Managing to not talk to anyone, Kierah used the access ID key Ari had forged for her to make her way to the barracks.
There had been a moment of panic when she’d had to go through the detector at the entrance and wasn’t sure what would happen if they found the vials in her bag — the military-issue one Ari had procured for her — but the detector was set to pick up on only weapons, and apparently vials weren’t considered a threat.
All the extra guards that had been brought in for the removal of bodies weren’t milling about, though. As far as she could tell, now that sundown was long gone, and all the slaves had been returned to their barracks, the extra workforce, Hudsen included, had retired.
That was still good, she thought. Less of a chance of interruption once she made it inside the barracks. That is, assuming she could find the young man again.
Assuming he was still alive.
Danan and Tate were surprised to see her again, but were just as accommodating as they’d been the last time.
And there she was. Inside, as the doors shut behind her.
What lay before her was no less intimidating than the last time she was there. Terrifyingly, it was almost worse.
Kierah set her jaw and walked as quietly as she could along the perimeter of the space. The black of her uniform melded with the shadows, or at least she hoped it did.
She didn’t know what she would find. She didn’t even know where to look, really. When she’d found Demarc the last time, she wasn’t the one that had found him — he’d approached her. She had a feeling history wouldn’t repeat itself.
Where had she been when he’d found her, though, she tried to recall. It was near the far end of the room, if she wasn’t mistaken. Maybe when — if — she could get there, she’d find a clue, something to offer a hint to where he’d been hiding before approaching her.
Everything she walked by was dark, stark and cold. Nothing jumped out at her, but she was grateful for that. She didn’t want any unwelcome surprises, but that might be too much to ask for, given what she was currently putting herself through.
She’d chosen to be here, she reminded herself. Like the last time. Her own nerves and discomfort didn’t matter much, she knew. Not when held up against the survival of an innocent kid.
She followed the outside wall of the room, broken lights flickering above her, casting shadows long into the forest of bunks. Then she noticed, up ahead, was a light that didn’t flicker. It seemed to be the only one that wasn’t broken. At second glance, she saw something else: a barricade of sorts, piles of broken bunks and debris orchestrated into some kind of makeshift wall.
And behind that wall, the echoes of coughs had taken on a different tone. A younger one.
Her heart caught in her throat. There sounded like so many. She knew Demarc kept the company of at least two teenagers, but here, there were more than that, many more. And much younger.
This was it. It had to be. She swallowed the lump her heart had left in her throat. Rothan was here. If he was still alive, this was where he’d be. She was a few steps away from finding him.
If he was still alive.
Bracing herself, she stepped around the corner.
There were as many as it sounded like. And then some.
She couldn’t believe it.
So many. How were there so many?
And why were they all here? She tried to process an explanation, but all she could think was that there was strength in numbers, especially for kids so young. How had they found each other? Were there adults, too? Demarc looked almost old enough to qualify as an adult, but was he the only one?
She took in the view in front of her, rows of cots lining the space secluded from the rest of the barracks.
It looked like dozens, and she couldn’t even see that much from the entrance, the short distance left between the edge of the barricade and the room’s outer wall. Pretty easily defensible, she thought. It wouldn’t be too difficult to have one person stationed as watch, keeping an eye on what was likely the only way in and out of the little area.
It was a teenager. He was standing just past the entrance, having just turned around from tending to another kid lying on a cot. He caught a glimpse of her, and stopped in his tracks.
But only for an instant.
That instant was enough for her to realize she knew him. He looked like the older of the two teens that had been brought out to help Demarc and Rothan.
He stared at her, and before she could do anything, he called out.
– – –—– – – –
Terrell’s voice came tentatively from the entrance of the Wall.
Ethan didn’t like the hint of panic in his tone. Had one of the boys — was he too late —
He whirled around from the boy he was tending to, but immediately regretted the motion. His head swam, the pain from his still-not-healed arm doing nothing to offset the weakness he felt. He’d been going nonstop since the epidemic had set in, with barely a break only when Terrell or Jonah or one of the other teens afforded him one.
