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 dark, messy waves around her face — a pretty face, he thought without thinking. He didn’t know what to think. This wasn’t the kind of thing he could have even tried to prepare for. 

He was still staring at her. Even in the dimness, her brown eyes shone brighter than they should have been able to.

He shook himself.

“What the hell is this? You’re not a guard,” he said, dumbfounded into stating the obvious.

“Yeah, I’m not supposed to be here,” the impostor replied. “I’m really looking for —”

“Who are you?”

“I’m — I was Rothan’s friend from before he — before he was brought down here.”

He eyed her. “Who?”

“Rothan’s friend,” she said again. She. He still couldn’t quite get past that part. 

“Rothan,” he repeated, trying to keep his mind one step ahead of his mouth. 

He wanted to ask a million questions, or run back to the safety of the Wall and hide. But what he didn’t want to do was think.

He could barely digest any of it. When he’d come over to see why a guard was in the barracks, and so close to the Wall where he’d been on watch, he’d been prepared to contend with a bored, or possibly drunk, man who was looking to cause trouble. Not this.

He hated being blindsided like that. Blows were one thing, but blows he couldn’t brace himself for, were another. It was one thing to defend himself, until the darkness closed in and the hits came without warning.

He struggled to latch onto something of what she’d rambled. A name. Rothan.

“I don’t know anyone named that,” he said at last.

He stared at her, aware, and grateful, that the light was behind him and hiding what he knew was a very lost his expression on his face.

She didn’t buy his answer.

“Yeah, you do,” she insisted. “The little boy, he’s like eight, and he’s got an arm like —” she stopped herself, realizing a description wasn’t what he needed. Her mouth paused mid-word, her lips just barely parted. He caught himself staring at her, then blinked and glanced away.

“Look, I know you don’t trust me. I get it,” she sighed. “Honestly, I wouldn’t trust me either. But I know you know him, and I just need to see him. When I found out he was here —”

“Who are you?”

“I said I know Rothan —”

“No,” he stopped her. “Who are you. You’re working for Szark? You’re one of the guards’ sisters, cousins, a Noble looking to get out more?”

“I told you, I’m not supposed to be down here.”

“Right. Because a half dozen levels of security just happened to look the other way while you walked in.”

“I didn’t say nobody knows I’m down here,” she conceded. “But that doesn’t mean I’m supposed to be here. And the people that do know — they think I’m working for someone else.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means the only way they were gonna let me in was to pretend I was under orders.”

Under orders. It had to be. Someone had to have sent her. 

“Under whose orders?”

“I’m not actually under orders,” she said. “It was the only way I could get down here. Look, all I wanna do is talk to the kid.”

“Seems like an awful lot of trouble to put yourself through for that.”

“Believe me,” she said quietly, “I tried everything else.”

He couldn’t deny that this had him a little confused. If it had been just another guard coming at him with a story like that, he’d be suspicious, and argumentative, and pick a fight — and that would have been the end of it. But somehow, the fact that it was a woman under that helmet threw a whole different wrench into his normally black-and-white rationale. It was that blindsided thing.

Maybe that’s why they’d done it, sent a girl instead of the usual grunt to catch him off guard and see what he’d do. But what he didn’t know was what they wanted him to do. Or who “they” were — the new fool who’d attacked him for the spilled parodesium a few days ago? Or Szark, extending his reach into the usually off-limits zone of the barracks? It couldn’t be Azor, coming back for another shot just for old times’ sake, could it?

He tried the logic of his options, but none of those really seemed to fit.

“I get it, you don’t trust me,” she began again, “and I don’t know how I can convince you —”

“You can’t,” he said evenly. “What you should try is giving me one reason why I shouldn’t make you regret coming down here.”

He took a step toward her, concentrating any ounce of menace that he could into the motion. The one useless arm notwithstanding, he knew he could overpower her without much trouble. Apparently she knew it, too. The lamplight on her face did nothing to conceal the flash of fear in her eyes. It was, he realized, the first hint of hesitation she’d shown since recognizing him.

He wasn’t sure why he’d said that. Going for intimidation wasn’t a card he would normally play — but then, this wasn’t a situation he normally found himself in. 

No. He did know why he did it. She was scared now. People tend to act without thinking when they’re scared. And what they do without thinking, is usually the closest thing to the truth.

He took another step toward her, waiting for her reflex, to reach up to her ear for a wire, or pull a comm out of her glove and call for backup. He even braced himself for her to yank out a blaster and aim it at him.

“Because I saw what you did for him,” she spoke suddenly. Her voice quivered a little, but she didn’t step back. “What you did for him out there the other day. You saved him. And someone who would do that, who would take that for a little kid, wouldn’t hurt me. Not without a good enough reason.”

She didn’t threaten. She didn’t cry out for help. But her words unnerved him more than if she had.

“What are you talking about?”

He knew exactly what she was talking about. But he didn’t know how she knew it.

“When he spilled that cart,” she said. “He didn’t deserve that fallout but neither did you, and you took it for him anyway. You — you wouldn’t hurt me. Not without knowing really why I’m here.”

“Maybe you underestimate me,” he suggested coldly, standing a little too close to her.

“I know what I saw,” she said, having to look up at him now, her deep brown eyes catching a rare glint from the limited light of the unbroken lamps along the wall.

