Chapter 8: Breaking into Kelmar

This might not work. It might completely backfire on her, and Kierah knew it.

But she was standing in front of the closed door anyway. This particular closed door was one of the last places she’d ever thought she would go, voluntarily, but it was a last resort.

She’d thought about what Ames had said — all of what Ames had said — long and hard.

But it didn’t really matter. Blundering past any lingering reservations before they had a chance to stop her, she knocked on the door.

“Yeah, whaddaya want?” came the muffled voice from the other side. “I’m kind of on deadline, here.”

This was going to be fun. “Hey, it’s me,” she called, keeping her volume in check. “I need to talk to you.”

“Who?” There was a disgruntled shuffling. “Ugh, hold on, I’m coming, I’m coming. But this damn well better be —” The door cracked open. “— worth it.”

The young reporter who’d cornered her about the Kelmar escapade the other day stood on the other side, her big green eyes widening at the sight of her. “Miss Kaelen!”

“Yeah, um,” Kierah glanced around, not entirely enjoying the prospect of talking to this girl. “You said if I had anything else to add, to come see you.”

The girl backed up and forced the door to come with her, apparently against its will. The sound of papers, boxes and who knows what else shifted or crumpled as the door swept an arc through a pile of them. “Yeah, yeah definitely. Come in,” she said, getting past her surprise.

Kierah awkwardly followed. The girl shoved the door shut behind her, closing them inside a room that felt more like a closet. It was, putting it mildly, a mess, like someone had hastily deposited a house’s worth of belongings and junk everywhere — more junk than belongings, to Kierah’s first glance — as an alternative to hiding it somewhere more appropriate, like under a bed.

Notescreens, clothes, empty and some not-so-empty food containers, and a surprising deluge of old-fashioned paper, notepads, photo printouts and pens buried the floor, the small couch, the table that the girl must have been working at before the interruption because the chair next to it provided one of the only uncluttered surfaces in the space. In comparison, Kierah’s quarters felt vast. And, mercifully, empty.

“Yeah, sorry, don’t mind the mess. I know, it’s bad. I just don’t usually have guests, I guess you can see why,” her host apologetically attempted to clear off another chair Kierah hadn’t even noticed. “Here, have a seat,” she offered, dragging the chair toward the table and cutting a trail of comparatively clear floor with its legs as she did.

Kierah picked her way to the proffered chair, but didn’t sit down. She felt more comfortable standing and using it as a support, leaning her arms over the back of it.

“So, um, what brings you here?” the reporter asked, grabbing the nearest notescreen. “Is this about the Kelmar incident?”

Kierah wasn’t sure, but there seemed to be a hint of reluctance in her voice, and she remembered the girl’s reaction in that first conversation, when she’d heard Danan’s name. She made a mental note to look into that later, if this all worked out.

“Not really,” she replied. “Look, before I say anything, let’s both get on the same page. Everything I say down here — everything I say — is, what do you reporters call it, off the record. Okay? I don’t want to see a single word make it into a story you run, ever. Now I get it, you’re a reporter, that’s what you do. That’s why I don’t trust you, and frankly I really don’t want to be here. But —”

She stopped, watching the girl’s expression intensify as she listened. What must the girl be thinking? This was all a big mistake. Who was Kierah kidding? Didn’t she hear herself? She was seeking out a reporter and asking her not to report. That was like untethering a horse and hoping it wouldn’t run. Putting liquor in front of an alcoholic and telling him not to drink. Bringing a pig to mud and expecting it to stay clean.

“— But I need your help.”

It was the truth. She didn’t have many options left. None, actually, that she could think of. This was the only in that she had.

Admitting it would make her look weak, and she knew it. She bit the inside of her lip, waiting for the girl’s reaction.

“Help, huh?” the girl set down her notescreen and cocked her head. “But you just said I don’t get a story out of it, so why should I be interested?”

“I thought we could work out a deal. You want me to talk, right?” Kierah posed. “You’ve made that pretty clear. So I’ll talk. Not … not about this, but once a week, I’ll answer your questions, the ones you’ve been trying to ask me since I got here. No arguments, no pulling teeth.”

“Well, this must be some serious help you need, if you’re making an offer like that.”

“Do we have a deal?”

The girl eyed her. “Possibly. What’s the catch?”

“I know you’re a reporter,” Kierah said. “– but how good are you at investigative journalism?”

There must have been magic in that phrase, because the grin it elicited was more genuine than Kierah could have expected. Apparently she had tapped into something of real interest to the girl. “I’m listening.”

“But we have a deal?” Kierah pressed. “Nothing gets out of this room. Recorded, printed, spoken –”

“Fine. Whatever you say. Yes. You’ve got me curious now.” The girl grinned again. “Deal.”

Hesitantly, Kierah began. “I need access to a file, a person’s record. But I can’t get to it myself. Are you any good at hacking?”

The girl huffed as if she’d been insulted. “What kind of a CIC journalist would I be if I didn’t know how to dodge a few firewalls?” She pulled over her notescreen again, and opened a new window on the display. “What kind of file are we talking about, here?”

And here was the touchy part.

“A criminal file. A prisoner at Kelmar.”

But the reporter didn’t so much as twitch a typing finger. “I see,” was all she said. “Okay, hold on.”

Her fingers flew over the touchscreen, entering network codes and bypassing securities.

“Will they be able to tell you’ve been in here?” Kierah asked, watching her.

She shook her head. “As long as we’re just looking and not taking anything, we should be fine. No digital fingerprints to speak of.”

A few seconds went by before she spoke again. “So I’ve gotta ask,” she said, “you’ve made it pretty clear you can’t stand my existence. So why come to me? I’m not the only one who can get you in here, you must know that. You have military connections that could get in legally. Your pal’s boyfriend, for one.”

Of course the girl knew about Zera and Hudsen. Kierah wasn’t sure how much she wanted to explain this, though. “I already tried.”

The girl just shrugged and kept working.

“All right,” she said a second later, sitting back. “I’m in.”

“Really?” Kierah couldn’t help feeling a little surge of excitement. She came a bit closer, finally sitting down instead of hanging off the back of her chair.

“Yeah, that’s step one,” the girl said. “Now we just have to find him. What’s his name?”

Another leap of faith she wouldn’t be able to take back. She hadn’t even told Ames that much.

“Rothan.” 

“And last name?”

Kierah sighed to herself. “That, I don’t know. I was hoping a first would be enough to go on.”

“Maybe. Let’s see.” The girl typed it in, eyes darting across the screen as she jumped from one page to another.

“So,” she said conversationally, “who is he, exactly?”

She was bound to ask it. But still, Kierah bristled. It had nothing to do with the search. That was the girl’s reporter side talking.

It also could have just been small talk or general curiosity, Kierah told herself — but she knew how Ames’ small talk had ended up.

Though here, she didn’t think she’d slip up quite like she had then. Around everyone else, she was more sure of herself, because she was more sure of who they were.

Terula was on her side. Guards and soldiers generally weren’t. Azor didn’t sit quite right somehow. Braykir outright loathed her. Zera was … Zera. They were all different, all of varying degrees of hostility or friendliness, with their own motives and opinions — but at least those motives and opinions were fairly reliable, or at least, like in Zera’s case, predictably unreliable.

It was the few people she couldn’t quite define, like the colonel, and often the prince, that made her feel like she lost her own identity. Not knowing who they were or what they really stood for made it hard for her to know where to stand.

There could have been more to it, but that’s as far as she could figure it out right now.

Either way, she didn’t want to talk to the reporter about who Rothan actually was. The less Kierah said, the less she’d have to regret.

She ignored the question, staring past the girl at the notescreen display.

“Okay, fine. Don’t tell me.” The girl eyed her suspiciously. “I have a good idea anyway.”

Kierah swallowed a lump of apprehension. “Do you?”

“A hunch.”

“Try me.”

The girl suddenly grinned knowingly. “You have a crush, don’t you? You like him. Come on, you can admit it.”

“A crush?” Kierah almost wanted to laugh. She was in the clear.

“Yeah,” the girl hypothesized. “It’s not that revolutionary. You met him the other day when you were on the tour there, didn’t you? He was a tall, dark, mysterious con who got your attention, and now you wanna do your research on just how bad of a bad boy he is.”

