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. Their glow provided the only light in the surveillance tower of the palace guard center, aside from the primary-colored lights of the digital control panels below the monitors and on the back walls. Otherwise, the room was dark, and nearly silent.
A guard stood next to his commander, speaking in hushed tones while pointing to the screen. His gloved finger followed the figure, its form clad in the black uniform of the Kelmar guards and carrying a military-issue pack.
They were about to move on to additional footage, when suddenly they realized they weren’t alone.
“Yes what is it?” Commander Azor called out, still with his back to the door.
For a moment there was no answer. Then —
“Watching movies again, are we?”
Both men turned around, recognizing the voice. The younger officer snapped to attention, but the commander merely nodded, “Your highness.”
The prince strode through the door, his tall form blending into the darkness of the room. Walking up next to Azor, he quipped, “I came to ask you about the guard rotation over by my quarters.”
“Oh?” replied Azor off-handedly.
“Yes,” the prince nodded, absently glancing at the wall of screens in front of him. “I don’t like the timing of the shift changes. I think that it would be better if —”
Then his gaze landed on the figure drifting from screen to screen, and he stopped. His dark eyes reflected the digital points of light from the control panel as he focused intently on the figure.
“What is this?”
“Kelmar sent it,” Azor replied. “Apparently this is the second time they’ve had an intruder in this set of barracks. They didn’t know what to make of it, so they sent it to the palace hoping we could solve their mystery for them.”
“Indeed. The first time they didn’t think it was an intruder. A female guard was seen removing her helmet while talking to two other barracks guards, then entering the barracks. It was unusual, but she came out alone, and no other protocol was broken. So no alarms were sounded.
“But this came in again, last night. We investigated all our guards for this, but they all came out clean. So we can only assume it’s an intruder.”
But the prince was staring intently at the monitor.
“Zoom in,” he ordered abruptly.
The commander seemed surprised. “Sir?” he asked.
Azor turned to the subordinate officer, and the younger man sprang into action, adjusting the viewing controls and pulling up a freeze frame of the person’s face. The prince leaned forward, eyes narrow as he stared at the result. All was quiet as Azor and his subordinate watched him curiously, waiting for his reaction.
Finally, the prince stepped back from the monitor, still silent, but with a strange expression on his face. It wasn’t one of anger, but not necessarily of surprise either. “Let this go.”
Both military men’s brows rose in reaction, but only the senior one spoke. “You’re telling us to not investigate this?”
The prince turned and looked at him, still wearing the same expression. Then he turned to the younger man. “Leave us.”
The guard stood and left obediently. When he was gone, Azor returned to the question at hand. “This intruder. You don’t want us to do anything about it.”
“That’s what I said.”
“May I ask why?” asked Azor.
“From the palace?” Azor asked incredulously, despite himself.
His disbelief was met with a nod.
“I know you’ve given them free rein pretty much everywhere,” Azor continued, “but even they aren’t allowed to go into Kelmar. This makes no sense.”
“Exactly,” Terzhan said. “It makes no sense. Which is what makes it so intriguing.”
“Does it,” Azor half questioned.
“I’ve been watching this one. She was the one that was brought into the experiment after she was arrested by those buffoons that I had demoted for failing to respect a perimeter.”
“The ones who let her into the barracks,” Azor noted, indicating another screen fixed on Dannan and Tate’s post.
The prince nodded. “They were probably intimidated by her, thinking they were demoted for arresting her.” He paused. “I thought they’d been sent as mine guards. Why are they in the barracks?”
“They got demoted for threatening an Ender during the Kelmar tour I led.”
“Did they now.”
Azor took a closer look at the girl in the freeze frame. “Come to think of it,” he said, “that was her. That was the Ender.”
Terzhan’s eyes narrowed. “Why did they threaten her, exactly?”
“She had run away from the group, said her hat had blown off when we were leaving the scaffolding. They said they thought she was an intruder and held her up with a blaster. They needed to be taught a lesson for lacking general common sense when dealing with a guest of the prince. I left the details up to Szark, apparently he has them on barracks guard duty.”
“But that’s all we know of why she was away from the group — she lost her hat.”
“That’s what we were told.”
“I have a feeling there’s more to it than that.” The prince’s expression cleared and was replaced by one of contemplation.
“So in the meantime, let her do what she wants. If she has the urge to invade the slave quarters of the mines, so be it. But,” he held up a hand, “don’t make it obvious that you’re letting her in — let her think that she’s doing it herself. I don’t want her to know that I know about this.”
He paused, thinking about something. Then he looked back up at Azor and asked, “Do you have any more footage of what she did once she got into the barracks? We see her walking through the bunks, but where does she go? Who does she see?”
