“You need this,” Ari said, in the kind of tone that wouldn’t take no for an answer. And she handed Kierah a mug.
Kierah stared at the dark liquid inside it, and wrinkled her nose. “What is it, again?”
“If you’re gonna continue these escapades in the middle of the night, there’s no way you’re getting by without a little help,” Ari told her, then grinned, holding her own mug and guiding Kierah toward a table in the cafe. “It’s called coffee, and it’ll save your life.”
They both sat down, and Ari pulled out her notescreen; she had to at least keep up the appearance of interviewing Kierah.
Kierah sniffed at the liquid again, and had to admit it smelled good. She also had to admit Ari had been very helpful lately. Maybe it was just Kierah’s imagination, but the girl seemed to have mellowed out a little, too. Ari would never admit it, but she acted as though she almost liked Kierah.
Kierah assumed that had some part to play in the introduction of caffeine into her life. She glanced over into Ari’s mug. “Why’s yours a different color?” she asked, noting the light creaminess of the beverage. “Didn’t you say it’s coffee too?”
Ari nodded, taking a sip and savoring it. “It is. But contrary to the opinions of some, not all journalists drink their coffee black. I’m a cream-and-sugar kind of girl. It’s sweeter.”
After it had been decided that Kierah too wanted to get her coffee with cream and sugar, she finally took a sip.
“Mmmm,” she lit up. “And this’ll help me stay awake?”
“You bet. Energy in liquid form. It’s basically required sustenance for Middles and Nobles,” Ari pitched. “It’ll help especially after nights that, you know….” She didn’t finish.
“So talk to me,” she continued, holding up her notescreen and pretending to look businesslike. “What’s the latest?”
This was the first time Kierah was seeing her since her visit to Kelmar last week. That had been her sixth trip since the illness.
“Everybody’s doing okay,” Kierah answered, sipping her coffee. “They’re still alive. I’m still alive. That Garn guy has, well, he’s minded his own business.”
Ari cocked her head. “Didn’t you say he’d threatened Demarc?”
“He did. The night Ethan rescued me, he said —”
“Ethan?” Ari smiled wryly. “Wait, so it’s ‘Ethan’ now, huh?”
“So is ‘Demarc,’” Ari pointed out. “A last name, apparently.”
“Yeah. And I don’t go around calling you ‘Stern.’”
Ari shrugged. “Plenty of people do. But no, I guess that’s not your style. Anyway, carry on.”
Kierah put down her hot mug. The coffee — that must have been the reason her face felt so warm. “Um, so yeah, Garn had said he’d make, uh, Ethan regret saving me. But that was weeks ago. We can’t figure out why he hasn’t done anything yet.”
“But it’s a good thing he hasn’t.”
“It is, as long as it’s not just him biding his time and making an elaborate plan to get back at, uh — the boys.”
Now she was self-conscious of using Demarc’s first name. She hadn’t thought about it before. But now that she’d spent a little more time with him, it felt weird to call him by his last name. It didn’t seem, what was the word, personal enough.
She stopped herself. Personal enough?
He wasn’t the reason she went down there every few days; Rothan was. For all she knew, he’d done something terrible to deserve his sentence.
But somehow, she couldn’t quite believe he had.
Ari was still talking.
“Do you think he really is, though?” she was saying. “That Garn guy, I mean. Why would he take this long to make his move if he was going to?”
“I don’t know,” Kierah shrugged, trying to get her mind back into the conversation. “He’s waiting for something — he has to be.”
“For this many weeks? It’s gotta be something really bad then. He’s taking a long time to build up to it. Or maybe,” Ari considered, “he could be just toying with you, ya know.”
“Playing mind games. Keeping you all on edge expecting him to do something, but never actually intending to carry it through. Just messing with your head.”
“He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to settle for mind games, though,” Kierah frowned. “He’s a murderer, Ari. I think he’s more the … hands-on type.”
“Well, if he is, then — you still intend to keep going back.” There was questioning in Ari’s voice.
Kierah couldn’t really blame her. It was a valid question. But it wasn’t one that she’d entertained herself for long. Yes, Garn had threatened her, but Ethan had said he’d protect her. He had protected her. It wasn’t herself she feared for — it was the boys.
“Yeah,” she answered Ari. “As long as they’ll have me, I’ll keep going.”
Ari paused. “This kid means a lot to you, huh?”
Kierah assumed she meant Rothan.
She didn’t trust her voice at that moment, so she just nodded.
“I’m impressed,” Ari said with a small smile. “You’re not just gonna give up on him. I didn’t think you were that stubborn.”
