest of the group, to pretend she’d never seen him, that this hadn’t happened. What if it wasn’t Rothan? Really, she was too far away to actually get a good look at him — and she’d only known him for an hour, two at most, and that was weeks ago. Maybe it wasn’t even him. Maybe it was all in her head.

But it wasn’t. She knew it wasn’t.

She went down. 

The steps flew by under her feet, but not fast enough. There were far too many people milling around down there; it wouldn’t be long before someone saw him, and then —

Glancing toward him as she descended, another movement caught her eye, something near him. Someone had already seen him. 

She stopped running, held her breath — a guard?

No, not a guard.

It was a young man, running, almost limping, toward where Rothan had fallen. On his arm was — the sling, she realized. He was the same one from before, the one who’d been involved in “unsanctioned activity.”

She could see another shifter several yards away hovering unattended, and realized it must have been his. 

What did he want with Rothan? She wanted to keep running, but it wouldn’t do any good. He was already practically on top of him. 

If he had any cruel intentions toward the kid —

But as she watched, he didn’t lash out. He just knelt next to him, reaching toward him with his own good arm. They were too far away for her to hear anything, but it looked as though he was talking to him, trying to calm him down.

She gripped the hat in her hand and watched.


“Hey, kid,” Ethan said gently, kneeling beside him. 

He’d seen the fall, the spill, the blood. Leaving his shifter, he’d come as fast as his own broken body could carry him. The pain was fresh from the previous night, but he couldn’t let someone else get to Rothan first. 

“Easy,” he soothed. “Take it easy. Just look at me.”

He was trying to take Rothan’s attention off his arm. The kid did look at him, his eyes quivering with held-back tears. 

“You’re gonna be okay, all right?” Ethan reassured him. “Just take it easy. You’re gonna —” in a flash he reached over with his good arm and wrenched the shard out before Rothan could brace for it — “be okay.”

Rothan let out a small whimper, but it was already over.

“See? That wasn’t so bad,” Ethan grinned dryly. “Just don’t look at it.”

Blood was oozing from the gash, running down his arm. If Rothan realized just how deep the rock had gone in, he might get more queasy than he already looked.

“Seriously,” Ethan told him, “pay attention to me. Don’t look at it. You’ll be fine, we just have to tie it up.”

He looked down at his own sling. It would have to do. Finding a loose corner near his shoulder, he pulled it out and tried to cut a strip free, biting the top edge with his teeth. But the fabric was too rough; it wouldn’t rip.

Looking around, his eyes fell on the bloodied shard that had caused this mess. Bingo.

“Give me a hand,” he turned to Rothan, offering him the corner from his sling. “Hold this for me, tight, okay?”

Rothan nodded, his face still pinched with pain. Extending his arm like this wasn’t helping, but there wasn’t much else Ethan could do with only one arm himself.

He grabbed the shard, and struck out at the fabric Rothan held taut. The cut was jagged, but it was a cut. The strip pulled free, and Ethan leaned in to tie it around Rothan’s arm. He needed both hands to manage the knot, but by getting in close enough, he was able to reach it with the hand that peeked out from his sling.

Rothan sat quietly while he worked, refusing to let himself cry. 

Finally, he asked, “I’m in trouble, aren’t I?”

Ethan’s expression dropped off a little. The kid wouldn’t like the answer to that one, but he likely already knew the guards wouldn’t take kindly to the spill. So he didn’t reinforce the obvious. “Not yet,” he told him. “Not until someone comes by and sees it. We just have to get it cleaned up.”

He finished tying off the makeshift bandage. “I’ll take a better look at it later,” he told him. “But right now, we need to tackle that mess.”

He was turning toward the scattered pile when Rothan’s voice came softly from behind him. “Are you mad at me?”

“Me?” he stopped. “Why would I be mad at you?”

The kid hung his head, getting slowly to his feet. “I just —” he glanced toward the shifter and the pile beneath it. “I just keep causing you problems.” Self-conscious, he brushed his hand nervously across his cheek. Across the still-unfaded bruise.