He waited expectantly for the commander to order the flip of a switch or the push of a button and bring up an explanation. But instead, the other man replied, “Unfortunately, our video surveillance inside the barracks is somewhat limited. We have invested the primary emphasis on the hallways and exterior of the complex; that’s where most of the cameras are installed. Within the quarters themselves, we only monitor potential exit points, supplemented by a few other angles throughout the room, like this one.”
That was not the answer the prince was looking for.
“You mean to tell me,” he said, “we don’t know what she was doing in there? We don’t know who she saw, what was in the bag, why she sneaked out of the palace and broke into a maximum security mining compound in the dead of night — we don’t know why?”
“Kelmar sent us clips from over a dozen camera angles in this package,” Azor replied calmly. “So far, we’ve only seen seven of those. I don’t know whether the additional footage will contain what you’re looking to find, but there’s a chance.”
He pulled up the first of the extra footage. After going through several, they found something. A distant bird’s eye view of the intruder appeared on one screen. She was standing still, holding her helmet under one arm.
And next to her, arms folded, stood a young man. He was dressed in the rags of the mine workers, with dark hair falling into his equally dark eyes as he spoke with her. From his posture, he seemed to be resisting something she was telling him.
“The label says this is from the first intrusion, three weeks ago,” Terzahn noted the timestamp, but Azor wasn’t listening. Now it was his turn to stare at the screen like the prince had done not five minutes earlier. His eyes narrowed, his face darkening.
“Demarc,” he grunted, derision in his voice.
The prince turned to him. “Demarc? Isn’t that —”
Azor’s eyes narrowed. “Yes. That’s him.”
“I should’ve known he’d have something to do with this,” Azor said.
“You think he’s the reason my Ender went down there then?” the prince asked. “Or he found her after she was already there?”
“It could be either,” the general shrugged. “But unfortunately, we have no audio. So we might never know.” He paused. “Well of course we could always just ask him. If questions are … phrased the right way, he won’t refuse to tell us. I can talk to Szark, I’m sure he would be more than happy to —”
“No,” the prince shook his head. “Not yet, at least. If something were to happen to him, she would find out. And we can’t have that.” He stroked his pointed chin thoughtfully. “No, we need a more subtle way of finding out what she’s up to down there. Are there any other clues in the remaining footage?”
They watched the rest of the clips, but all they gathered from those was that one time during her second visit, she went towards a blockaded-off section of the barracks, which the cameras could not see behind to illuminate what she did there.
“We could have more cameras installed,” Azor suggested after the last clip was over. “We know now where she goes, so if we send a crew down there during the day, while the slaves are at work, to implement audio-equipped cameras in that area, we could easily track what she does.”
The prince considered that option for a moment. Finally, though, he shook his head. “My only problem with that would be that it might make it too obvious,” he said. “I know our cameras are small, but I’m sure that they’d still be noticeable — and I don’t want either the girl or this boy to pick up on the change. That would defeat the entire point of spying on them.”
Suddenly his eyes lit up.
“Spy…” he repeated thoughtfully, then turned to the commander. “I want you to ask Szark something for me. I need him to find out if this boy has any enemies among the other slaves. Anyone who could be persuaded to watch him and exchange that information for a reward of some kind — increased rations or reduced workload or something like that.” The prince’s eyes were dark, sharply reflecting the digital lights of the control panel.
Azor let out a grunt of a laugh.
“I don’t need Szark to tell you that,” he snorted. “Demarc and I shared a good few years at Kelmar together, I know he has enemies. A lot of the slaves hate him — but there’s this one murderer in particular. I’m not sure what happened between them, but if you’re looking for someone to dig up dirt on him…”
Slowly, the prince nodded. “Murderer?” He smirked. “He sounds perfect.”
– – –—– – – –
Ethan felt terrible.
He was exhausted, his head was swimming and his whole body ached. But those weren’t the only reasons.
Cracking his eyes open as he heard footsteps, he saw Terrell and some of the other teens slowly padding around the Wall, checking on the sick boys. How long had he been out?
He coughed. It was only a small cough, and even that hurt his chest. But it was enough to clear his throat, and he called to Terrell.
The teen looked up. Ethan couldn’t really see his face clearly, but he could guess what kind of expression was on it. Terrell would be angry. Of course he’d be angry. And Ethan couldn’t blame him.
The girl. Ethan was fuzzy on what exactly had happened that night, but he knew the girl had come back, and Terrell had been blindsided by it. Blindsided, because of Ethan. Whatever had happened with the rest of that night, Ethan’s only concern at the moment was that he’d let his best friend down.
The sickness wasn’t the only reason he felt terrible.
Terrell was next to him in an instant. “You’re awake,” he breathed, but his eyes didn’t look as Ethan had expected. There was no anger there, not in this moment. All Ethan saw was something like relief.
“I need to tell you —” Ethan began, but Terrell cut him off.
That wasn’t exactly what Ethan was expecting. “Which time?” he asked. “I almost die a lot.”
“Two nights ago. You passed out. You got the sickness.”