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.
Ethan had pleaded with the guards for something to cure them, even just alleviate the pain, but all he was met with was a bucket and a rag. Cool them off, keep them from overheating, the guards said. There was no cure, they said.
There was nothing he could do. An illness that was taking out strong, full-grown men — what chance did children stand against that?
So far, the boys had all fought. They’d stayed alive. It was a miracle they’d held on so long. But their luck was bound to run out sooner than later.
Terrell’s voice reminded him of that. If he’d had a chance to forget.
Ethan tried to process what the implications of that could mean, when something about the guard struck him as unusual.
This guard was particularly short.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, trying to mask the weariness in his voice.
He wasn’t entirely surprised when the guard removed his helmet.
The girl was back.
He should have expected that. He’d kicked her out, but if she was sent by whoever she was sent by, she wouldn’t give up that easily. He should have known.
And of course, she’d come when they were at their weakest.
But this time, that wasn’t all. Now, to make matters more complicated, he couldn’t ignore what Rothan had told him. The kid had, in fact, known this girl.
He wasn’t sure what to make of that little tidbit.
And now Terrell had seen her —
“I heard you were sick — that Rothan was sick,” the girl said. “I’m sorry, but I had to come back.”
Ethan’s headache intensified. He should have told him. He’d guessed it might backfire on him, and apparently now it had.
“I have,” the girl said before he could reply. He didn’t have the energy or the time to deal with it now. He didn’t have the energy or the time to deal with her, though, either. But he didn’t really have a choice.
“Last time,” the girl was continuing, addressing Ethan, “you wouldn’t let me come in or see Rothan or even tell me if he’s okay. Which I get, it’s fine, you were protecting him, you didn’t know who I was. You still don’t. But now … please …”
Her voice sounded more pleading than last time. Or maybe it was just more determined. Either way, Ethan had a feeling she wouldn’t be quite as easy to repel as she’d been before.
Terrell was still glowering at him.
“Later,” he said to the teenager, then nodded over his shoulder, indicating that Terrell should go that way. “The boys.”
Terrell glared at him, then at the girl, then back at him, before wordlessly leaving. But there would be plenty of words later. Of this, Ethan had no doubt.
But that would be later.
He had enough to deal with in front of him. The girl stood at the entrance. She wasn’t pushing her way in, she was just standing there. But by the look on her face, she wasn’t leaving without answers this time.
He didn’t answer. “What do you want?”
“I want to help,” she said.
“I heard about the epidemic,” she answered quietly. “And I couldn’t just sit there and let him die. Let all of you die, because apparently there’s a lot of you.” She reached into her bag and pulled out a vial. “I just hope there’s enough, I didn’t realize how many kids you had.”
He glanced at it suspiciously. “And that’s supposed to be …”
“Medicine. The cure.”
He actually managed a chuckle. “Right.”
“There’s no cure for this.”
Her forehead crinkled sadly. “Is that what they told you?”
He was about to say yes, but caught himself. The way she said it — yes, that’s what they’d told him. But he had to consider who had told him.
“So there is a cure,” he said, almost more to himself than to her.
She nodded. “A fairly common one. They must just —” She didn’t finish. But he had a good idea of where she was going.
Let the weak and the slow die off. It didn’t matter to them that those were the only innocent human beings in the whole facility.
His head hurt. It had been hurting for a few days, but he’d managed to ignore it. Now it throbbed uncontrollably, and he wasn’t sure if it was a physical pain or a consequence of wrapping his brain around the reality of the current situation.
Matters weren’t made any better by the fact that an intruder — a distractingly pretty one — was standing in front of him, posing as a friend to one of the most vulnerable kids he’d taken in. And offering what she claimed was a cure to the biggest threat of the moment.
He had to decide what to do with that offer.
“I know you have no reason to trust me,” she said.
At least she was smart enough to realize that. If he recalled correctly, she’d said that a lot the first time, too. He tried sifting through the throbbing in his head, tried to think clearly.