Apparently Kierah’s silence had left a lot more open to interpretation than she’d expected.

“Sure,” Kierah was grinning, mostly out of relief, but the girl took it for guilt.

“You don’t have to deny it, I’m not judging,” the girl assured her.

“You go ahead and think what you want,” Kierah blew it off, which only solidified the girl’s conclusion.

“And you go ahead and tell me I’m wrong.”

“You’re wrong,” Kierah obliged her.

The girl just smiled. But her expression faded to puzzlement as she looked at the screen.

Kierah noticed. “What’s wrong?”

“You sure you don’t know his last name?”

“Why?”

The girl didn’t answer. Instead, she turned the notescreen toward Kierah so she could see the display for herself. Even without being able to read much, she could recognize when the same word repeated itself across multiple lines of text. And wasn’t hard to tell which word it was.

“There’s more than one Rothan in Kelmar.”

“More than one? There’s like twenty!” the girl sighed, pulling the notescreen back to her. “Rothan Ahmber, Rothan Dekkan, Rothan Pallar — it’s a long list.”

Kierah tried thinking. This was a setback, but there had to still be a way around it. “What kinds of crimes are they listed for?”

“Ugh, it runs the gamut,” the girl scanned the sizable list.

“Examples?”

“Everything from …” she looked closer, “accessory to murder, debt, theft, larceny –”

“What kind of theft?”

“Grand theft. Something really, really valuable,” she explained, on seeing Keirah’s questioning expression.

“Nothing about, like, accessory to…” she tried to think of how legalese would phrase it. “Conspiracy to attack and rob a Middle?”

The girl stared at her. “What?”

“I don’t know, something like that,” Kierah shook her head, exasperated. Trying to figure out what they would have charged Rothan with was beyond her imagination. She didn’t think like them, like the Middles and Nobles and whoever would have laid out the charges — and if she never thought like them, it wouldn’t be long enough. But right now, it made it difficult to guess what to look for.

“No, nothing quite like that,” the reporter dutifully checked the list, despite her doubts as to the question. “So you already know what he’s in for? Then what are you exactly trying to find out by looking?” she asked.

“That’s not the point,” Kierah brushed it off. “Okay, and this is probably dumb, but there’s no pictures, right?” 

The girl looked regretful. “I’m sure there are. But that — that’s past what I know how to get to.”

“Past what you know how to get to?” Kierah echoed.

“I can only go so deep into the system,” she admitted. “If I could go anywhere I wanted, believe me, I would have gotten answers to a lot of things, a long time ago.”

Her tone had taken on an almost reminiscent shadow, but Kierah didn’t pay attention to it.

“And what about…” she thought for a moment. “Date of birth?”

A quizzical look broke the clouds on the girl’s face for a second. “You’re not serious.”

“Huh? Why wouldn’t I be?”

“You don’t know his last name, but you know his birthday.”

Kierah again didn’t feel like explaining, but this time she did anyway. “There probably aren’t too many near his age down there. It would narrow it down.”

“How do you mean?” the girl asked. “Guys our age are one of the most populous demographics in Kelmar.”

Kierah sighed. “He’s not our age.”

“He’s not?”

“No. He’s like, eight or something. I don’t’ know his birthday, but at least –“

“Eight?” the girl exclaimed. “Wait, so he’s a kid.”

“You know many eight-year-old adults?”

The girl backtracked. “I just, well, I guess —” she stumbled, “you weren’t messing around when you said it wasn’t a crush.”

“Nope,” Kierah ended it. “So — birthdays?”

“Right.” She returned her attention to the screen, but shook her head. “That would be a no. Ages, images, hometown — it’s all on the side I can’t get to.”

Kierah slumped. “And why can’t you get to it?”

“I’m a reporter, not an IT prodigy,” the girl reminded her. “And even if I was, this is palace info, military and Royal systems. They’re not gonna be accessible to the outside, to anyone. I don’t care how good of a hacker you are. Even — even military personnel can’t get too deep in. They have to have special security clearance, which is impervious to replication or forgery. Believe me, I’ve — I’ve tried.”

Again Kierah tried not to notice the slight change in her voice as she trailed off. At the moment, she was much too focused on her own frustrations at another dead end to be concerned with whatever the reporter had been trying to get into the system for.

“So,” she said, more to herself than to the girl, “that’s it, then.”

This was going to be an ongoing problem. Every way she turned, with every angle she tried, something, somehow, came up short.

She was about to turn away when she had a thought. It was unrelated — mostly — and wouldn’t help Rothan at all. But maybe it would save this from being a completely wasted effort. She’d gotten this far. It was worth a shot.

“Wait,” she stopped the girl from shutting down the notescreen. “While you’re in there, can you — can you look up one more name for me?”

The girl raised an eyebrow but didn’t protest. “Uh, sure. Fire away.”

“Demarc.”

The young man. The one who had been bold enough to stand between Rothan and a raging Danan.

Bold. Foolishly so.

Where had she heard that recently.

“Demarc,” the girl repeated. “This another con junior?”

Kierah ignored her. “Just look it up.”

“Sure thing, boss. Demarc. How do you spell that?” She glanced at Kierah and was met with a dry glare before retracting the question. “Right, sorry. Wrong person to ask.”

Kierah’s lack of literacy was becoming more and more of a stumbling block lately. Those lessons couldn’t progress fast enough, as far as she was concerned.

“So,” she tried a different question, “is this a first name or a last name?”

Again, a dead end. “I don’t know.”

The girl gave her a sidelong glance. “So how well do you actually know these people? You sure you’re not just … stalking them?”

“You’re talking to someone who’s asking you to break into a high-security network illegally,” Kierah pointed out. “You think stalking is my biggest problem right now?”

The girl thought about that, then shrugged. “Fair enough.”

They were quiet for a bit while the girl worked her magic. Kierah waited patiently, but was still edgy.

Everything she’d tried to get to Rothan was crumpling as soon as she touched it. Terula, the military, now this reporter. She was running out of places to turn.

Ames’ warning still kept her uncertain enough to keep her from going to the prince. She didn’t know any other politicians, and wouldn’t have trusted them even if she did. She hadn’t befriended any hackers that would be any better at their profession than the reporter was proving to be. And she didn’t know of anyone else who would know, or have access to find out, what the kid was doing time for.

And now, there was Demarc. The idea to look him up had been pretty random.

Really, it didn’t matter what this search turned up. It had no bearing on anything, particularly Rothan’s reason for being there, or finding a way to get him out. If there somehow happened to be only one Demarc in Kelmar, and in the next few minutes she knew what he was doing time for, it wouldn’t change or help anything. She wasn’t even sure what she would do with that information.

She realized this one was to satisfy her own curiosity, and nothing more. But as the silent seconds stretched out, she wondered if she even wanted to know, if it wasn’t better left a mystery.

She couldn’t imagine someone who’d done what he had for Rothan could be guilty of a major crime like the ones that put away the worst of the criminals there. Could he? It had to be something innocuous, a debt maybe. Perhaps not even his own. 

But what would she do with the answer if she found it? What if he wasn’t there just because of a debt? He could be there by his own fault. Or worse, his fault could be an actual crime. Was that something she really wanted to know?

“You sure you have the name right?” the girl asked, breaking Kierah’s anxious argument with herself.

“Demarc? Yeah, why?” She pulled her chair up closer. “Please don’t tell me there’s a few dozen of him, too.”

The girl scrunched her forehead. “Not exactly.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“Well,” the girl cleared her throat. “I tried as many spelling variations as I could think of — Demarc, Dehmark, Dimahrc, Dimark — I must have tried at least a dozen combinations and then some. And I tried as his first name, and his last.”

“But?”

“But,” she ran a hand through her hair, and Kierah couldn’t tell if she was frustrated with the search or with her. “— there’s no record of a Demarc in Kelmar.”

_   __ ___ ______ ___  __ _

There was no one named Demarc.

The instructor pointed to the letter combination currently being projected on the screen in front of the reading class, and the students followed along.

There was nowhere to start with Rothan.