And Ethan understood. The rocks could wait for a minute. Going down on a knee next to the kid, he didn’t have to force the sincerity in his voice. “Listen. I don’t know who did this to you —” he indicated the bruise that stood out even more starkly against the now-pale skin, “or what they told you. If they blamed you for things, said you caused problems.

“But they were wrong. I’m not going to do that to you. Okay?” He looked Rothan in the eye. “I’m not them.”

Rothan half nodded, like he was trying to swallow what Ethan was saying. Ethan could accept if he didn’t fully believe him yet. But just the fact that he was talking to him, not running and hiding, was a step in the right direction.

“Now come on,” he said encouragingly. “Let’s tackle that mess, all right?”

The scattered ore was still waiting for them. That no one had approached them yet was a stroke of good luck that Ethan didn’t want to push. 

So far, it was the only good luck he’d had all day. 

First, just waking up had been painful. After serving as a punching bag the previous night, his body hated him more than it usually did. Sleep, rest — that was what he needed. Medicine probably wouldn’t hurt either. But none of that was an option.

So instead, he’d limped up to the barracks supervisor after morning lineup, requesting that he and the kid be allowed on shifter duty. That had been an interesting conversation. At first, seeing the wreck he was, the supervisor had laughed. Straight to his face, laughed at him. If he couldn’t stand up for himself, the man had told him, why should he expect them to do him any favors? It was his own problem, he said.

Eventually, though, the request got put through. The supervisor had sent him and Rothan to the medic building to have their more serious injuries treated — which meant little else than securing their arms with slings, along with some medicine for the pain — after which they’d reported to the shifter dock.

After helping Rothan get used to driving the cart, Ethan had gotten busy himself. As it worked out, he was able to take an extra cartful up every few loads, giving Rothan a chance to rest.

It was on one of those solitary trips that he’d seen Azor. 

General Azor, now. The high and mighty, come back home.

Azor had seen him, too. He’d been high above him on the scaffolding, but even from that distance, Ethan could see the smug look on his face. He’d seen it often enough before that he would have recognized it with his eyes closed.

The general didn’t have to struggle to pick out Ethan, either. And he’d seen the sling. It wasn’t difficult to guess what he’d thought about that. He must have been happily reassured, to know Ethan wasn’t getting off easy in his absence.

There was a saying for that, wasn’t there? The more things changed, the more they stayed the same. Azor had moved on in his career — but his legacy regarding Ethan was living on, still going strong. 

There had been other people up there with Azor, quite a few of them, actually. But Ethan hadn’t given them much thought. It wasn’t often — or ever — that Kelmar had outside visitors, but it wouldn’t do him any good to puzzle over it. It’s not like anyone would tell him who they were anyway.

That had been his day. Now this. He looked at the scrap heap of parodesium shards, then down at his own single hand. Between him and Rothan, they didn’t have a hope in the world of fixing this before —

“Well, well, well. Demarc.”

Ethan grimaced. Too late.

The guard’s snicker came from behind him. Who was it this time?

The guard sauntered up to them, patrol blaster in hand. Unlike regular blasters or the BEAMs the guards on the wall carried, the patrol blasters holstered by the average mine guard were set to stun. But that didn’t mean they were just for show; after a sustained burst from one of them, sometimes the death offered by the other weapons seemed preferable. “Why am I not surprised to find you here,” he said scornfully.

Ethan didn’t turn around. “What took you so long.”

“Oh, I was in no rush,” the guard said. “It’s not like you boys could get rid of the evidence before I showed up.” He prodded Ethan’s injured arm with the tip of his patrol blaster to underscore his point, sending a shooting pain through Ethan’s entire side. “What’s this?” he asked of the arm.

“My problem,” Ethan answered. “According to your boss.”

He could see the guard now out of the corner of his eye. This one was fairly new to Kelmar, easy to spot because of how shiny his helmet was. After a few months in the mines, that shine would dull from exposure to parodesium dust.

Below the brand new visor, uncovered from his nose to his chin, his dark skin was smooth, lacking the sharp-edged beards most other guards sported. That would make him easy to remember — and, perhaps to avoid in the future. Ethan didn’t know his name, but apparently he was quite familiar with Ethan’s.