“Last time, all I wanted was answers to maybe fix my own guilt,” she continued. “That wasn’t a good enough reason for you to humor me. I know. But this — this is different. Let me help. Please?”
“What, you’re not looking for answers anymore?”
“At the moment, no,” she shrugged. “I just don’t want him to die here. Whether he’s here because of me or not.”
He fought the fogginess in his head.
“I have a cure,” she pressed. “I can help you. Please let me. At this point, what have you got to lose?”
He couldn’t deny the logic of this. He didn’t have anything to lose. If he let her distribute the medicine, and it turned out to be less beneficial than she’d promised, that wouldn’t be any worse than what would happen if he refused her and let the sickness run its course.
The sickness was something he couldn’t protect the boys from. Against anything else, he at least had a shot. Threats from the guards, Szark, Garn, other slaves — he wasn’t guaranteed a win, but he could at least fight.
There was nothing he could do about it.
Except now, he could. He had a chance.
This girl — Kierah, her name was — she was offering him a chance.
“Okay,” he said, hearing the exhaustion in his own voice and resenting it.
“What?” she asked, as if she hadn’t expected him to actually say it.
“I said okay,” he repeated. “Don’t make me say it again.”
It took her a split second to comprehend that he’d just agreed.
“Um, okay. Okay. We’ll need — we’ll need to give the kids these.” She pulled the top off the vial and dropped a tiny pill out onto her hand. “They need to take just one. They can chew it, or if they’re too weak, just put it in their mouths and it’ll dissolve.”
Ethan looked at the tiny tablet. “And then what?”
“And if they’re really far gone, we also give them this.” She pulled out a liquid-filled vial and a small needle. “They get a shot in the arm. It’ll help boost the immune system and recovery.”
“And then what?”
“That’s it,” Kierah shrugged.
“What do you mean, that’s it?”
“That’s it. You wait like a day or two, and the symptoms will start going away.”
He didn’t like the idea of needles, but he didn’t have a choice.
“How many do you have?”
“How many do you need?” she countered.
He looked over his shoulder, then back at her. “A lot.”
She hesitated, and he wondered what she was thinking. She didn’t leave him long to guess. “Please,” she asked, “is one of them Rothan? Or am I too late?”
“He’s still alive.”
The relief that illuminated her face was as bright as if a new lamp had been installed along the wall next to her.
“He is?” she asked, almost unwilling to believe it was true.
“Not sure for how much longer, but yeah. Let’s go.” He held out his hand, and she gave him the vial.
“May I help?” she requested.
Her tone was polite, and his head was swimming, so he didn’t say no. She removed a second vial of pills from her bag, and followed him.
As soon as she took a step forward, Terrell approached. Jonah wasn’t far behind.
They’d been conferring, Ethan knew. Even though they’d been out of his range of sight, he’d figured they would talk. A few others may have joined. But these two would have led whatever small discussion had happened, and it probably wasn’t pretty. Curiosity would have been a main factor, immeasurably overshadowed by suspicion.
He couldn’t blame them. This was one of the more unusual things to have happened during his years in the mines.
But he also didn’t have the energy to combat whatever objections they were about to throw at him.
“What does she think she’s doing?” Terrell whispered angrily, standing next to him but facing the girl. Jonah stood a few feet away.
Ethan turned tired eyes on the boy and held out the vial in his hand. “She has a cure.”
“And you believe her?” Terrell scoffed.
“At this point, yeah,” Ethan replied. “If we don’t at least try this, the boys are dead anyway.”
Terrell flinched at the word.
“Trust me on this.” It was a request, but a firm one. It was also Ethan’s way of saying negotiations were over, short as they were.
Terrell didn’t budge for a moment. Jonah seemed torn, but didn’t stand in the way. Finally, with obvious reservation, the older teen stepped aside. But the look he gave Ethan tore right through him. Terrell felt betrayed. Ethan could read that much. Betrayed that he hadn’t been told about something as serious as this.
Terrell was Ethan’s best friend, his confidante. There was trust there, forged over years of having each other’s back. Now, because Ethan had tried to spare him the worry of something that he knew would tear at the teen’s old scars, it had come back to bite him. It had reared its head again, right in front of them.