The class pronounced the word in unison, confidence growing in their collective voice as the lessons progressed.

There were no options left.

Kierah was supposed to be keeping pace on her notescreen, but as much as she wanted to, her mind was anywhere but on the lesson. Today the letters were like scheming little armies, ganging up into tight, strange formations and attacking her feeble efforts to rein them in, making her eyes swim.

Her losing battle with the words only compounded her frustration over the failed research attempts. And despite Terula’s assurances and the conspicuously missing charges related to bread theft on the long list of incarcerated Rothans, she couldn’t totally shake the nagging certainty that his plight was still her fault.

When the class ended, she trudged out, swept along more by her fellow students than of her own willpower. At least there was a stretch of free time before the next session. Maybe she’d be able to gather her straying thoughts enough to concentrate by then. But she wasn’t going to hold her breath for that.

Everyone else walked past her, running off to wherever they would carry on their own little lives, engaging in their own little distractions. It wasn’t long before the hallway was mostly empty as she slowly wandered through it.

“So, anything new?”

Kierah turned toward the voice, recognizing it easily after getting acquainted with it the day before.

Behind her, leaning casually in a corner, was the reporter. Somehow, her posture gave Kierah the distinct impression of a teenager loitering under a “No Trespassing” sign after dark. Or maybe it was just the question she’d asked that seemed to be crossing into forbidden territory.

“Anything new with what,” Kierah replied.

“Oh, you know,” she pushed herself away from the wall and fell into step next to Kierah. “Junior. And the Invisible Man.”

Kierah had just spent an entire lesson staring at squiggles that made no sense to her because she’d been able to think of nothing else. But that didn’t mean she wanted to discuss it with this particular person.

“Look, I said I’d answer your questions once a week,” she told the girl, not breaking stride, “but that topic’s still off limits. I appreciate your help, but I don’t have anything else to say.”

“I’m not asking to use it in a story,” the girl said.

“Then what do you want?”

The reporter glanced around.

“Answers.”

“Well, you’re outta luck,” Kierah bit irritably. “I don’t have any more today than I did last night.”

“I didn’t expect you to,” the girl shrugged. “That’s why I came to talk to you.”

“What?”

“I helped you last night because you got me curious,” the girl replied. “And as I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, I’m really bad at giving up on something when I get stuck on it.”

“Must come in handy in your line of work,” Kierah suggested.

“It can. But it can also be maddening when those answers aren’t very cooperative. Just like I’m sure I can be maddening when I keep badgering … certain sources who don’t want to talk to me.”

She shot a sheepish look at Kierah, with an expression that could almost be taken as apologetic. Kierah did a double take, but the look was gone by the time she registered it.

Still, it was the closest thing she’d seen to self-deprecation in this girl, and if she wasn’t so distracted by other matters, it might have made her smile.

“Yeah, you’re right,” she said instead. “I’d probably use a stronger word, but fine, we can go with ‘maddening.’ And yet, you’re still doing it. Because?”

“I want to help you find those answers.”

She stated it so straightforwardly that for an instant, Kierah almost would have believed she actually had a plan for carrying out such a declaration.

“Well, you already tried,” Kierah reminded her. “So unless you’ve acquired some new hacking skills overnight, I’ll pass.”

“All right, fine. If you don’t want my help, then tell me who you’re going to ask next instead.”

“Ask next?”

“Yeah,” the girl said drily. “To help you figure out why Junior is there. And if the other guy actually exists.”

“I don’t see how it’s any of your business,” Kierah shot.

“You made it my business.” The evenness in her tone was a bit unnerving. Or, at the very least — what was the word? Maddening. “You made it my business when you came to me last night.”

“So,” Kierah sighed, “what are you getting at?”

“Who were you going to ask next?” she asked again.

Kierah threw up her hands in frustration. “I don’t know. I haven’t thought further than where I’m at right now. It’s kind of hard to figure out what’s next when you can’t even get past what you got stuck on last night.”

Even to her own ears, she sounded tired. The girl must have noticed, because she seemed a bit more sympathetic when she spoke again.

“Well, if you don’t have any ideas, I do,” she offered.

Kierah rolled her eyes, not wanting to bother getting her hopes up, but not wanting to fight anymore either. She just wanted this conversation to end. “Yeah? What.”

“I know there’s someone who knows why Junior’s there.”

Kierah eyed her. “Who?”

“Junior. He would know why he’s there.”

Kierah didn’t blink right away. This was true, but what difference did that make? “Yeah. So?”

“Well,” the girl’s voice lowered conspiratorially, “this would be when it comes in handy having a member of the media in your corner. Who might suddenly, say, find the need to conduct an interview with the upper echelon at Kelmar, in person, regarding the Enders’ recent visit. She of course will need to be accompanied by a guard escort from the palace, conveniently wearing a helmet. Who then, might, oh I don’t know, find himself or, as the case may be, herself lost and heading to the barracks where the slaves are quartered.”

She said it so directly and with so little drama that Kierah for a second almost believed she meant it. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Do I strike you as the kidding kind?”

Well, she had one thing right. Rothan likely had a fairly good idea of what had put him in that hole. And he’d likely be one of the only people willing to tell her — but sneak into Kelmar?

“Then you’re crazy,” Kierah scoffed.

“I’ve been accused of worse,” she shrugged.

“No,” Kierah shook her head, as if she was trying to shake the idea out of it. Unsuccessfully. “It would never work.”

“It might not,” the girl admitted, “but don’t say never.”

She was serious.

“You’re serious.”

“Of course I am.”

Kierah stopped walking for the first time since her companion had filled the space next to her. Turning, she faced the girl, trying to read the expression in her eyes. All she could tell, though, was that they were twinkling. Out of mischief, almost certainly; but beyond that was up for debate. How much of what she was offering was genuine, and how much was devious, she couldn’t be sure, but if she had to put a label on it, it would lean highly in favor of the latter.

“Why are you doing this?” Kierah asked pointedly. She’d asked before, but she needed an answer she could believe this time, something more substantial than “curiosity.”

The girl must have guessed that, because she wasn’t so flip in her reply, which she took a moment to form in her mind before letting it out.

“I wasn’t lying when I said curiosity,” she finally said. “I’m not going to pretend this is some Good Samaritan effort; I know you wouldn’t believe me, and you’d be right not to. But what might be worth believing is that I’ve got … a soft spot, I guess you’d call it, for the mines. Anything there … well, if I could find answers to certain questions, I’d do anything I could to get them.

“So now you’ve got questions, and I want to do anything I can to help get those answers.

“I don’t know who this Junior kid is to you, or why you care why he’s there. But he, and maybe or maybe not the other guy, are in the mines. And seeing you give a damn about them, well, that’s good enough for me.” She smiled, just a hint of sadness there, which she veiled only slightly. And for some reason, Kierah believed that.

“Besides,” the girl grinned, “things are getting a little too dull around here for my liking. There’s only so much excitement in writing about what you Enders had for lunch today. So. Whaddaya say, Miss Kaelen?”

She held out a hand, and Kierah hesitated. This was crazy. This girl was crazy, her plan was crazy.

But so was Kierah’s need to clear or confirm her guilt. And sitting around the palace wasn’t going to get her any closer to that.

“Call me Kierah,” she said.

The girl’s hand was warm and eager as Kierah grasped it and shook. Her mischievous grin widened.

“Ari. Ari Stern.”

_   __ ___ ______ ___  __ _

Kierah couldn’t shake the feeling she was going into this thing blind. Rather literally.

The helmet that Ari had procured for her, along with the rest of its accompanying uniform, was repressively stifling. How guards wore outfits like this on a daily basis was beyond her. The clothing was tight, the jacket was tight, the boots were knee-high — and tight. And when she put the helmet’s visor down, she felt like she was shutting her head in the trunk of a transport speeder. Technically the lower half of her face was open to the air, but the top half seemed to make up for that leniency.

Plus, it was tough to see through. Her peripheral vision was distorted in some strange attempt to magnify what was there, but since she wasn’t used to it, the whole experience was very disconcerting.