“Your problem?” the guard repeated. “It seems like you have a lot of those.” He glanced at the spill, then over at Rothan. “His arm your problem, too?”

“Unless you want to make it yours,” Ethan faced him.

“Oh, got some fight left in you,” the guard smirked, amused. “Surprising, considering you can barely walk.”

“You noticed.”

“That’s what they pay me for, to keep an eye on things. Especially you. See, I know you don’t know me that well yet, but I’ve heard a lot about you, Demarc. You and your brats.” He nodded toward Rothan, who was standing behind Ethan, what was left of the color draining from his face. “Not much good in a fight, are they?”

The grin on his face was infuriatingly self-satisfied. “Like this one here. A lot of good it did him, being on your side. New kid, right? Barely here a week and he’s already looking like you. You must be so proud.”

He strolled over to inspect the spill. “Those busted arms might be your problem, Demarc, but this —” he gestured toward the mess — “is his.”

He was looking at Rothan again, and Ethan bristled. 

The kid didn’t move, frozen by the guard’s glare. Ethan felt bad for him; one arm broken, the other arm stabbed by a rock, now he was about to face the wrong end of a patrol blaster, if Ethan didn’t do something.

“Actually,” Ethan countered, “it wasn’t his fault.”

The guard laughed. “Really? This is his shifter.”

“It’s not his fault,” Ethan looked him square in the eye. “It’s mine.”

The guard looked back and forth between the two of them for a second. “Right.” He nodded down the path a ways. “Isn’t that your cart back there?”

“Yeah,” Ethan acknowledged.

“And yet, you’re telling me it’s your fault —” he pointed to Ethan — “that he —” pointed to Rothan — “dropped this —” pointed to the shifter — “up here —” pointed to the spill.

“I wasn’t by my shifter,” Ethan lied. “I came up here to check on him, make sure he was doing it right. I just knocked into him by mistake. Knocked the shifter off balance.”

“So you’re saying you came up here to teach him how to do it correctly.” The guard laughed again. “Well. I’d say that was a blinding success, wouldn’t you?”

His attention was back on Ethan, where Ethan wanted it.

“Maybe the brat should get a new teacher,” the guard pondered. “I mean, I figure there are several cons who would jump at the chance to take him under their wing, him being the new kid and all.” He paused, a smug look on his face, narrowing the distance between himself and Ethan. “Garn, perhaps. That’s your friend’s name, right?”

Ethan set his jaw and didn’t respond.

“It was Garn, wasn’t it, who gave you your ‘problem’ arm there?” continued the guard. “He already took a liking to the kid, didn’t he? That’s what happened to his arm. That must have driven you crazy, didn’t it — to watch him getting hurt, and knowing you couldn’t stop it. Just like you can’t stop it now.”

The words stung. The guard, a stranger, threw them at Ethan with an accuracy that usually took guards months to acquire. If he kept it up, Ethan thought, he might be a contender for rookie of the year.

“Who says I’m trying to stop it,” Ethan shrugged with his good shoulder.

The guard looked him in the eye. “You did. When you said it was your fault. I’ve heard that’s what you do, take the fall for these brats of yours. You enjoy this, don’t you? You like playing hero.”

Ethan didn’t answer.

The guard moved closer, until Ethan could see his own face reflected in the surface of the guard’s helmet. The tip of the patrol blaster prodded Ethan’s chest.

“What’s in it for you, hmm?” the guard’s voice oozed condescension. “We both know it wasn’t your fault. So what do you get for protecting them from the big, bad guards?”

Ethan could hear Rothan’s rapid, shallow breathing behind him. What did he get?

The makeshift sling on his arm pulled against his shoulder. That’s what he got out of it. A broken arm, bruised ribs, a limp when he walked. 

He also got a target on his back. All the guards knew exactly who he was; this one had barely been here more than a few weeks, but already he knew enough about Ethan to push all the right buttons.