“How could you have seen that?” he asked.

She paused for the briefest of seconds. “I was there,” she finally said. “I watched the whole thing.”

He didn’t answer, and she took that to mean he didn’t believe her.

“Go ahead,” she prodded. “Tell me that isn’t what happened the other day.”

“I know what happened. I was there,” he said. “But I didn’t see you.”

“I was on the scaffolding,”

“The scaffolding. And what, exactly, was a nice girl like you doing there? Or were you dressed in this getup like you are now, because you ‘weren’t supposed to be there’ either.”

“I wasn’t,” she shook her head. “Wasn’t supposed to be there, I mean. But I —”

“So how’d you get there?”

“I was — there was a group that had come through earlier — I was with them, but they had already gone back to the surface.”

“The Nobles?” The group Azor had led.

“Well, yes, but we’re not —”

“Then what exactly would a Noble like you want with Rothan?”

“But I’m not — wait, so you admit you know him,” she pointed out.

“I’m asking how you know him,” he redirected the question. It hadn’t entirely been a slip; if she’d seen everything, there was no point in denying he knew him. “What would a Noble have to do with a kid like him.”

“I’m not a Noble. None of us are. We’re —” she took a breath. “I guess you guys don’t get the news down here much. We’re all Enders.”

This just kept getting better. “Enders. Right. So Azor’s taken to dressing up the scum of the cities —”

“You think I’m making this up?” She cut him off, starting to sound aggravated. Or, was it rushed? “We’re part of an experiment. They took a bunch of us from the Ends and are trying to make us more, uh, refined. I don’t know. That’s why we were dressed the way we were. That’s why we were here. And after the others had gone — that was when I saw Rothan, and I recognized him from back in the Ends. From back before they took me in.”

He watched her face. Judging by the earnestness in it, he might have almost believed her. But that would have required him to be deaf to what she’d actually said. Also immeasurably stupid.

If she expected to convince him of honest intentions, she should have started with more believable lies.

“Who’s ‘they’?” he asked. One last question.

“What?”

“You said ‘they’ took you in. Who’s ‘they.’”

Again, she hesitated. But this time felt longer than the last. Either she was searching for a lie, or she was delaying telling a truth she didn’t want him to know.

She’d said she’d been taken in from the Ends to be trained. It was fairly far-flung as far as he was concerned, but knowing who she credited with taking her in might help him figure out who was behind sending her down tonight. And knowing who was behind it might help narrow down just what the point of the visit was — what they really wanted with Rothan, and if Rothan was even their final aim.

Her uneasiness with the question was doing nothing to alleviate his skepticism.

When she answered, her voice was cringing.

“The prince.”

As soon as the name was out of her mouth, a thousand conclusions flashed through his thoughts.

The prince. Her tone sounded guilty enough that it had to be true.

But if it was, Ethan had no idea what to make of it.

Why she would so readily admit such condemning information didn’t make any sense to him, but then again, not much of anything in the past five minutes had made sense to him.

If what she said was true, and the prince had shown interest enough in her to bring her to the palace, there was no way she could have come down here without his knowledge. He had to be the one behind her visit, or at least condoning it. Right?

But what did he want? The girl had asked for Rothan. Who was Rothan to anyone at the palace — and how did the prince even know about him?

The incident the other day had caught the attention of at least two separate guards, and guards were known for being chatty. Maybe word of it had reached Szark at the high command at Kelmar and then had made its way to the palace.

But what had been so notable about it? There was no way it would be enough to catapult Rothan into the palace’s radar. Yet this girl knew about it.

Was she just using it as an attempt to undermine his suspicions and get on his level? But she wasn’t doing a particularly good job of that. And why would she care what he thought, unless —

A thought crossed his mind like a shadow. It had always only been a rumor, but he knew the stories behind what had happened at Kumaari. The Kelmar prisoners always credited the catastrophe to a mole who betrayed the rebels. And if there had been a mole there, what if this girl was —

He shook the thought away. If she was sent by the palace to be a spy in Kelmar like the one that had brought down Kumaari, she wasn’t being remotely stealthy enough to be taken seriously, not least of all because she was — a she.

He didn’t know what to think. There were endless possibilities.

But at their base, none of them could lead anywhere good.

“Get out.”

She blinked at him, as if she hadn’t heard him. “No, wait a minute, I —”

“I said, get out.” His voice was steel.

“Look, I know this all sounds really … really strange, but — if I was trying to lie to you, don’t you think I’d make up something that at least sounded believable?” 

He agreed with that, but didn’t tell her so.

She was trying hard to sound calm, but there was a desperation in her words. “I’m telling you the truth. I get it, you don’t trust me, but I need to see Rothan. I’ve come too far tonight to let this go.”

He didn’t say a word. He’d run out of ideas.

So he stood his ground and waited.

Her brow wrinkled, like she was realizing something about what she’d just said. Finally, her shoulders slumped a little.

“Fine. I don’t have time for this. I’ve been too long already.” She sighed. “I’ll go. But tell him I was here. Please. Tell him it was Kierah, his first friend. He’ll remember me.”

Ethan said nothing.

“And tell him — tell him that I’m sorry,” she finished. “That I’m sorry if it’s my fault that he’s here.”

Ethan raised an eyebrow. Her fault?