“And did I mention I don’t have very good acting skills?” she muttered to Ari as they walked toward the speeder that would take them to their point of infiltration. Kierah, being the palace guard that she was, would be behind the wheel. Apparently, learning to drive had been infinitely easier to pick up than reading was proving to be, even though she’d been working on both for the same amount of time.

“You’ll be fine,” Ari assured her.

“You sound sure of that.”

“Well, you’re tolerating me pretty well so far tonight,” she quipped. “That requires some serious pretending.”

Kierah groaned.

“Don’t worry about it, Mr. Escort,” Ari clapped her heartily on the back. “Just look as imposing as you can, and — well, maybe imposing isn’t the right word — you’re too short to be imposing. Okay, go for confident. Confident and mean and, ya know, arrrgh,” she growled and pumped her fist in a manly sort of way. “Like a dwarf. Dwarves are short, but they’re still scary.”

“A dwarf.” Kierah glared at her, though she knew Ari couldn’t see her through the visor.

“And just let me do the talking,” Ari ignored her. “I’m the nosy reporter that no one likes anyway.”

“You’ve got that right,” Kierah muttered.

Either Ari didn’t hear her or just continued to ignore her.  “And when I get the interview going, remember, you know what to do. You remember the maps we studied?”

Kierah remembered. Ari had hacked her way to some generic floorplans, and they’d worked out which halls Kierah could sneak through to get to the barracks. If she was stopped, these could conceivably corroborate her story that she’d gotten lost, because they weren’t too far off the beaten path from where she was supposed to be.

Problem was, there were three separate barracks, all of them enormous, none of them connected. Ari would stall the interview for as long as possible, maybe ask to be shown around herself, but if Rothan happened to be in the last of the barracks that Kierah checked, there was very little chance she’d have enough time to get to him. Searching for one small child among thousands of cons was —

What was she thinking. Even if he was in the first if the three barracks that she checked, there was next to no chance she’d find him. Even if she had unlimited time, and was able to peruse the barracks without having to look over her shoulder half the time, like she knew she would have to, he’d be harder to locate than an extra credit right before the rent was due.

But time and security were things she wouldn’t have. And both she and Ari knew it.

Why they were going anyway, Kierah wasn’t really sure. Mostly, she guessed, it was to satisfy Ari’s sense of adventure. And she was willing to go along with it because … because …

Because, she told herself, there was still that chance. Slim, almost nonexistent, as it was, there was still a chance she’d find him. Rothan was down there, somewhere; of that much, she was sure. Finding him, while statistically and even logically improbable, wouldn’t be impossible. Virtually impossible, but not entirely.

He was at Kelmar. She was going to Kelmar. And there was a several-thousand-to-one chance that haystack would divulge its needle.

It was that tiny sliver of hope that prodded her along with Ari’s plan. Slivers of hope were all she was used to having, anyway. Back in the Ends, when she and Zera could barely get by, she’d be the one holding onto the elusive edge of the sunrise when it looked like the midnight of their existence would never break. Zera had mocked her for it, told her she’d be better off accepting her life as it came to her. But settling never fit right in Kierah mind, like a puzzle piece that didn’t match the hole she was trying to fill.

And look at where she was now. The chances of her being part of the prince’s experiment were — well, infinitely more unlikely than her finding Rothan tonight. That’s what she told herself. She had been chosen from an immensely broader population when she became part of the experiment, one of millions of Enders. One who, if she was the sixty-fifth Ender, wasn’t even supposed to be there in the first place. 

Looking for the kid now, she’d have to sort though only a few thousand, mere pocket change compared to what she came from.

It wasn’t much of a consolation, but it was something. She’d beaten worse odds before.

The drive to Kelmar went quickly, and she pulled the speeder to a stop at the front entrance where the much larger transport had pulled up with the Enders only a few days before. Ari had called ahead to arrange for the interview, so the guards at the front gate were expecting them. They got in without a hitch, and Kierah was instructed to drive through to the unloading dock. They parked, someone else saw to securing their speeder, and they were led to the commander’s office in the guardhouse.

There, Ari introduced herself to the commander, a husky fellow with no neck and even less personality, and indicated Kierah as her palace escort. Jumping right into the interview, she effortlessly molded herself into the character that she had to play for this little charade. Watching her, even Kierah had to admit she was good. Whatever her motives were, she seemed to be eager to hold up her end of the plan.

But Kierah wasn’t stupid. Sure, Ari acted helpful, but who was to say she wouldn’t turn on Kierah as soon as she left her alone with the commander. For all Kierah knew, this could be some doublecross she was working; after all, the scheme had been entirely her suggestion in the first place. She could have been planning this all along, setting it up to expose Kierah and get the scoop on the story.

That hadn’t been lost on Kierah. The girl was a reporter; that’s what she did. The mere promise of weekly quotes from Kierah wouldn’t be enough to outweigh the chance at a real breaking-and-entering with a side of impersonating a military guard.

It was just another set of odds Kierah had to contend with. And another risk that, for whatever reason, she was still willing to take.

The likely outcome was she would leave this place in plasma cuffs. If she left at all.

After Ari seemed like she had her end of things under control with the commander, Kierah took her leave with as careless an air as she could, trying to not think about the odds. And how those didn’t even count the possibilities she could screw something up all on her own.

The excuse she gave for her exit was what she and Ari had agreed on beforehand, that she had to see to something in the transport. The vehicle had been valeted to a hangar when they’d arrived, so that was her destination. In theory.

It was easy enough for her to get lost on the way there. The hard part would be getting lost in the right place.

Picturing the floorplans they’d studied, Kierah chose her hallways carefully. They were well patrolled, as she’d expected, but none of the guards gave her any trouble. Her uniform was the same as theirs, so she blended in. In a way, she was almost glad the place was crowded; it made her feel less exposed, even in plain sight.

Another turn, and she was a straight shot away from the first barracks entrance. This would be where it got interesting.

All she had to do was tell the pair of guards at the doors that she was there to relieve them for a half-hour break. To authenticate her message, she’d show them the authorization transcript Ari had forged on a military-issue notescreen she’d borrowed, presumably from wherever she’d obtained the uniform Kierah was wearing. 

It was simple enough. She just had to hope they bought it. If they did, she’d sneak in, and hope that whatever security cameras were trained on the door wouldn’t be too closely monitored. With all the traffic in the hallway, she should be able to slip in the door with minimal attention, a long as she chose her moment just right.

Ari had looked up the type of cameras used in the facility and calculated their approximate rotation times as they swept the hallways; if Kierah could time her entrance based on the weakest point of coverage, she could use a timer to estimate when that weakest point would come around again. With roughly five minutes for each sweep, she’d have several opportunities to sneak out during the half hour she’d allotted herself per her agreement with the guards.

They’d planned it out as well as they could, but that didn’t change the fact that this was still the dumbest plan ever, she thought for the thousandth time. There were too many variables. At the end of it, even if Ari didn’t turn her in, she might incriminate herself all on her own, by taking too long, getting caught on her way out, not getting let in at all — if the guards got suspicious, if the commander noticed her long absence, if she ran into prisoners other than Rothan —

All of that was beyond her control, though, so there was no sense worrying about it. She’d come this far; backing out wasn’t really an option.

Was it?

She was fast approaching the first barracks. The doors lay just ahead on her right, a set of massive steel slabs almost as wide as her entire room and at least as high, presumably that large to accommodate the hundreds of prisoners the entrance had to alternately disgorge and swallow each day. The handles were forged rings, each larger than the head of a man. Large enough, she thought, to serve nicely as a noose, if the occasion called for it. She swallowed.

Not that hanging was used as a means of execution anymore — it hadn’t been for generations. Ropes, swords, whips — all had long ago been replaced by cleaner, more efficient methods of violence. At least, officially. But in a pinch, or when modern blasters and stun weapons were outside one’s budget, the old fashioned tools could rear their heads.

But Kierah had every intention of keeping her own right on her shoulders where it was.

A pair of guards stood in front of the giant bolted doors, weapons at the ready. Gripping  the military notescreen in her gloved hand a little bit tighter, she reviewed her lines in her head over and over again, anxiety building. She strode toward the entrance, her chin held high, faking as much confidence as might be deemed appropriate. Keeping her gait somewhere between a march and a swagger, she approached the guards.