Pushing past all of that, he ventured toward the cots of the sick. He couldn’t see it, but he could picture the heated glares of hatred being turned on the girl as she ducked past Terrell and Jonah to follow him. He heard both teens fall into step behind her, and didn’t object. They wanted to watch, that was fine. The other boys who were awake and aware of what was going on would be watching too, though from a distance.
Terrell didn’t like distance. He didn’t like not knowing. Now that he knew, he wasn’t going to risk missing something else.
It wasn’t just out of bitterness though, Ethan knew. Angry as he might be, he was protective. He still had Ethan’s back, and wasn’t going to leave him alone with the intruder, or let her near the other boys without asserting his authority in the situation. He belonged there, she didn’t, and he wouldn’t let her forget whose home this was.
They stopped at one bed, then the next, then the next, offering a pill to a coughing child or slipping one under the tongue of another who was fitfully asleep. Every once in a while, they’d have to administer a shot, pulling up a sleeve, sanitizing the skin and inserting the needle. One by one, they brought a bit of hope into the darkness. Or at least, that’s what Ethan hoped they were doing.
He hoped it worked. He hoped he’d made the right decision.
It was a pressure he was always under, to make the right decision. The well-being, the survival of every single one of these boys fell on him. Some days, that realization was heavier than others. Right now, it weighed on him like a ball and chain. And not just figuratively. He felt like he was carrying an entire shifter’s worth of parodesium on his back. His head was still spinning. His still-healing arm felt like it wasn’t even attached to him anymore, except maybe by a single shred of stabbing pain.
He struggled to take a deep breath. Sometimes, that was the best he could do.
– – –—– – – –
Nervously, Kierah helped Demarc bring the medicine to the boys. Cot by cot, they moved along the wall. With each new bed they approached, she wondered if this one would be Rothan. And if, when she got to him, he’d still be within her ability to help. And if she’d even have enough medicine to go around.
She hadn’t anticipated so many kids. Terula had made her pack extra, but she could only hope it would be enough.
And then, there he was. She turned to the next cot, and there he was. The same little face, this time with eyes closed, just lying there, pale.
Seeing him up close again was so strange. He was real. Lately he’d become almost more of an ideal than a flesh-and-blood human being. She’d been so focused on finding him again that seeing him in person, in the flesh, was surreal. But it was happening.
His face wasn’t bruised, like it had been the day she’d gotten arrested. Those marks were gone, as was whoever had caused them. They’d been replaced by a broken arm and guards who showed no pity.
One hard life had been replaced with another.
But at least he was alive.
His little chest rose and fell under the rough, worn blanket pulled up to his chin, a subconscious cough escaping his lips every once in a while. She stared at him, frozen for a second.
The kid she’d risked so much to find, was now in front of her. It had finally happened.
Swallowing her emotions, she poured out another tablet and gently brought it down toward him, propping open his lips and leaving the pill under his tongue. In a few moments, it would dissolve, its life-saving essence going to work.
“How long has he been sick?” she asked Demarc, not taking her eyes off the little boy’s face. “Do we need to give him a shot too?”
There was no answer.
“Do we need to give him —” she repeated, but was cut off by the small sound of something tiny hitting the ground. Several tiny somethings. She looked down and saw a tiny pill roll toward her and collide with her foot, followed by a few more, rolling erratically in her general direction. Her eyes traced where they had come from.
Demarc was still there, standing at the foot of Rothan’s cot. Except he was barely standing at all. His tan face was completely white, his eyes glazed over.
And his hand had gone limp, losing its grip on the vial, which had tipped forward, losing its contents.
The two teenagers had apparently just noticed as well, and before she could react, they were rushing to Demarc’s side.
“Ethan,” the younger one whispered as they each grabbed an arm to support him. The empty vial dropped to the floor. “Ethan, can you hear me?”
The older teen turned on Kierah, eyes blazing. “What did you do to him?”