Kierah managed a chuckle. “What, all those times that I used to avoid talking to that annoying reporter didn’t prove enough that I’m stubborn?”
“I guess that should have given me a hint,” Ari conceded. “But anyway.” She paused again, almost as if weighing what she was going to say next. “And the guards, the two of them that are at the barracks door — they’re still cooperating? Have they given you any trouble?”
There was a change in her tone, almost a heaviness, but Kierah barely noticed.
“So far so good,” Kierah replied. “It’s been over a month now. They’ve asked only once if this was still a test or not. I told you about that.”
“Yeah. They haven’t brought it up again?”
“Nope. But that’s actually something I’ve been worrying about, that they might bring it up again. Or worse, they might —” she trailed off, sorting through the possibility in her head.
“Might what?” Ari prodded.
“Might mention it to someone else. I told them I was there to help Rothan heal from when everyone was sick, that the ‘test’ was over, and they’ve still been fine. I mean, they keep letting me in. But what if they talk to another guard, or a supervisor or something? I’ve been trying not to think about it, but it’s kinda hard to ignore sometimes.”
She hadn’t given any thought to debating the merits of calling the young man “Ethan” or “Demarc.” Nor had she considered the option of staying away from Kelmar out of fear of Garn’s threat. But one thing that had definitely been on her mind was the threat that might be posed by Danan and Tate’s curiosity.
With each time she sneaked into Kelmar, the chance increased that their compliance could morph into suspicion. And if they said anything to anyone, tried to confirm her authorization, asked any questions of a peer or a superior — where would that leave her?
She wondered if one day she’d get off the transport and find a contingent of guards waiting to arrest her. Or if she wouldn’t even make it onto the transport at all. Or if she’d make it into the barracks just fine, but when she was ready to leave, she’d get to the doors and find out she’d been locked in.
Of all the potential scenarios, though, being locked in actually scared her the least.
Not the palace, not even her old apartment in the Ends had felt like home. That thing Terula had said about finding something that fit her, someplace she belonged — she’d found it.
After the night Garn had attacked her, a lot changed.
For one thing, the boys’ attitude toward her had softened. When Ethan rescued her, she became less of a stranger. As he’d said, she was one of them now. Not everyone was convinced — Terrell was the notable standout. But as far as the younger boys and most of the teens were concerned, including Jonah, they didn’t have to watch her silently from their beds or lurk in the shadows anymore.
In fact, the last two times she’d gone, Ethan had actually woken them up to eat while she was there. She’d gotten to see them, talk to them, know them a little. Now it wasn’t just Rothan who’d stolen her heart.
He still had the lion’s share, though. The light that radiated from that little kid’s face every time he saw her could have warmed her even in the dead of winter. It was all worth it — the loss of sleep and the risk it took to get there, the gamble she made that the guards wouldn’t notice the short imposter among them during her commute — when she saw his happiness, knowing that she’d kept her promise to him, as a friend.
Because of him, because of them, she felt accepted. Even in the darkness of the barracks, she felt almost like she belonged, and if she was caught and her punishment was to be locked there forever, it wouldn’t be a punishment at all.
And then there was Ethan. Demarc. Whatever she was supposed to call him. It was all his fault, really.
After that night, he had changed, too.
He had talked to her. Not just the stiff, guarded acknowledgement of her existence, but actually talked to her, when he told her about his history with Garn. That had required stringing more than two sentences together, and lacked the interrogation-like feel of everything else he’d ever said to her.
That was when she had seen him, for what felt like the first time. As she’d listened to him, the nervousness that had blurred her vision during every other visit seemed to disappear.
His face seemed more youthful when it wasn’t weighed down with the suspicion he’d worn every time he’d faced her before. The depth in those sharp eyes of his sparked a light inside her she hadn’t known existed.
He wasn’t a hard, withdrawn shell whose only purpose was to protect the kids. He wasn’t just another slave in Kelmar.
He was human.
That had been made painfully clear on more than one occasion, not least of which when she’d seen his scars — but that time hadn’t been his choice to reveal to her. This was.
It had meant more to her than she could have expected.
“So,” Ari said, “are you going to say anything to them?”
Kierah brought her mind back to the conversation. “To the guards?”
“Um yeah, who else?”
Kierah didn’t want to say who else she’d actually been thinking of.
“What would I say?” she asked instead. “I already told them the test is over.”
“I don’t know. But there’s gotta be something else you can tell them to keep them from talking. They’re gonna get suspicious eventually, if they haven’t already.”
“Well yeah, I’d love to tell them something else, but what?”