“Thanks,” she added, turning to go. “I’m sorry to, uh, bother you.”

And just like that, she left.

Ethan watched her walk away, trying to let everything that just happened sink in. She hadn’t put up much of a fight to leave, which he hadn’t expected. Maybe part of her story was true, about her not being allowed down there, and she really was running out of time. But it didn’t really matter.

The best thing he could hope for, was that she wouldn’t come back.

–   – –—– –  – –

It wasn’t until Kierah and Ari were a few miles safely outside the confines of Kelmar that either of them spoke.

“Well?” asked Ari.

For a second, Kierah didn’t answer. She thought about what had happened inside the sprawling complex that was fading in the distance behind them. She hadn’t found Rothan. He’d been the whole reason she’d gone, that she’d dragged Ari into this, and she hadn’t found him.

But she had gotten farther than she’d dared to expect. She’d found Danan and Tate —

And Demarc.

She’d seen Demarc. A surprisingly dark and handsome Demarc. And he’d responded to that name. Contrary to the information on that database Ari had hacked into, he did exist. He was as real as any other prisoner there — and he knew Rothan. He knew Rothan.

She’d come so close —

“What happened down there?” Ari prodded impatiently from the driver’s seat.

Kierah thought a second more. “Nothing,” she finally said.

“Nothing? What do you mean, nothing? You were gone for two minutes short of forever, and almost got our cover blown taking so long. What are you talking about, nothing?”

“I didn’t find the kid.” Kierah shook her head. “There wasn’t enough time. I tried.”

Ari didn’t reply. They drove without speaking for a while before Kierah broke the silence again.

“But you know those two guards that I had an, uh, incident with the day I saw Rothan — Tate and Danan?”

Ari paid attention again, and Kierah remembered her reaction the first time she’d mentioned Danan’s name. “Yeah. What about them?”

“I ran into them again.”

Ari almost gasped. “You did what?”

“They got demoted to being the guards of the second barracks, thanks to Danan’s stunt of pulling a blaster on me,” she shrugged. “So I ran into them.”

Ari paused a beat too long before responding. “And?”

“They recognized me.”

“They recognized you?!”

“Well, Danan did. Everything was going according to plan, roughly, until he figured out who I was.”

Ari swallowed. “But they didn’t — they didn’t turn you in?”

“Nope. They decided I’m bad luck, so they didn’t want to cross me again. They let me into the barracks.”

“What do you mean, bad luck?”

“They get in trouble every time they cross me.”

“You mean, because they got demoted.”

Kierah nodded. “Yeah, twice. Once for the blaster thing, and before that, apparently, for arresting me.”

“Arresting — wait, what?”

“I guess they’re the ones who arrested me in the Ends in the first place.” She said it so naturally, but it still felt a little strange to realize they were the ones who had started this whole thing. “Small world.”

Ari looked like she was trying to wrap her head around it, too. “Why would they get demoted for arresting you?”

Kierah shrugged. “I guess the prince did believe I was innocent.”

“Yeah,” Ari murmured thoughtfully. “Guess so.”

–   – –—– –  – –

Well after his turn on watch was over, the encounter ran through Ethan’s mind like swinging pick, over and over again wearing away at his consciousness. He didn’t know what to make of it. Exhaustion eventually overtook him, but didn’t alleviate the anxiousness. It was still waiting for him in his dreams, and again when he woke up.

By the time he and the boys went to the mines the next morning, he had made up his mind about one thing, at least. He had to talk to Rothan.

But first, there was something else to take care of. If the girl wasn’t telling the truth, which she most likely wasn’t, then something else was going on. And whatever it was, Ethan wouldn’t be able to handle it by himself on a good day, never mind when he was still struggling to recover from the last few days.

Just before he and Rothan split ways with the others in order to pick up their shifters, Ethan walked up next to Terrell.

“Hey,” he said in a low voice. “Do me a favor.”

The teen looked over at him, but didn’t miss a step. “Yeah, what’s up.”

“Keep an eye on the kid.”

“Which one?”

Ethan glanced down at his sling and shrugged the arm in it. Terrell understood.

“Why?” Terrell asked warily. “Where are you going?”

“No, I’ll be with him, but — if anything goes down, just — I just want you to be watching.”

“Are you expecting something to go down?”

Ethan paused. “I’m not sure.”

“Garn?”

“I don’t think so. Just … keep your eyes open.”

Before Terrell could ask anything else, Ethan pulled away and headed toward the shifter dock.

He wasn’t going to tell Terrell what had happened. Not yet, anyway. He wasn’t sure why; he told himself it was because he didn’t want the kid to worry. Terrell had had some bad experiences as far as women were concerned, and knowing one had actually come down to the barracks probably wouldn’t go over well.

Granted, Ethan was banking on the hope that the girl wouldn’t come back; if she did, and Terrell found out then, having kept it a secret in the meantime would probably backfire on him. But it was a risk he was willing to take.

There was a little more to it than that, though. He wouldn’t admit it to himself, but it wasn’t entirely to protect Terrell. It was, in a way, to protect himself. Seeing the girl had unnerved him in a way he’d never been unnerved before. It was being blindsided, not being able to brace himself for the shock because he’d never seen it coming. He hated that. It made him feel weak, and he was ashamed of it.

He turned his attention to his shifter, and the little boy whose arm hung in a sling like his.