And he seemed to be enjoying himself. Not just because he got to deal with an infraction, but because it was an infraction involving Ethan. All the guards seemed to take particular pleasure in that, just because they knew who he was.

And because they knew he didn’t deserve it.

He almost never deserved it. But then, neither did the boys he was usually taking it for.

He clenched his jaw tighter. Why did he take it for them? Because they were kids? Because his own conscience was too obnoxiously difficult to kill, no matter how many times he’d tried to bury it?

He listened to Rothan’s breathing again, could hear the nervousness, the fear in its irregular rhythm. But it was behind him, he noted. And that’s where it belonged. Ethan stood in front, and that’s where he belonged — standing between Rothan and his attacker.

It was, he absently realized, the one position no one had stood in for him when he was in Rothan’s place all those years ago.

“You think you’re pretending to be the good guy,” the guard said when Ethan didn’t answer. “But you’re forgetting one thing: Heroes don’t come from inside these walls.”

His voice was calmer than it should have been, and there was a foreboding finality to his last words. Ethan picked up on that a split second before he saw him draw his blaster up and aim.

At Rothan.

“No!”

He didn’t mean to yell, it just came. He didn’t think about it, just like he didn’t think about what he was doing.

The crackle of stun energy arced across the gap between the guard and the boy, lacing the air with a flash of jagged light. Its sizzle speared through the silence left in the wake of the guard’s words. 

Rothan’s body jerked as if he’d been hit by it. His eyes flew open as wide as the tunnel entrances around them, staring ahead.

Staring ahead, at Ethan.

“You fool.” The guard’s expression was somewhere between surprised, amused and satisfied. “So you really are as masochistic as they say.”

The blast meant for Rothan never made it there. It was Ethan’s side that felt on fire. He’d barely made it in time, intercepting the trajectory just before it reached its target. But he had made it. 

His leap had landed him off balance, and as the blast hit, he’d fallen to his knees — but that wasn’t where he wanted to stay. With his side burning as the energy lingered where it had hit, he pulled himself back to his feet. Added to his existing injuries, what was coming was going to hurt like hell. It already hurt like hell, and that was just one blast.

Forcing himself to stand, he met the guard’s gaze without a flinch.

“Ya know,” the guard pondered, “I think we can all get what we want out of this. You want to protect the kid, you’ve made that pretty obvious. And I want to teach him a lesson. There’s likely some middle ground here.”

He took a step toward Rothan, and so did Ethan.

“Take it easy,” the guard cautioned him, holding the blaster up in Ethan’s direction. 

The blaster wouldn’t hold off Ethan much, but as long as it was pointed at him and not at Rothan, he couldn’t really argue. Besides, running right into a poised blaster probably wouldn’t help the situation all that much.

“You.” The guard was addressing Rothan. “Do you want to see him get hurt?” He adjusted the blaster’s barrel closer to Ethan. “Do you want that?”

Rothan looked between him and Ethan, shook his head nervously.

“I didn’t think so,” the guard nodded.

A blast of electric pain shot through Ethan, and he grabbed for his side until the sling restrained him.

Rothan let out a fearful whimper, but the guard didn’t break his composure. He’d barely even moved when he pulled the trigger. “But he’s going to get hurt. And it’s going to be because of you.”

Another shot underscored his words, as Ethan jerked away from the pain.

“He wants to protect you,” the guard continued. “And he will. I won’t hurt you. But I’ll hurt him. And you’re gonna watch. You’re gonna watch every second, and you’re gonna know you caused it.”

RE-READ THE LAST CHAPTER ↔ OR KEEP READING TO THE NEXT!

Chapter 4: Kelmar

It was a week later, and something sounded different. Ethan stopped his pick midswing, the abrupt change in momentum tugging at the sore muscles in his back then never got a chance to fully heal. Turning away from the rock … Continue reading Chapter 4: Kelmar

Chapter 6: Guilt

It was a scene that could have been taken from the pages of any East End guard’s logbook, something Kierah could have passed by any day, on any street where she’d grown up. Guards attacked Enders, Enders fought each other, … Continue reading Chapter 6: Guilt

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