Ari didn’t answer. She looked thoughtful, but not in a pensive way — it had a hint of something slightly more reckless. That probably wasn’t a good sign.
“What are you thinking?” Kierah asked cautiously.
Again Ari didn’t answer. At least not right away.
“So you’re just counting on their good graces then,” she finally said, not answering the question.
Kierah shrugged. “I guess?”
Ari took a sip of her coffee, which reminded Kierah she still had hers sitting in front of her, too. “I don’t know that that’ll last you much longer.”
“I know, I know. I need a better plan,” Kierah sighed, taking another sip. It had grown cooler, which was encouraging; it wouldn’t make her face feel all flushed like it had before. That had definitely been because of the coffee. What other reason was there?
_ _ _ _ __________ _ _ _ _
It was a rather ordinary-looking apartment door. Not in the Ends, but not too far from them. If Ari had walked another dozen blocks or so, she’d have left the Middle.
She’d never been there before, but as she’d proven to Kierah, researching was something she could pull off. It wasn’t hard to find out where to go, and how to get there.
It was harder to calm her heartbeat. She hadn’t expected to feel so nervous.
She was Arianna Stern, impetuous reporter, unwavering in the face of obstinate interviewees and undeterred by elusive resources. If she had questions, she got answers. She wasn’t intimidated by guards, her boss, probably even the prince if she ever had to question him.
She knocked on the door.
It seemed an eternity before she heard movement on the other side. For once, she didn’t have her notescreen with her, which, on the very rare occasion she felt antsy, she could grip to channel her energy somewhere, or scribble notes to look busy. A distraction. Without it, she felt strangely alone.
The handle moved.
When the door opened, her heart lurched as she found herself staring at a face she hadn’t seen in … a long time.
A face that was instantly startled to see her. And not all that happy.
Without saying a word, and before she had a chance to, he slammed the door.
This was off to a good start.
“Please open the door,” she said, not too loudly.
There was silence. Then — “I’ve got nothing to say to you,” came the answer from far away on the other side. He’d apparently walked away as soon as he’d shut the door.
She’d looked up his address. It hadn’t been that hard to find, even if she hadn’t been particularly good at finding out things that didn’t want to be found.
There was no response, but really, she should have expected this. How many years had it been since the last time they’d talked, anyway?
She took a deep breath. There was going to be only one way to get his attention. She hadn’t exactly wanted to lead with it, but he wasn’t giving her many options. So she jumped right in. “That girl at Kelmar — your Commander Szark didn’t send her.”
There was no taking it back now.
Her words were met with silence again, but this time only for a moment. The door opened. And this time, it stayed open long enough for her to go in. On the other side was an ordinary bachelor pad. Nothing fancy, and mostly messy.
Danan closed the door behind her. He looked tired. She realized that even though it was the afternoon, that was probably fairly early for him, since he worked the overnight shift. He turned toward her, apparently awake enough to muster a scowl. “How do you know about that?”
“Because,” Ari tried to level her breathing, “it was me. I got her in.”
The scowl on Danan’s face suddenly turned to confusion. “You did?”
“I helped her. She didn’t know how to get in, on her own.”
His face darkened. “Why? Why in Trythia would you do that?”
“That’s what I came to explain,” Ari started, but she could tell he was registering what she’d already said.
“You sent her to get me in more trouble. Didn’t you. Okay, I get it,” he said before she could elaborate. “Ya know, because being demoted twice because of her isn’t enough.” He smirked, bitter anger lacing his words. “I had no idea you cared so much.”
“Don’t be an idiot, I had no idea you were on shift. I had no idea you’d be inside the barracks. Last I knew, you were on patrol in the Ends, until Kierah told me she’d seen you in Kelmar a few weeks ago. Kelmar. Beating up a guy for protecting a little kid, right? That’s what you’re up to these days?”
“If the only reason you came here was to judge me, then get out,” Danan said.
“It isn’t.” She should have stopped there. She should have just launched into her actual explanation, tried to appeal to him as civilly as she could. But she couldn’t help herself.
That’s what had happened. She knew that was the reason he’d been so violent. Most other people probably had no idea, would have just written off his behavior as typical guard aggression. But Ari knew better. She was, after all, his sister.
She knew Danan breathed anger like he breathed oxygen. And being stuck in Kelmar, among the slaves — it was too familiar. But he couldn’t blame these slaves for his father’s death.
It wasn’t their fault.
“No,” Danan replied evenly. “It’s yours.”