The two of them began their work as they had for the past few days. When their carts were full, they began the long, arduous climb to the surface. Most of the time, the only sound between them was the humming of the shifters. Ethan knew he wanted to interrupt that sound, but he didn’t know where to start.

Then he saw Rothan shrug his bad shoulder, adjusting his arm in the sling. It was as good a segway as any.

“How’s the arm?” he asked.

Rothan looked up at him, the innocence of childhood on his face, a sort of glow that the roughness of life hadn’t yet taken from him. Or, no, that wasn’t it. The look hadn’t been there just a few weeks ago, when the kid had first arrived, or even when he’d come to be with Ethan and the boys. Then, that “roughness of life” had seemed etched into his young features, a heavy, dull weight dragging him down. And that had been before his arm had required the support of the sling.

Now, he’d been injured. He’d been attacked, and overworked, and punished by that guard’s guilt trip using Ethan as the object lesson. Yet somehow, despite that, his face seemed infinitely brighter than it had been before those burdens had been laid on him. Even his step seemed lighter, less timid, less like he was pushing a heavy load although he was, as the shifter sailed along in front of his efforts.

Ethan had seen that look before, on the faces of all his little guys. He never really thought about it before, other than it was just the undaunted optimism of being a kid. But realizing that it wasn’t always there, that it hadn’t always been there, made him think for a moment. 

He met Rothan’s wide-eyed gaze and let out a hint of a smile. Rothan returned the expression, his little face brightening yet another shade.

That was it. That was the difference, then. The kid trusted Ethan now, and apparently that made all the difference in the world.

“How’s yours?” the kid returned before answering the question.

“I’m managing,” Ethan smiled.

“Then I’m managing, too,” Rothan decided.

He seemed so content with his answer that Ethan couldn’t help but keep that grin on his face. 

“You’re a good kid.” He paused. He needed to direct the conversation to that girl. What had she called herself — Rothan’s first friend? “I bet your friends must miss you, back home.”

He felt bad going about it through the back door like this, but he had no intention of telling the kid she’d actually come down there claiming to know him. Ethan needed to hear the truth from the kid, even if it meant he had to twist it a bit to make that happen.

The brightness on Rothan’s face dimmed a little. “I didn’t have any friends,” he said.

Instantly, Ethan felt a sting of regret at even broaching the subject. But he had to know. “Not any?”

“No. All the other kids — they were bigger than me,” Rothan said. “They didn’t like me very much.”

Ethan could kick himself. This wasn’t the answer he had been expecting, and seeing the shadow of sadness that passed over Rothan’s eyes just made it worse. He was about to try backing his way out when Rothan spoke again.

“Wait, no,” he corrected himself. “I did have one friend.”

His tone lightened momentarily at the remembrance, and Ethan felt slightly less bad.

“She was nice. But I didn’t know her for very long, though,” Rothan added sadly.

She. Her. Ethan took note of the pronouns with some hesitation. “Why? What happened?”

“The guards, they got her.”

“The guards? For what?”

“We were hungry. She said she’d get bread to share with me, because she said she had —” Rothan looked around cautiously, lowering his voice. “She said she had … money.” He said the word like he was unlocking a hidden passage.

To Rothan, it must have sounded impressive, but to Ethan, it was suspicious. “How much money?”

“Shhhh,” Rothan hushed him. “You can’t say it too loud. I got excited, but she wouldn’t let me say anything. I didn’t say anything before now, because she told me not to. It was a secret. It was supposed to be a secret, because if someone else found out, something bad might —” He stopped, remembering, and his moment of excitement faded again. “But something bad did happen. It wasn’t because I said anything, but it still happened anyway.”

“What? What bad happened?” Ethan figured he meant the thing with the guards.

“The guards chased her. Maybe they found out she had the — you know — and they didn’t like it.”

That could make sense, Ethan rationalized. An Ender having money wasn’t all that common an occurrence, especially if it was a decent amount, like it seemed this girl had. How she had gotten the money and how much she was buying with it would understandably have come under scrutiny.

All the same, Ethan cringed. Regardless of the money, this was sounding familiar. What if the girl had been telling the truth?

“But how did you see it?” he asked. “You saw it happen, the guards and everything?”

“Yeah. She came running right toward me.”

“She led the guards to you?”

“No — I mean, yes, but — she had to. She’d promised.”

“Promised what?”

“She promised me she’d come back,” Rothan explained. “I wanted to go with her to get the bread but she told me to wait, and she promised that she’d come back. And she did. She came back, and threw the bread to me, and I caught it.”

“And then?”

“And then they caught her.”

“You saw it happen?” It was the second time Ethan had asked that, but he needed to be sure. He didn’t know if it would matter in the end, though; even if the girl had been telling the truth about knowing Rothan, it still didn’t mean her intentions were beyond questioning.

“Yeah,” Rothan looked sad again. “I ran away at first — she told me to run — but I came back down a different street and stayed hid and watched. That was the last time I ever saw her.”

“And did they catch you?” Ethan asked, remembering the girl’s last request.

“And tell him — tell him that I’m sorry. That I’m sorry if it’s my fault that he’s here.”

Was this what she was talking about? That she’d led the guards to Rothan, left him with the evidence, and they’d captured him. It didn’t line up with what he already knew of how Rothan arrived at the mines — but then, he didn’t know very much.