Ethan knew he’d been sick. He’d been sick for days, and fought it off. But it had won out, and apparently in a pretty serious way.
He tried to piece together his memory of what had happened, but the last he could remember was watching the girl administer medicine to the boys. To Rothan in particular. That was all he could recall, before waking up here.
What had she done? What had Terrell done? When had she left?
Terrell hesitated, and Ethan wondered if the girl had anything to do with it. “All that matters is you’re okay now,” Terrell said quietly. “Just … don’t do that again.”
“I’ll do my best.” Ethan wanted to ask more about what had happened. But his curiosity could wait. He needed to get the rest of this off his chest first. “Listen, we need to talk. About the girl.”
Terrell’s jaw stiffened. The relief in his eyes faded. “Yeah I think we do.” He sat uneasily on the edge of the cot.
“I didn’t tell you she’d been here the first time because I didn’t think there would be a second time, and I didn’t want you to worry,” he started. “But she came down here, in a guard uniform like you saw, a few weeks ago. Maybe three. And she said she was looking for Rothan.”
“She came straight to you, specifically?” Terrell asked.
“No. I think she was lost —”
“So you went to her.” Now his voice was angry.
“Sort of, yes, but I didn’t know it was a girl. All I saw was a guard in a helmet, walking around inside the barracks, at night. That never happens. It made no sense. And after everything that had happened at the time — Garn, the broken arms, the thing with the spilled parodesium by the Pit — I didn’t want to take any chances.”
“So you went to her,” Terrell repeated.
“That worked well.”
Ethan sighed. “I should have told you,” he said. “I should have just told you.”
“Yeah, you should have,” Terrell replied coldly. “We warn each other about every other kind of danger. Why would this be any different?”
“Because I didn’t want you to worry,” Ethan said again. “Garn, you can deal with. Guards, you can deal with. Punishment, work, protecting the kids, looking out for me — you deal with all of it. But a girl —”
“You think I can’t deal with a girl.”
“I thought it would hit too close to home if it was a girl,” Ethan clarified.
“Well I have no choice now, do I? She came back. After you did such a good job of ‘kicking her out.’”
But he had hid something from him. It was because of his own pride, really. When the girl had first come, he’d been so shaken. And he hadn’t wanted to admit that to Terrell.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly. He meant it.
Terrell just stared at him. They sat in silence for a moment. There was nothing more Ethan could say.
“Did she actually give you a reason for coming, the first time?” Terrell finally asked.
Ethan nodded, slowly so as not to disturb his swimming head. “Yeah. She said she knew Rothan.”
Terrell blinked. “She what?”
Ethan explained everything. This time, everything. Terrell listened, his face unmoved.
“And Rothan said she was right,” Ethan finished.
“Wait, he did?”
“Yeah. So as far as that part goes, she’s telling the truth.” He paused. “Maybe she was telling the truth about why she came with the medicine, who knows. What happened, anyway? How long have I been out?”
Now it was Terrell’s turn to fill Ethan in. When he was done, Ethan asked, “So what happened when she left?”
“I was watching you,” Terrell told him. “Jonah showed her out.”
That was very like Terrell. Always by his side. He hoped he hadn’t ruined that by not telling him about the girl.
“Will she be back?” Ethan asked.
Terrell shrugged. “I told her not to. But apparently, so did you.”
So he did believe him. That was a relief.
“In her defense though, the medicine worked,” Ethan pointed out cautiously.
“The medicine also was the reason she saw your scars,” Terrell countered.
That had happened, too. Terrell had included that in his recap of that night. A shiver ran down his back, and he wasn’t sure if it was because of that or the sickness. Oddly, though, it didn’t bother him as much as it should have.
A complete stranger had seen his scars, the advertisement of his weakness that he’d tried to hide nearly his entire life. This intruder had found them. It should have unnerved him.
Why didn’t it?
“Well,” Ethan said aloud, almost to himself as much as to Terrell, “if she was looking for our weak spot, she’d already found it. And it wasn’t from the scars. Half of us were sick. We were dying. If she was spying for some sort of weakness, that was it. She walked right into it.”
Terrell didn’t buy it. “How did she know to come, then, if she wasn’t sent by someone?”
Ethan didn’t know. All he knew was what she’d told him.
And he didn’t know what to believe.
If he was honest with himself though, he almost hoped she would come back. He wasn’t sure why.
RE-READ THE LAST CHAPTER ↔ OR KEEP READING TO THE NEXT!
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
This time, she’d smuggled in food. Ari had suggested Kierah test the limits of how far she could take this, and Terula had no problem finding extra “snacks” to bring to Kierah’s room. Both were supportive of the idea. “What’s the worst that can happen?” Ari had asked. “I get caught,” Kierah had relied flatly. … Continue reading Chapter 12: Still alive
Chapter 12 coming Friday! I’d love to hear your thoughts — please leave a comment OR shoot me an email!