Approached, and walked right on by them.

A rush of guilty relief churned through her as she passed, not even glancing in their direction. Relief, and regret.

She couldn’t do it. She hated herself for it, but she couldn’t go through with it. Her mind froze, her paper-thin plan ripping in two before her imagination. It was too risky.

Yes, she’d come all this way. Ari had worked up the whole scheme, at least allegedly so Kierah could find the kid and —

And what? Even if she found him, even in that unlikeliest of chances, then what? She’d ask him why he was there. And…?

If it was indeed her fault, she’d appeal to the court’s sense of justice? Plead with the prince for a pardon? Take him away with her right now? Oh yes, she could picture that going over just grandly. “I’m sorry, commander, but I think I’ll just take this one with me. He doesn’t belong here.”

And what if it turned out he was there for something completely other than what she feared? Terula had been convinced he was there for something else. What if that was true? “Oh, well then never mind, kid. Was nice to see you again, though. Look me up when you get outta here, bye.”

Either way spelled disaster, and those were the best case scenarios. That was assuming she actually found him.

But deeper down, even past the illogic of it all, she knew that the reason she’d kept walking was still simpler than that:

She was scared.

When it came right  to it, she couldn’t bring herself to test the foolish scheme. Because, really, foolish was all it was. She was surprised they’d made it even this far. She didn’t want to push it any more.

Up til this point, it had been Ari doing most of the talking, most of the acting. This time, it would have been Kierah’s turn. And what if she froze up, forgot her lines. When she got nervous, she couldn’t speak straight — just look at what happened when she was around Ames. If her nerves made it impossible to be herself, how much less could she pretend to be someone else? This wouldn’t be the best time to find out.

So that was it, then. She just kept walking. She’d passed up the chance to find the answer she’d come for.

Distance shrank the barracks entrance to the size of a deck of playing cards behind her, half buried in the intermittent stream of military personnel that had filled the space left in her wake, as if she’d never even been there. There was no going back.

What now, she asked herself. She’d go back to the interview room, wait for Ari to finish her reporter thing. Then she’d be led back to the speeder, endure the ride trying to explain to her accomplice why she’d chickened out, and then finally go home —

Home.

For a moment, she couldn’t believe she’d thought it. Home? Is that really what the palace was to her now?

She felt disgusted with herself. She really was nothing like the girl Rothan had met, not anymore.

But whatever it was, home or not, she knew that once she got back there, surrounded by the quiet and solitude of her own room, the decision would haunt her. She would regret it — once there was enough miles between her and the mines to safely care again. She’d come so close, been right at the doorstep — but now, right now, she had to admit her nerves were running the show more than her head was. Or, maybe, it was her head more than her heart.

The doors were gone. She was down some other hallway now, her internal tensions drowning out the distance. It wouldn’t be long before she made it back to Ari.

That was it. And she’d have to live with it.

“You new here?” someone asked from over her shoulder.

She almost stopped for a second. Was someone talking to her? No, she decided. She heard it only because she was just tuning back in to what was going on around her. It was just some soldier taking to — to… She looked around. There were several other men milling around, but none were in conversation.

Maybe she hadn’t been tuning anything out before. Maybe there hadn’t been anything to tune out.

So the guard that had spoken —

She turned around. Behind her, a guard was indeed keeping pace with her. To her, they all looked alike, so she couldn’t notice anything — wait. She blinked behind the safety of her visor.

“Yeah, you,” he said, seeing her look his way.

“Oh, why?” she managed, hoping her artificial deepening of her voice didn’t sound too obvious. “Am I not allowed in this area?”

She was. At least, she thought she was. If she was where she thought she was. But in person, these halls were more confusing than they had been in the blueprints, so it was hard to tell.

“No, you’re fine,” the guard replied. “You just look a little lost.”

“I do?” Apparently being deep in thought hadn’t helped her disguise much.

“Well, are you?”

She hesitated. Ten seconds ago, she would have unflinchingly denied it.

She knew where she was, and even if she didn’t, she wouldn’t ask for help. And as to her being new there, she would have brushed it off and been done with it.

But that was ten seconds ago. That was before something about this particular guard set off a note of recognition in her mind. His voice, the way he walked, the slight twist at the corner of his mouth — this wasn’t the first time she’d met him.

Tate. He stood expectantly, his pale skin stark against the dark helmet.

Tate. Of all the guards swarming through this hive, he had to cross her path. And not just cross it, but actively block it.

What was he doing down here? Inside, and at night? He’d been working the mines the last time, above ground, during the day. This wasn’t his shift, and guards weren’t required to live on the premises. It was a job to them — they came in, they worked, they went home. This had to be past his quitting time. So why was he even here?

She was almost angry.

Angry, and scared. He’d stopped her. He said it was because she looked lost — but what if it was more than that? What if, even buried as she was in guard garb, he thought there was something familiar about her, or at least suspicious?

Up until now, she’d loved the helmets’ design of covering the entire top half of the wearers’ faces. It helped disguise not only her femininity but also the fear and uneasiness she was sure would otherwise have been advertised in her eyes. But at this second, that protection was backfiring on her. The visor hid Tate’s eyes just as well, making it harder to judge what he was thinking.

But maybe what he was thinking wasn’t anything that should scare her. Of everyone else there, he, strangely enough, seemed to have at least half a conscience. That was worlds more than any of his peers, and probably the reason he’d even noticed someone that looked lost; there were plenty of other people passing in the hall, and none of them had said anything. She had the impression that most of them were more like that partner of his, Danan. And she couldn’t picture him paying any attention to a wandering misfit like she appeared to be.

But Tate was the man who’d convinced her not to run out from the scaffolding and make what would have been one of the dumber decisions of her life, second perhaps to what she was doing right now.

Compared to his partner’s inclination to draw his blaster on her, Tate at least seemed humane.

But had that been a one-time thing? Or did she get a second chance?

Second chance.

A rash thought hit her.

“Actually, yeah,” she nodded off-handedly. “I am lost. Didn’t think it was that obvious.”

Tate unexpectedly smiled, the first smile she’d seen since she entered the grounds, she realized.

“It’s easy to get confused down here,” he acknowledged. “Where are you trying to get to? I can point you in the right direction.”

Second chance.

“Barracks #2,” she said.

She’d already turned her back once on the one reason she’d come all this way. That first barracks door was lost behind her, and with it her first chance to make good on that reason. But now that Tate had found her, maybe this was another opening to try again.

“Barracks #2?” he asked, seeming a bit surprised. Kierah wondered why until he spoke again. “Well, that happens to be where I’m going.”

“Why?” she wanted to ask. But instead all she said was, “Well, great.”

Wordlessly she fell into step next to him. This was working out nicely.

“What do you need at barracks #2?” he asked her.

“I have to talk to the door guards there.”

He turned his helmet-covered face toward her, and the way he tilted it gave Kierah a strange feeling.

“Then you can tell me,” he said. “I’m one of them.”

“A door guard?”

He nodded.

She couldn’t believe it.

He was here because he actually was on shift. What had happened to the mine-guard gig? Well, this explained why he was walking around inside the complex after dark. It didn’t explain why his shift had changed, but that was of little consequence at this point.

This was an incredible stroke of luck. Whether it was good luck or bad remained to be seen, but it was something she hadn’t expected.

She knew all of two guards in Kelmar — him, and his partner. And among the thousands, he had not only run into her but happened to be the very person she needed to talk to?

She was still nervous. But it was up to her and no one else to make this happen.

So much of her life had been chosen for her, mostly without her consent. She’d just been taken along for the ride — living first in the Ends, then in the palace. Neither had been of her asking, or her choosing.

But when Terula had handed her that stupid hat only a few days ago, she’d reminded her of something:

This life she was living, was hers. Hers, and no one else’s. Others — the prince, the Nobles, the guards, Sirvan back at the tavern in the Ends — could try to control a lot of it, but they couldn’t run it all. She shouldn’t let them.

This was her life. And she intended to live it.

“What did you have to tell us?” Tate asked, bringing her mind back to the hallway.

This was it. “You and your partner are authorized for a 30-minute leave. I’m here to cover for you.”