But Rothan was shaking his head. “They didn’t see me. I’m good at hiding.”

Ethan could attest to the truth of that.

“So … that’s not why you’re here.”

Rothan looked at him strangely. “Here? No. I’m here —” He hesitated, weighing whether or not to say anything more.

He looked up at Ethan, and Ethan waited. Whatever it was, he would only get that answer if the kid trusted him enough.

“My dad,” Rothan said quietly. His voice was almost a whisper, but it pierced Ethan more keenly than if he had screamed it. “It was — my dad.”

Ethan didn’t reply. He reached over toward the kid walking next to him and laid a hand on his shoulder.

So that was it. He remembered the bruises on Rothan’s face that had only just recently healed, the fear Rothan had of being let back out of the mines. And this was why. Not some foolish girl who thought her arrest had triggered his — no, it was the boy’s father. His own flesh and blood that had betrayed him, sent him down to this hell.

And not only that, but had made his outside existence so bad that coming down here seemed to be, in Rothan’s mind, a relief.

The look on Rothan’s face had darkened again; and again, Ethan could kick himself for broaching a subject that was painful for the kid. He seemed to have a knack for doing that in this conversation.

He had to change the topic. Talking any further about the kid’s father wasn’t necessary. He understood that well enough. Probably better than most, given his own past.

Right now, there was just one more thing he did need to know, and it was back in less sensitive territory — going back to the encounter with the girl last night.

She’d said Rothan would remember her, which, so far, he did. As far as Ethan could tell, her story added up with Rothan’s account. There was only one other thing she had said that he wanted to confirm, if he could.

“So that girl, your friend,” he said, clearing his throat. “She was nice to you, then. You liked her.”

It was an awkward transition; not really a transition at all, more like a leap between two sides of a chasm, neither of which were particularly inviting.

Rothan nodded. “I liked her a lot. She kept her promise, she came back for me. I just hope — I hope she’s okay.”

Coming from a child, this was a resoundingly positive review. Ethan smiled a little.

“Is there any chance you remember her name?” he asked.

“Oh yes,” Rothan smiled a little more.

“And what was it?”

“Kierah.”

–   – –—– –  – –

“Be careful, Hudsen!” Zera called, waving dramatically from the balcony.

Kierah was standing just outside the door to the balcony, watching with amusement as Zera bid farewell to her boyfriend.

The young soldier turned around and winked up at her. “I’ll be back soon. Wait for me!”

“Don’t make me wait too long,” she flirted back.

He saluted her, then hurried over to meet the rest of his unit.

Kierah watched the exchange with a raised eyebrow. It was all a little too obnoxious for her tastes — but she had to admit, she felt a little bad for Zera. In the three weeks that had passed since Zera and Hudsen had gotten together on the trip to Kelmar, she’d seen him every day. But now, he was being restationed for the first time since they had met. Kierah didn’t know much about it, but she figured Zera would take it hard.

As Hudsen ran off, Kierah walked up next to where Zera stood leaning against the railing.

“Where’s he going?” she asked.

Zera watched him leave, a heartbroken, dreamy look in her eyes. Kierah had seen that look before. It was her go-to expression that was exercised liberally for each of the dozen or so guys she’d brought back to the apartment she and Kierah had shared in the Ends, insisting that each was “the one,” and that she’d “never been so in love before.” 

Each guy eventually fell by the wayside, but Kierah wasn’t about to remind Zera of that. She was still Kierah’s friend, and Kierah decided at least one of them should be happy.

Right now, it might as well be Zera, because it wasn’t going to be her.

Happiness wasn’t really something on Kierah’s own radar much lately. It had been more than two weeks since her excursion to Kelmar. She hadn’t gone back, and had barely even spoken to the reporter since then. It seemed like something was preoccupying Ari’s mind anyway, so it worked out. 

“He’s off to the mines,” Zera answered.

Kierah snapped to attention. “The mines? Why?”

She wondered if it was possible Danan and Tate had gotten demoted again. The thought made her cringe. If someone had actually been paying attention to the security camera footage, had seen them talking to her, seen her with her helmet off —

“Oh, it shouldn’t be too long,” Zera reassured her. “They just need some extra hands down there to help remove the bodies.”

“Huh?” Kierah blinked, not expecting that answer. “What bodies?” 

So this wasn’t about some foolish guards; it was about the slaves themselves. And if the already-well-staffed Kelmar needed outside assistance, this wasn’t just some prisoner skirmish that had gotten out of hand.

She swallowed, trying to smother her rising panic.

She thought of Kumaari, of the devastation that had wiped out thousands of lives in an instant. Her fear for Rothan had fallen under the shadow of that day not long after she’d found out where he was.

She tried to assure herself it wasn’t possible something of that scale had happened again. For one of the first times, she wished she paid more attention to the news. She never did, mostly because she usually was the news.

“What happened?” she asked.

“It’s just the prisoners,” Zera shrugged. “They’re dropping like flies from some epidemic — that’s what Hudsen called it. He said it means they’re sick. They’re getting sick, and dying. So he has to —”

“Dying,” Kierah repeated the word, wishing she hadn’t heard it. “Dying — why — why aren’t they giving them medicine? Why aren’t they curing them?”