Kierah gasped. “Me? You think I did this to him?”
“He was fine a second ago.”
“Terrell,” the younger teen hesitated, “he’s been weak for days. I think he’s — I think he’s sick.”
Terrell didn’t answer. Together, the two carried him to an empty cot.
She didn’t want to leave Rothan’s side. She’d finally — finally — found the kid, and now she had to pull herself away. She hadn’t even yet gotten a chance to give him a shot if he needed one.
But she could come back to him. He seemed stable enough, she admitted to herself.
Demarc, though — that might be a different story. His decline had been so sudden — and she realized she was nervous. Nervous for him, nervous for whether she’d be able to help, nervous for whether the teenagers would even let her help. But it was worth a try.
Once they’d gotten him onto the bed, she held out the vial she’d been carrying.
“Can I?” she asked.
Terrell glared at her, but before he could say no, the younger one cut in. “It’ll heal him?” he asked.
She decided she liked this younger kid.
“Are you crazy?” Terrell shot at him.
She didn’t like the other one quite as much.
“It’s medicine,” the younger one argued. “She’s already given it to most of the boys, and —”
“And do we know it works yet?” Terrell interrupted.
“No,” he acknowledged. “But there hasn’t been enough time. I don’t think medicine is supposed to be that fast.”
“So if we don’t know it works, why would we give it to Ethan? Look at him, Jonah! He’s weak. Why would we trust an intruder?” he spat the last word.
Kierah absently realized she’d now heard all three boys’ names. Terrell. Jonah.
And Demarc — that must be a last name. Ethan. Ethan was his name. Ethan Demarc.
Not that that was of any importance. She knew his name. But could she keep him alive?
This kid, Kierah could have hugged.
“And besides,” he continued, “what else can we do? You’d rather just keep a wet rag on his forehead? Because that’s the only other thing we have to work with. And you know it.”
The edge of defiance was sharp in the younger teen’s voice. And it seemed to be just enough to cut through the other’s stubbornness.
Terrell didn’t say a word. He set his jaw and in a seemingly painful act of relinquishing some authority, he stepped back just a little, enough to give Kierah some space to get to Ethan’s bedside.
She didn’t say anything either, just took advantage of the room he’d begrudgingly offered. She wanted to thank the other boy, but that would probably rub Terrell the wrong way, so she abstained.
Standing next to the unconscious Demarc was scary, she realized. This young man, who so many kids looked up to, was sick. Possibly deathly sick. And his life was in her hands.
Taking one of the few remaining pills from the vial, she put it into his mouth.
He was more pale than the other sick kids, and completely out of it. The others had at least moaned or shuffled in their sleep when she gave them the tablet. Demarc didn’t respond at all.
She could be wrong. She hoped she was. But what if she wasn’t?
She pulled the other vial out of her bag, the one for use with the needle.
As could be expected, Terrell didn’t take too kindly to the idea.
“What do you think you’re doing with that?” he demanded, about ready to shove her out of the way.
“Do you see him?” Kierah asked, trying to understand his perspective, but a little put off by his attitude. Protecting his people, fine. She could completely respect that. But the way he accused her of causing Demarc to lose consciousness, his excessive suspicion was bordering on irrational.
“Look at him,” she said, straining for patience. “He’s pale as a ghost. He’s not coughing like the rest are. He’s not even responding to you guys’ picking him up, nothing. He’s in trouble, can’t you see that?”
Terrell didn’t answer.
“Thanks for letting me give him the pill,” she acknowledged, “but I think he needs more than that can do for him.”
Both boys seemed to balk at that.
“I’ve already given a few shots to some of the other kids, and he let me,” she added.
But she could see the stubbornness in Terrell’s face. For a second, she was afraid he really wouldn’t let her. Until she realized it wasn’t stubbornness she was seeing.
It was fear.
He was afraid of what was happening in front of him, something he had no control over. He was afraid of losing Demarc.
Stiffly, Terrell nodded. That was all she needed.
Quickly, she set up the needle and opened a sterilizing pad. To get to his arm, she just had to roll up his sleeve, and it would all be over.