“A 30-minute leave? For what?”

“Just a break.” She pulled out the notescreen to show him. “Here’s the directive.”

He took the device from her and looked at it, the corner of his mouth twisting again as if he was nervous. What he had to be nervous about, she had no idea; she was the one with everything to lose. As he reviewed the notescreen, she held her breath, hoping Ari’s forgery would pass muster.

Apparently it did. But he didn’t seem to relax much.

“All right,” he handed it back to her. “But I don’t get it. It doesn’t specify what we’re supposed to do.”

“Nothing, it’s just a break,” she reiterated. “You’re not supposed to do anything.”

“That’s what Szark told you?”

Kierah recognized the name. It was the one Ari had pulled from her hacking and to whom she’d attributed the directive. As far as Tate was concerned, Kierah was working under his signed orders.

According to Ari, Szark was a middle-ranking officer, not usually getting his hands dirty with the slaves but not exactly keeping those hands clean in an office. From the way Tate’s voice winced when he said his name, she guessed he was something less than a gem of a character.

“He didn’t tell me much, just what’s on the directive,” she referenced the notescreen again.

“He didn’t want to see us for something?” The corner of his mouth twisted again. He must really not care for this Szark fellow.

“No,” she replied quickly. Not too quickly, she hoped. Having them report to an officer would be more than a little disastrous. “No, he actually specifically said not to see him. Just said to take a break. If he has something more to say, he said he’ll address it himself, so I wouldn’t recommend bringing it up around him.”

She hoped that didn’t sound too presumptuous, but maybe if Tate already feared Szark, he would do whatever Szark allegedly said.

He looked at her strangely, but didn’t say anything more.

When they arrived at barracks #2, she had to admit this was the most optimistic she’d felt all evening. Which wasn’t saying much, but still.

Tate’s partner was standing at his post and looked up as they approached. Kierah could have guessed who he’d be, but seeing him in person still brought back some of her edginess.

“Who’s this?” Danan asked, eyeing her as she kept pace with Tate. Unlike Tate, his dark skin blended right in with the black uniform, making his half-visible expressions even harder to read. Kierah hoped this would be over soon.

“He says we’re supposed to go on leave,” Tate answered. “For 30 minutes. He’s covering.”

Danan’s lips tightened in confusion, and Kierah again wished she could see his eyes.

“What for?” he asked.

Tate shrugged. “Szark didn’t say.”

Danan shot a glance at his partner. “Szark?” His voice was hard, but still almost winced like Tate’s had at the name. “What does he want?”

“The directive doesn’t say he wants anything, just wants us to go on leave. Do you know what this is about?” Tate asked him pointedly, and Kierah realized there was a hint of accusation in the question.

Danan got defensive. “Me? No, why would I?”

“Don’t sound so offended,” Tate bit out. 

“You think this is my fault?”

“It was the last time. And the time before that.”

“What do you —”

“Danan, Szark sent it. One of us did something that made him do it, and it wasn’t me.”

Kierah didn’t know what he was referencing, but this was working out better than she’d expected. Apparently they had a history with this Szark guy, and it was lending credence to her story. But she did wish they would settle their problems as they walked instead of while standing there. She wasn’t working with a lot of time, and they were wasting precious minutes of it.

“And who the hell are you?” She realized Danan was directing the question at her.

“I’m new here.”

“Obviously. And yet you’re covering for us, alone. And Szark told you nothing,” Danan asked.

“I already explained this to —” she caught herself, almost saying Tate’s name before remembering he hadn’t actually introduced himself to her. “— to your partner here. Szark handed me the directive, and sent me to find you. It’s my first assignment, and that’s all I know.” She was intrigued by how riled these two were getting over this. Whatever their buttons were, she and Ari had pushed all the right ones. But she was also getting frustrated with how long this was taking.

“Your first assignment is to guard barracks #2 alone for half an hour, when we’re perfectly capable of doing it ourselves,” Danan grimaced.

“This wasn’t my idea,” she said, and technically, that wasn’t a lie — the idea had been Ari’s. “Look, my orders were to come down here and relieve you. I’ve done that. Asking me more questions isn’t going to get you more answers, because I don’t have any,” she said, getting short. “Orders are orders, and I’m obeying mine. Don’t shoot the messenger.”

A second later, she realized that was something Danan had already tried the first time they’d met. She eyed the blaster in his hand, and noticed in that same second that he gripped it a little tighter, almost imperceptibly, but enough for her to see.

Danan didn’t answer for a minute, but still stared at her. His veiled glare, and the grip on his blaster, made her uneasy, until Tate intervened.

“Let’s go,” he finally said, gesturing for Danan to come with him.

After a moment, Danan stepped away from the door, tensely, hand still on his blaster. But he stepped away nonetheless.

This was looking like it might work. She couldn’t believe it, but it was working.

Danan still stared at her as he joined Tate, and she hoped they’d walk quickly so he would stop. As the two gave her one last glance before walking off, something changed Danan’s mind, because he pulled up short.

“What did you say your name was, again?” he asked.

And just like that, Kierah was back on edge. “Corlin,” she answered without hesitation, using the agreed-upon name for the first time. “Perry Corlin.” She paused. “Why?”

He shrugged. “And you’re sure you’ve never been here before.”

“Danan,” Tate sighed. “Come on.”

“You’re sure you’ve never been here before,” Danan ignored his partner.

“I’m new,” Kierah said again. “No, I’ve never been here before.”

He seemed to ponder that for a second, but Tate wasn’t having it. “Danan. Let’s. Go. There’ll be time for chit chat later.”

“Just a second,” Danan waved him away. Looking around, he reached for his own helmet and adjusted it. “Man, it’s getting stuffy in here. Isn’t it.” He said the words a little too deliberately.

“Not really,” Kierah disagreed, not liking his attitude.

“Nah, I think we should take our helmets off, get a breather,” Danan suggested.

It seemed like an randomly inane comment, but he was getting at something. He knew something. Or at least, he thought he knew something.

Kierah tried to look around for where the security cameras were without moving her head. She had no intention of removing her helmet, but she wanted to know what angles to avoid if something unfortunate went down.

Tate wasn’t going to let it come to that, though. He looked like he was about to take Danan’s head off, never mind his helmet. “What the hell are you doing?” he growled.

“Taking my helmet off,” Danan informed him as he did just that. With the visor suddenly gone, Kierah could see his sharp green eyes for the first time. The suspicion in them was unmistakable.

“Your turn,” he said to her.

“I’d rather not.”

“Take it off.”

“You’re not my superior,” she bit out.

“But I am your senior. Now take it off.”

Tate grabbed Danan’s shoulder and jerked him back. “What’s gotten into you?” he asked. “What the hell are you trying to do?”

“Have you looked at him?” Danan shot back, pulling away. “Doesn’t something about him strike you as odd? Or are you too busy following the rules to notice when someone’s changed them?”

Tate stared at him. “We were given an order. What’s that got to do with him?”

“Look at him!” Danan hissed, redirecting Tate’s stare. “Or should I say — her.”

Kierah caught her breath. So did Tate. “What?” he whipped his gaze around to her. 

“I knew she looked familiar,” Danan was saying. “But it was gun reference that did it. The girl who’s been behind all this. It’s her. Again.”

“No,” Tate denied it, but it was a weak denial.

Kierah felt herself deflate. She’d thought if she got found out, she’d be terrified, shaking, ready to burst into tears. But now that it had actually happened, that wasn’t what she felt at all. Well, mostly; she might still cry. But it was more like she’d been holding her breath since she’d walked into the complex, and now, for the first time, she could exhale.

Whatever happened at this point was beyond her control. That almost made her relax. Almost. It wasn’t up to her anymore.

“Is that true?” Tate asked hesitantly, almost like he was afraid to make the accusation.

“Take her helmet off, and we’ll see for sure,” Danan offered helpfully.

That didn’t leave her much of a choice. If she refused, she condemned herself already. But was she really going to comply, just like that?

She was. She pulled her helmet off.

With Danan’s helmet also off, there was no disguising the smug look on his face when he realized he was right. Tate still had his on, but his shock wasn’t difficult to read with his mouth hanging open like it was.