Zera shrugged again. “They’re just prisoners. I guess it’s probably not worth it. I mean, they’re going to die anyway.”

Kierah stared at her. “How can you even say that?”

Zera looked confused. “Because it’s true.”

“They don’t deserve to die like that! No one does.”

“If anyone does,” Zera countered, “it’s definitely them.”

“They’re people!”

“They’re prisoners.”

“They’re Enders. Zera, most of them were just like us.”

“What? No.” Zera’s abruptness took Kierah by surprise.

“Zera —”

“They’re nothing like us. They’re thieves, and killers, and worse. Criminals, Kierah.” She frowned. “They’re nothing like us.”

Kierah bit her lip. For one of only a very few times that she could recall, Zera actually had a point. From her perspective, at least, the men at Kelmar were lower than dirt. Of course they were. Zera had no way of knowing otherwise.

But Kierah didn’t have that luxury of making a general assumption and looking the other way. She pictured Rothan’s innocent face, surrounded by death, waiting his turn.

And the young man, Demarc — he protected Rothan from everything, from guards, even from her, but this was one thing even he would be defenseless against.

“Why do you care?” Zera asked. “Why are we even talking about this?”

For an instant, Kierah considered telling her everything. Getting it off her chest would be a relief, sharing the burden — but she couldn’t. Zera wouldn’t understand.

“I was — nothing. I was just concerned about you, with Hudsen being gone and all. I just thought that — ya know, if they just cured the prisoners, he wouldn’t have to go in the first place.” She sighed quietly to herself. “That’s all.”

–   – –—– –  – –

Kierah gazed unseeingly out the floor-to-ceiling windows in her room. Arms folded, mind numb, eyes looking but not registering.

Dying.

The word sounded like a gong in her ears.

She heard the door open, and glanced over her shoulder at Terula, carrying in a pile of fresh bath towels. The maid looked across the room and smiled at her, but Kierah didn’t return it.

“Well, hello there,” the maid greeted her. “I didn’t expect to find you here. It’s common hour, you should be out and about, my dear.”

“I was,” Kierah replied. “Now I’m back.”

“Everything okay?”

Kierah wasn’t sure how to answer that. No. No, everything was far from okay. But explaining it — she had no idea where to start.

“Hudsen left today.”

The words took more effort to say than they should have.

Terula looked momentarily confused. “Hudsen? Who is — wait, that’s the young man your friend is dating, right? The soldier.”

Kierah nodded.

“Where did he go?” the maid asked, then raised an eyebrow. “You mean he left — like he left your friend?”

“Oh, no, not that. No they’re — they’re still together.”

Of course they were still together.

She thought back to what she’d settled on earlier that morning, before she’d found out about the new set of problems at Kelmar: Between her and Zera, one of them ought to be happy. And clearly, it was going to be Zera. It had always been Zera, ever since they’d been brought here.

She hadn’t really been thinking of Zera until just now, but Terula’s question made her reconsider.

That girl had been wrapped up in the wonder of their situation since day one. It had been so complete an infatuation that she hadn’t even thought how her disappearance would affect her best friend. If Kierah hadn’t, through some convoluted circumstance, gotten recruited into the experiment as well, she might have never known what had happened to her. Even if she’d watched the news broadcasts, it might have taken days if not weeks for her to catch a glimpse of Zera among the crowd of over five dozen — and even then, recognizing her underneath the makeup would have been nearly impossible.

Zera hadn’t thought of that. All she’d been able to see was how unbelievable her own fortune had been.

That was Zera. To her, everything was taken ten times to the extreme. When things had been tough, she’d been convinced life was pointless — except for the times she had a boyfriend, which always cleared things up for a while. But now that circumstances were turning around, she was walking on clouds every minute.

Kierah never really faulted her for it. She always told herself that’s just the way Zera was wired — tightly wound. Anything out of alignment, no matter how slight, would send her flying off out of control, one way or another. It was what she did, and after the more than two decades of their friendship, Kierah had learned to ride the waves and not let it rock her too much.

But at this second, Kierah was rocking. All she’d done was answer Terula’s question, but it had triggered a storm in her mind that she hadn’t seen on the horizon.

Hudsen hadn’t left Zera. Of course he hadn’t. She was Zera. In her dainty little mind, everything was beautiful right now. Ideal. The pinnacle of perfection, and she, Zera, had reached it. The toughest decision she had to make all day was what clothes to wear in the morning. The most devastating adversity she had to cope with was having her boyfriend move away for a few days. And she was innocent enough — or maybe oblivious was the better word — to argue with Kierah over the value of the lives he had gone to help clear out.

Her world had been small back when they lived in the Ends, and it hadn’t widened when she left. All she could see was what was right in front of her — the truth and everyone else be damned.

And Kierah was jealous.

Everything was simple for Zera. Everything was just right. And it wasn’t fair that she could get away with living like that.

“No, they’re still together,” she said again. “Why wouldn’t they be,” she muttered.

Terula eyed her curiously. “So where did he leave to? Kierah, is there something you want to talk about?”

Kierah stared out the window, watching the afternoon sun burn the sky a painful shade of red.

Her world wasn’t as small as Zera’s. It wasn’t a convenient little package she could carry around in her purse and open and close like an locket whenever she chose. Hers was a shadow, a looming, nebulous cloud that couldn’t be controlled or explained, keeping things hidden from her until she crashed into them, or hanging them over her head just beyond her reach. Her world taunted her, overwhelmed her, reminded her how powerless she was, and, no matter what changed or how different things became, how powerless she would always be.