Except his sleeves had to be the toughest, most un-rollable sleeves she’d ever seen. She sighed. That wouldn’t work. The next best option would likely be from the neck of his shirt, she figured.
Just as she reached for his collar, Terrell sprang into action again. “You said his arm,” he protested.
She sighed, again, and explained the situation.
“Just shoot the needle through the sleeve,” he said.
“I can’t. I need to sterilize the area first.”
“Then pull the sleeve up.”
“But it doesn’t pull up,” she was losing patience. “You saw it doesn’t. I need to try to pull the collar down so I can reach.”
Just when she had thought she understood his fears, he went right back to being irrational. This made no sense at all.
“Come on, Terrell,” the younger teen piped up. “Just let her do it.”
Kierah wanted to applaud him again. At least somebody got it.
Terrell still protested. But eventually, Jonah got through to him. Whatever it was that made Terrell so uneasy finally was deemed less important than saving Demarc’s life. She still didn’t know what it was. But it didn’t matter. She had permission.
Sterilizing pad in hand, she reached for Demarc’s collar. The fabric was just as stiff as the sleeves, but the opening was wide enough that she could pull it over and slide it down to his shoulder.
And as she did, she realized what had caused Terrell’s hesitation. Under the threadbare cover of the shirt, she’d discovered something.
There were marks.
Scars laced across his skin, waxy ridges just under the surface. At first they were faint, and she almost didn’t notice. But as she pulled the fabric further, the pattern became more pronounced. And it wasn’t just a few. In the short space from his collarbone to his shoulder, they intertwined like spiderwebs, growing in layers that made her cringe, a reaction she hoped the teenagers didn’t notice.
She had to give him the shot. Pulling the collar further down his shoulder, she tried to ignore the marks weaving over each inch of skin as she uncovered it.
She could feel Terrell’s eyes on her. He was probably gauging her reaction, trying to guess her thoughts. What did he expect her response to be? Keeping her face blank was all she could hope to do.
She sterilized the skin, the pad brushing over the marks.
Her eyes traced the lines for a second before she looked away, precluding a verbal beating from Terrell.
She couldn’t imagine what could have caused them. Or why. There were too many to be from any natural cause. Someone had done this to him.
But from the mines? No stun blaster caused scars like this.
The needle went in.
And as strange a situation as this whole thing was for her, she pitied him.
She didn’t know him. But she didn’t need to know him, she thought, as she put away the needle. Regardless of why he was at the mines or what he had done before, no human being deserved what he had obviously been through.
What she did know was he had saved Rothan, more than once. And continued to protect him from threats, including the threat that, from his perspective, she posed herself. As far as he knew, she couldn’t be trusted. Earning his trust would be nearly impossible, she knew that. Even bringing the medicine might not have much of an impact on his opinion of her.
She knew that, too.
She stole a glance at his handsome face, which sleep had rendered somehow more youthful than she’d noticed before. He couldn’t be much older than she was. And without his constant grimace, he looked so much more gentle.
As he lay there, unconscious from illness, broken from an encounter with the guards, exhausted from caring for these boys — all these boys, so many, she still couldn’t believe it — she almost wished she could possibly find some way to earn his trust.
He was different. Whatever had brought him here was irrelevant. Knowing what he’d already done, and now having a new understanding of just part of what he’d been through, she realized she respected him.
Even though he was a slave.
It was like the general consensus about Enders. The higher classes assumed Enders were uncivilized; that was the basis behind the whole experiment. There was no consideration for individuals, or the understanding that different people were — different. Circumstances didn’t necessarily define the person. She’d refused to let them define her.
Maybe they didn’t define him, either.
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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 … Continue reading Chapter 9: The sickness
They watched the shadowy figure sneak across the screen, the nightvision view illuminating the nearby area with an artificial green glow. But it wasn’t long before the phantom disappeared off one side of the monitor, only to reappear on another from a different angle. The whole wall was filled with monitors, all set to nightvision. … Continue reading Chapter 11: My Ender, your convict