Kierah did her best to keep her exposed face as expressionless as she could, but it was going to be tough to keep back the tears. Revealing her face felt like she had just been punched in it, and she had to fight back as her eyes watered up — not from pain, but from the shock of being hit. And from frustration at her inability to hit back.

She hadn’t expected it to end like this. All this way, all the pieces falling into place had felt too good to be true, and apparently it had been.

“It’s you again,” Tate still didn’t quite manage to pull his jaw up all the way. “I can’t believe it.”

“Told you,” Danan gloated.

But Tate wasn’t concerned with how right his partner was. “You think this is funny?” he shot. “Do you realize what this means? You see how far she made it, that we almost screwed up again — again? Do you get it?”

Danan’s expression caught up to Tate’s, but only halfway. “But we didn’t screw up.” He paused. “Wait, no, I didn’t screw up. You were the one who brought her all this way and were gonna leave her here.”

“Yeah, and this would be the first time it actually wasn’t your fault.” Tate took a measured breath. “Why?” he turned to Kierah. “What are you really doing down here?”

Kierah forced herself to meet his gaze without flinching. “What’s it look like?” she shot back obstinately, assuming it was pretty obvious. 

Tate looked at Danan. “They did send her,” he said in defeat. “It was a test.”

It took a solid half second for Kierah’s mind to register what he’d said. They weren’t arresting her? They weren’t turning her in. Why weren’t they turning her in?

“And?” It was Danan’s turn to address Kierah. “Did we pass the test?”

Kierah blinked. He was asking her? “Yes…?”

That seemed to be the right answer. “See?” Danan shrugged.

Tate heaved a sigh uneasily. “She’s not the one who decides whether we passed or not, idiot. She’s just the pawn.”

Danan didn’t answer.

“I didn’t realize you were in on it with them,” Tate said to her. “I’d thought — before, I’d thought we just kept having bad luck.”

Kierah had less than no idea what he was talking about. 

“So am I allowed to ask what you’re gonna say when you report back to them? Or, even, who you’re reporting back to?” Tate asked almost hesitantly.

“Is it Szark?” Danan asked much more impetuously.

They weren’t arresting her. Kierah couldn’t quite get over that. They’d discovered who she was, yet they were standing there talking to her like she was — like she was —

Szark. Danan had asked her a question. She tried to piece together the haphazard fragments of the conversation that had managed to filter through the fear paralyzing her. He was asking if Szark had sent her. A test. She was a pawn. She had to report back. A test.

They didn’t know. 

They thought she had authorization to be there, that Szark had been testing them by sending her. What had Tate said — something about them having bad luck?

She had one more chance to make this work. 

“Yes,” she said, injecting more calmness into her voice than she felt. “It was Szark. All he told me was he wanted to see how far I could get, after last time.” She didn’t know what “last time” was, but she assumed it would mean something to them, so she threw it in. If they were associating bad luck with her, it must have had something to do with when they caught her on the scaffolding. Would that explain why they were inside, on a night shift? 

“But,” she added quickly, “he said no matter how far I did or didn’t get, he still wanted me to check on something else down here.”

Tate and Danan glanced at each other. “And that would be?” Danan asked.

“He wanted an update on the status of the boy that got hurt the last time I saw you,” she dared to push her luck. “He’s in these barracks?”

She had a three-in-one chance of being right. 

“Demarc?” Tate asked, misunderstanding her and adding another layer of shock to his face. 

“No no, the kid. The little boy.”

“What does Szark want with him?” Danan asked. “I mean, he’s one of Demarc’s.”

It was a valid question. From what she understood of Szark, he didn’t seem to be the kind of guy to give a second glance at a hurt kid, unless it was to kick him. And apparently, being “one of Demarc’s” didn’t exactly elevate Rothan’s status.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Tate muttered before Kierah had a chance to answer. “So much for bad luck.”

“Bad luck, huh?” she asked casually. That was the second time he’d used the phrase.

“Well, what would you call it?” Danan bit out, actually agreeing with his partner for once.

Tate shrugged. “We get demoted to Kelmar after arresting you. We get demoted to night shift after genius here —” he nodded in Danan’s direction “— pulls a blaster on you. Every time we run into you, we get demoted — and now you show up here again, asking for us to let you in to look for the kid? We’re running out of places to get demoted to.”

He said it so easily, Kierah almost didn’t catch just what it was he was saying. So that was why they weren’t jumping to turn her in. If she’d already gotten them demoted twice —

“Wait,” she frowned. “What do you mean, you got sent here after arresting me?”

Tate shrugged again. “Just what it sounds like. Didn’t Szark fill you in?”

There was only one time she’d ever been arrested. One time, and that hadn’t gone badly for anyone but herself. They must have her confused with someone else. She’d never gotten anyone demoted for accidentally arresting her.

Had she?

They seemed awfully convinced of it, though, enough to hold back from turning her in now, which she still couldn’t believe. If they were anything less than absolutely sure, they wouldn’t be acting so edgy right now.

She thought about it. That one time — in the market, with the bread. The guards that had chased her, caught her, brought her in — it had seemed like a miniature army at the time, but the ones that had actually taken her in, after the group had caught her — there had been just two. Two.

She looked at the duo in front of her. One pale, one dark. Same height, same build.

The two that had arrested her, she hadn’t given them a second thought after that day. But she knew that of the two of them, one had been pale. And one had been dark.

And suddenly she knew they were right. It had been them.

“No,” she replied quietly. “He left that one out.”

They looked at each other, then back at her.

She was standing in front of the two men responsible for singlehandedly setting in motion everything that had been the whirlwind of the past few months. They had arrested her for nothing. For nothing.

And now she was living the strangest, most unfulfilling dream-come-true ever.

They were responsible.

Along those same lines, a new thought occurred to her. Had they been the ones who went back for Rothan, too?

Had she found someone else at whose feet to lay the blame for the reason she had come to the barracks in the first place?

She steeled her gaze, unguarded by the helmet, her mind going back to that day she fell defeated in the streets. She had crumbled before them once.

But now the tables had turned.

It looked like they were about to ask more questions, but she didn’t have the time.

“I need to get in there,” she reminded them, indicating the door looming behind her.

“In there?” Danan asked.

She nodded firmly. “The kid was the reason I even got involved last time, right? So Szark gave me permission to make sure he’s actually okay this time.”

Danan seemed doubtful. “You’re gonna go in there, into the barracks, alone. Alone. You’re a girl. Do you realize what they’d do to you in there? And Szark authorized this?”

Kierah held up her helmet. “That’s what this is for.”

Danan looked about to protest again, but Tate held him up, sounding tired if not defeated. “Do you really want to cross her again.”

It was less of a question and more of an appeal to whatever common sense Danan had.

And with that, Tate moved toward the door. With unexpected silence, it opened; not a creak, not a sound to alert anyone, inside or out, that the barracks were no longer sealed. And through the widening gap, Kierah found herself staring into the blackest dark she could have pictured.

“Watch your step,” he suggested, moving out of her way.

“So that authorization to take a half-hour leave –” Danan asked. “Is that legit, or we stay here?”

“It was just a test, remember?” Kierah said, a little absently now. The darkness in front of her suddenly took up more of her attention.

“So, stay,” he said, still holding the notescreen. 

She nodded.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Tate muttered.

“You and me both,” Kierah wanted to say. But she didn’t. 

She walked in.

The black enveloped her as the door shut behind her. For an instant, she fought to breathe, unable to ignore the feeling that she was being suffocated by its invisibility.

As her eyes adjusted to the dimness through her visor, she saw that it wasn’t as dark as she’d initially thought — there were actually lights along the perimeter of the vast room, but they were so far apart and so dim, the illumination they threw was mostly ineffective. At least, to the eyes of someone not used to it.

She was in.

She’d actually made it inside the barracks.

Now all she had to do was find a needle-sized kid amid the overwhelming haystack of bunks, corners, crevices and shadows. And she’d already been gone too long from Ari and her pretend interview. They’d probably start asking questions about her missing escort soon.

But Kierah pushed that thought from her mind. She’d made it this far. She couldn’t waste it.