“They’re dying,” she whispered.

The maid walked over to the couch and put down the pile of towels. “What did you say?”

“Kelmar,” she said a little louder. “The prisoners are dying. Hudsen went to Kelmar to remove the bodies.”

This time, Terula heard her. The shock on her face was bright as the sunset, but Kierah would have had to have been looking at her to see it. As it was, she kept her gaze fixed steadily at the window. If she moved, the motion might jerk out the tears that were beginning to fill up her vision.

“So you mean — that little boy —” Terula easily connected the dots.

“Rothan.” Kierah blinked away one wave of tears, only to find another fill their place. “I killed him.”

“Don’t you say that,” Terula swiped a hand at her, then laid it gently on her shoulder. “You did not. This was not your fault, girl. How can I get that through your head?”

Kierah didn’t answer. It didn’t matter, anyway. Whether or not she was convinced it was someone’s fault other than her own wouldn’t change Rothan’s fate now.

“What are they dying from?” Terula asked quietly.

“They’re getting sick. Zera said it’s an epidemic.”

“What kind of an epidemic?”

“Zera didn’t say. I don’t think she even knows what the word means.”

She wouldn’t bother her pretty head with useless information like that, she thought.

“And the officials are doing nothing about it,” Terula said.

Kierah shrugged, defeated. “All they’re doing is bringing more guards to … clean up.”

“But not helping them, not curing them?”

“Why would they? Who cares if they die? They’re just prisoners, there’s plenty more where they came from.”

She hated the words as she forced them out of her mouth, but she hated the logic more. It was Zera’s logic, and, apparently, the logic of everyone who had any say in the matter.

“He’s gonna die,” Kierah said flatly. “He’s a baby. What kind of a fight can he put up against something that’s killing grown men? I mean, have you even seen the guys that they keep around there? These are freaking huge men. Huge. And they’re dying.

“What’s Rothan? Like, eight? How can I even try to hope that he won’t die?”

“He might,” Terula said gently. “But you cannot take this on yourself. The weight of the world isn’t your responsibility, Kierah. It can’t be your fault. Do you hear me?”

Hearing someone else repeat the guilt that had been strangling her for weeks suddenly struck a chord, and all the thoughts she’d been bottling up broke and poured out.

“And how exactly can it not be my fault?” she cried. “It’s bad enough that he’s living in hell — now he’s got to die there? How can I just sit here and not care? How can I sit here and just go on with my life?

“Even if it’s not my fault, even if he’s there for some other reason, then what? Is that supposed to make me feel better? He might be dead already for all I know. He might be one of the bodies that Hudsen’s being sent to take away. And so what?

“No one knows. No one cares. I’ll never know why he’s actually in there. All I’ll know is he never got out.”

She stopped, only long enough to swallow the tears that were threatening to choke her up. 

“Everybody told me to mind my own business — don’t talk to anybody, just let it go. It’s nothing, right? He’s nothing. He’s nothing to anybody. He’s nothing even to me — I mean, really, I don’t know him. I met him for like an hour. And how many more kids are there like him out in the Ends right now? So really, what does he matter?

“Except I did know him, even if it was just for that hour. And I can’t — I can’t get that out of my head. He’s not nobody. He has to matter. 

“And now he’s gonna die. After everything. Even when I tried to get in there to see him, one last time, I get kicked out by the only other person on this planet who seems to give a damn about the kid. Fine, fine. He’s protecting Rothan from me, I get that — but what does that leave me with? What am I supposed to do?

“So I sit here, and wait, and he’ll die. But at least, ya know, it ‘wasn’t my fault.’”

The look on Terula’s face should have been something sad, maybe reassuring, compassionate, possibly even hurt by Kierah’s bitterness — but it wasn’t. Her frown was hanging on to something Kierah had let slip.

“What do you mean, you went to see him?” she asked. “Who kicked you out? From where?”

Kierah’s mind was spinning with too much momentum to follow what Terula was asking her. “What?”

“You said someone kicked you out,” Terula repeated.

So she’d actually said that out loud.

She’d never told Terula about her undercover excursion that night because it wasn’t worth worrying her. And now she’d let it out.

Perfect. Something else she had to feel bad about. 

Left without much choice and even less resolve to lie about it, she explained the whole thing. Terula listened quietly as she laid it all out, from the colonel getting in the way, to Ari’s research, to hitting a dead end and being turned away by the Demarc boy who wasn’t even listed as being in Kelmar at all.

By the time she had finished, Terula knew everything.

“You actually broke into Kelmar,” the maid repeated, shaking her head.

Kierah hung hers, the fight gone out of her. “Yes.”

“A high security prison, and you just waltzed right in and made yourself at home.”

“Pretty much.”

“And no one stopped you.”

“They didn’t question a reporter.”

Terula tsk-tsked her way from one end of the room to the other and back again. “And you didn’t tell me. I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.”

Kierah didn’t have it in her to apologize. She had enough guilt over real wrongs, and this wasn’t one, as far as she was concerned. She felt bad about keeping Terula in the dark, but it had been to keep her from worrying. She could live with that, even if Terula was mad about it.