As noiselessly as she could, she moved down the broad entry ramp and flattened herself along one wall, her heart pounding in her ears, trying to think. If she was a small kid trying to hide, she’d likely stick to the outskirts — where there was a wall at her back and no one could sneak up on her from behind.

Deciding that was as solid a reasoning as any, she moved along the edges, keeping her eyes open even though she had no idea what she was looking for.

Bunks rose in front of her like the masts of sunken ships at the bottom of a murky abyss. The crews they housed lay asleep, or so she assumed, silent as the grave. What crimes had landed them here? Murders. Rapes. Assaults. Thefts.

She felt like she was drowning in the darkness again. If any of them should wake up, turn around, notice her —

She kept moving. The few working lights above her flickered every now and again, her breath wavering haltingly along with them.

There was no one near the walls. Occasionally, the dingy, unbroken surface was interrupted by a pile of refuse, old pieces of broken bunks, ripped threadbare mattresses. She dodged these slowly, making sure no little person was using the pile as a hideout. None was.

She walked for what felt like forever. The room seemed endless, and this was just the outskirts. If she didn’t find him there — she glanced toward the blackened interior of the space. Did she dare venture further in?

Up ahead, a light caught her eye. It was a little bulb housed in an industrial looking cage, like all the rest, but unlike the others, it wasn’t flickering. Just past it was what looked like another pile of rubble. The light invited her over, and she followed.

Right now, even that little bulb was brighter than whatever feeble hope she’d been trying to hold onto.

She had to make a decision.

Reaching the boundary where the darkness was broken by the light, she stood still and looked around her. How much farther was she willing to go with this?

There was also another worry becoming more and more pressing. How much longer could she expect to not get caught?

Everything around her was dim. Dark. Cold. Quiet.

Very quiet. Maybe that was the most unnerving part of it all. Usually, quiet cleared her head.

But not this kind. She never really thought about how threatening silence could be until this moment, standing in the faded edge of light cast by the solitary lamp on the wall.

The absence of sound felt more full of darkness than the loudest cacophony of any night at Sirvan’s tavern. It was the emptiness that left her feeling helpless, the fact that it gave her nothing to hold onto, gauge herself by. There could be something lurking behind any pile, sulking in any corner, and she could have no way of knowing, not until it was too late.

The thought of that made her stop.

Too late? Too late for what?

With no one near her and everyone around her, she wondered what would happen if she did get found out. Standing here, surrounded by shadows, it was only a matter of time before one materialized behind her and smothered her in its inhuman grip. Down here, where no one would hear her. No one who would care, anyway.

What would Danan and Tate think, if she didn’t make it out? Would they come look for her?

She suppressed an exasperated sigh. No, all they cared about was not getting demoted again, even though she didn’t really understand how they’d already gotten demoted in the first place. They’d probably assume she was just doing what she wanted to do down there, and wouldn’t get involved. Eventually, too much time would pass, Szark would uncover Ari’s real motive, and he’d be the one to investigate her whereabouts.

They’d probably have nothing left to find but her body at that point.

She shuddered. After going through all this trouble, that was how it could end. After all the odds she’d beaten, she’d been stupid enough to walk into this lion’s den like a piece of meat just begging to be torn apart. Brilliant. Just brilliant.

There had to have been a simpler way, something less life-threatening than this to finding out what had happened to Rothan. 

But when Ames had warned her not to get involved in anything that could draw attention to herself, he clearly had no idea how stubborn she could be. She’d had no idea how stubborn she could be, herself. Clearly, they’d both underestimated her.

She was too wrapped up in her fear to hear the footsteps from behind her.

“What do you want.”

The voice came from nowhere, shattering her thoughts. Fear poured like ice water down her spine.

She’d been caught.

Images flashed through her mind, again, of all the reasons prisoners were sent there. It looked like Szark would find that body after all.

Then, just before the panic completely paralyzed her, she remembered the helmet. The uniform. This man didn’t know she wasn’t a guard.

“It doesn’t concern you,” she intoned, with as much masculinity as her voice would allow. But honestly she was just glad the words had come out at all.

“No, I think it does,” the phantom voice came again.

He was definitely behind her. She turned toward him, keeping her movements measured and as unpanicked as possible.

There he was. But she still couldn’t see him. At least, not well. The solitary lamp was behind him, backlighting him and casting his long shadow over her. All she could see was his silhouette: tall, burly, intimidating —

She blinked. No, that was her petrified imagination talking. He wasn’t that tall. Not short either, but not exactly the towering giant she’d anticipated. And his bulk seemed to come more from the loose shirt he was wearing than from any steroidal muscle mass.

“Guards never come down here,” he continued. His voice was hard — but like his silhouette, not as deadly as she’d imagined. He almost sounded, was it young?

It was irrelevant. She had to think of how a guard would respond. Arrogance, confidence, self-assurance would serve her well right about now, but none of those were something she’d ever quite mastered, especially when she was nervous. And nervous didn’t even begin to cover what she was feeling right now.

But she was taking too long to answer. A real guard would never take questioning from a prisoner; she had to put him in his place.

“If I was looking for you,” she came back, “I would have come for you.”

“And if you weren’t looking for me,” he countered, “you wouldn’t have come here.”

He had a point, and it annoyed her.

“Look, if you think —” she looked at that bulky silhouette again. And this time, something caught her eye. On one side, there was something more than just his shirt. “What’s that on your arm?” she asked.

“That doesn’t concern you,” he threw back at her.

But she knew what it was. In an instant, her terror all but vanished.

“It’s broken,” she said almost breathlessly. “Your arm, it’s broken, isn’t it?”

The prisoner shifted slightly.

She knew she was right. “You’re … you’re Demarc, aren’t you?”

He grunted in what could have been either amusement or derision. “You must be new here.”

Of course. Her recognition must have sounded strange to him; the way Danan and Tate spoke of him, he had quite a reputation among the guards. Apparently they all would have recognized him sooner.

But it was him. It was actually him. Of all the prisoners she could have been jumped by, she’d run into the one man she didn’t immediately fear.

Maybe it was just another dumb decision on her part; maybe she should have feared him.

 It was probably as foolish to trust him as it was to hope she could somehow save Rothan. But she’d been embracing the foolishness all night, so why stop now.

“It’s you — I can’t believe it’s you,” she stumbled, her voice slipping into its normal feminine pitch. “You can — you can help me.”

She couldn’t see his face in the shadow, but she could imagine the expression on it. 

“What?”

Then he tilted his head slightly, giving the light from the lone lamp a brief chance to illuminate his face. 

Kierah blinked, surprised by the handsome features that flashed in the dim light. Given the more pressing matters at hand, she hadn’t anticipated a convict being handsome — but despite what logic demanded, still she found her gaze lingering on his face.

This close to him, her eyes confirmed what distance had concealed when she had seen him from the scaffolding. He couldn’t have been much older than she was. His skin was the same deep tan of many Trythians, a few shades lighter than her own. Dark hair fell just above equally dark eyes, which were narrow and sharp beneath the shadows cast by the small light. But she could see them staring out at her, and she wasn’t sure how she felt about the intensity in that gaze.

He was dangerous. He had to be, living in a place like this. Even with a broken arm, he could take her down with no problem.

But she didn’t have time to think about that now.

“I’m looking for someone,” she stumbled on. “You know him, you know who I’m looking for —” She remembered she still had the helmet on. Reaching up to yank it off, she hoped it would help validate her story — but she knew it would only generate more questions. 

The helmet came off. The shield of the visor was gone. Her dark hair, originally in a bun but long since shuffled loose, fell down her back. The light from the lamp streamed out from behind him and illuminated her face.

“I’m looking for Rothan.”


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

Chapter 7: Unanswered

Once before, she’d been a stranger in her own room. The first time Kierah had stepped through the giant double doors, she’d been transported to a paradise she’d never dreamed she would ever lay eyes on, never mind live in. … Continue reading Chapter 7: Unanswered

Chapter 9: The sickness

Ethan stared at her. Her. It was a girl. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen one of those. He blinked, not entirely sure his eyes weren’t lying. But they weren’t.  Her hair, released from her helmet, tumbled in … Continue reading Chapter 9: The sickness

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