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me,” the maid said again. Then suddenly, Kierah noticed the fire in her eyes.

“Can you get in again?”

Kierah balked. “Again?”

“I know people,” Terula said. “If I find out what kind of sickness this epidemic is, I can see if there’s a cure for it. If there is, I can get my hands on some. And if I do, there’s a chance we can save Rothan.”

Kierah stared at her.

“But,” Terula continued, “there’s only the itty bitty problem of getting it to him. Which would only be a problem, if we didn’t know how to get in.” She winked at Kierah, her bubbly self almost too happy for Kierah to even comprehend at the moment. “But it would seem, we do know how.”

–   – –—– –  – –

It didn’t take long for Terula to find what she was looking for. By that evening, Kierah was back at Ari’s door with a backpack, in which was a handful of vials.

The cure existed. 

Which made Kierah elated, enraged, and terrified.

There was a glimmer of hope now. Not only had Terula found out about a cure — she knew everybody, and could find out most anything — but she was able to obtain some. There was a chance of saving Rothan.

That was, however, assuming he was still around to be saved. The chance that he might not be, made her insides boil, now from anger as much as from guilt.

There was a cure. There was a cure, and it wasn’t being given to the prisoners. Whoever made the decisions around Kelmar was deliberately letting them die.

And anger wasn’t the only emotion for her to contend with. The idea of going back into Kelmar made her nervous. She’d already been kicked out once. Not by anyone with the power to prevent her from coming back, but by the one person who was left standing between her and the kid.

What would the Demarc boy say? Was he even still around? He’d had a broken arm. He was weak, just as vulnerable to disease as the younger boys he seemed to look after. 

If she made it back into the barracks, this promised to be either exceptionally fulfilling, if she could heal them — or exceptionally devastating, if they were no longer around for her to heal.

The latter option clung to the back of her mind like a parasite.

“What’s the illness?” Ari asked when she let Kierah in.

Kierah had come by earlier in the day and briefed her on what Terula was attempting to do, and Ari had prepped the guard uniform just in case Terula’s mission was a success. 

“The illness,” Kierah repeated, “the one that’s killing off dozens of slaves? You’d think it was some rare disease, right? One that it’s cheaper to just let them die from, than actually cure. You’d think that, wouldn’t you?”

Ari raised an eyebrow. “So you’re saying that isn’t the case.”

“Yeah, no, no it’s not.” Kierah opened the pack and pulled out one of the vials. “You see this right here? This stupid little thing? The medicine that took Terula all of half an hour to get her hands on?”

“Yeah…”

“It’s everywhere. The medicine is freaking everywhere. Anyone can get it. This disease they have, it’s like — it’s like dying from a cold. Apparently Middles and Nobles get vaccinated for it when they’re kids, so they’re fine. But since slaves are pretty much all Enders, they never did. So this stupid, stupid disease, that anyone can be cured from, is killing them.”

Kierah had been furious when Terula told her that.

She was still furious now.

Ari was right behind her.

“If it’s that cheap and easy to cure,” she asked, “then why aren’t they doing it? You’d think it’d cost more to suit up and send out more guards to clear the bodies than to just offer a few injections —”

“There’s gotta be only one reason,” Kierah told her, her voice cold. “Terula pointed it out, and I think she’s probably right.”

“What’s that?”

“When I went down there the last time,” she put the vial back and began angrily shoving on portions of the guard uniform, “the barracks were pretty packed. Everyone was asleep, but it was packed. So many people. And they probably have too many.”

“You think they’re trying to cut down on numbers, so they’re just letting them die off,” Ari followed her train of thought.

Kierah nodded. “And you know who’ll die off first?”

“The weak. The injured. The kids.”

“Exactly. Survival of the fittest, and the brutes will make it. The ones who are actually the murderers and criminals. But the innocent ones, they won’t make it. That sounds fair to me.”

She was seeing red as she pulled on the black uniform. 

“Fair,” Ari chuckled, watching her. “Right. That’s definitely the buzzword for how this country’s run.”

Kierah realized what she’d said, and knew it was absurd. Foolish to think that somehow, for once, something wouldn’t be unfair. If that day was ever in her future, it was too far away to think about now. 

“So what do we know about the changing of the shifts?” she asked, focusing on the more immediate object at hand.

Ari grabbed her notescreen and began explaining. Kierah listened, a knot firmly in her stomach. 

The transport with replacement guards would leave in an hour. She would be on it. When she got off, she’d make her way to where Danan and Tate were scheduled to be on rotation at barracks #2. And if luck held out, she’d be just fine to get in again. 

“There will probably be more guards around too,” Ari warned. “If they sent Hudsen and such as help to remove bodies, they’re all probably still there. But that’ll actually be to your benefit. More unfamiliar faces, you’ll blend right in.”

Kierah nodded. It was a long shot. She knew that. A million things could go wrong.

Like the last time, she was banking on the off-chance that they might not.


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

Chapter 10: Cure

The boys had started getting sick three days ago. First it was just one, then three, then a half dozen. And before he knew it, over half of his makeshift family was bed-ridden, and the other half forbidden from approaching them. Even with the quarantine, though, others fell ill. He and a few of the older boys tried to nurse the sick as best they could, but with no resources, it was a hopeless task. Continue reading Chapter 10: Cure

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