Ari’s blood started to boil. She’d been bracing for this the second she decided to pay him a visit. But it didn’t make it any easier to listen to. “Dad didn’t die because of me,” she fought to keep her voice level. “There was nothing I could have done, and you know it. But that’s not why I’m here. I’m here about Kierah. I wanted to tell you about her before somebody else had a chance to.”
“Why, who is she to you?”
“She’s my —” Ari barely paused before saying the word out loud, but in her own mind, there was a giant chasm before finishing the sentence. Did she really mean this? Yes, yes she did. “Friend.”
“Funny, I didn’t think you had any friends.”
“Good for you. And why’d you come to tell me this? To remind me there’s a reason we don’t talk anymore?”
“I want you to understand why Kierah’s doing what she’s doing.”
“No need,” Danan dismissed her. “I get it, she’s your little buddy, maybe she gets high by living on the edge and sneaking into a prison, so you helped her. Or maybe getting guards demoted gives her some sort of rush? Or maybe you were the one who put the idea in her head, and you just think it’s entertaining to watch somebody else ruin your brother’s life for a change.”
Life sounded so much more dramatic from his perspective. Ari sighed silently to herself.
“Believe it or not, it’s actually not all about you,” she told him. “She goes down there because there’s a little kid she knew from outside the mines, before he got sent there. She’s trying to help somebody, not cause you trouble.”
“Yeah I know, she’s there to coddle Demarc and his brats.”
“I think it’s more than that. I think she genuinely cares for these guys. What if she’s the only bright spot they have? After Dad died, I would’ve given anything for even a little hope. What if she’s that hope for them?” she said.
“Because I know they’re that hope for her,” she continued. “I’ve seen her after she’s visited them. They give her a reason for going through all the palace puts her through, with this stupid experiment.
“And if she gets caught, who knows what’ll happen. They’ll definitely never let her back, they might kick her out of the experiment, they might arrest her. And if she’s arrested, she’d be tried as an Ender, most likely. You know the law is completely unfair where Enders are concerned, whether or not you care.
“And as far as the slaves go — they’ll probably be punished too. Probably worse.”
“I wanted to make sure you understood this stuff, because I’m asking you — I’m asking you to not turn her in. I hoped if you understood why she wants to go down there, maybe you and Tate would be willing to, I don’t know, help protect her. Because if you open your mouth and tell anybody else, it’s over for her.”
She was sure she’d said something wrong somewhere in there. When she was writing, she had all the control in the world over her words; when she was interviewing, she could come up with questions and followups without batting an eye; but talking to her brother, she was never confident she was saying the right thing.
Danan chuckled. “Well, I’m glad to see you care about somebody. Even if it wasn’t your own father.”
That’s what he had taken from what she’d just told him. Nothing constructive, nothing even close to the message she was trying to send. Just fodder for another fight.
Ari forced herself to not take the bait, but she knew it was a losing battle. “Dad had called to tell me what was going on, and I couldn’t talk him out of it. There was nothing else I could have said to him.”
“I would have talked him out of it,” Danan spat. “He could have gotten out of Kumaari. He was a guard, he had plenty of notice to get out before the place blew up. He had no reason to go back down there. They were slaves.”
“Yeah, like the kids you beat up on? Those slaves? The little boys that have no reason to be there except that their parents screwed up, and their only hope is from a girl who’s foolish enough to break into a prison every week?” Ari pointed out.
“What’s your point,” Danan growled. She knew she was nearing the end of her already-thin welcome. But she was as fed up as he was. If he was going to kick her out soon, she was going to give him an earful before he did.
“The slaves Dad cared about — they’re the same ones that Kierah’s going down there for now. Not the same faces, not the same names, but the same kind. She’s there for the same people that Dad was there for. She’s there to protect them, because people like you exist, people who don’t understand that slaves are humans, even if they’re not like us. Some of them do deserve to be there. But some of them don’t, and you know it.
“You work there now, even if this wasn’t where you wanted to be. You’re following right in Dad’s footsteps. Which freaked me out when I heard about it, not that you care. But you have a chance to make a difference for some of these kids. But no, instead you’re the one that’s destroying what’s left of their lives. Kierah comes down there, because she wants to save them from people like you.
“When Dad died, it destroyed a lot of things for us, and I know you’ll never think of me the same way again. But I’m not asking you to think of me, I’m asking you to think of Dad. These are the people he died for, the people he died with.
“And even if you don’t do anything to actually help them, at least don’t do anything to actively hurt them. I just came to ask you to please not talk to anyone else about Kierah going down there. Please just keep letting her in.”
“So what you’re asking me to is completely throw away my career,” Danan replied. “Because it hasn’t already been decimated enough by this girl, now you want me to scrap it completely. You tell me she lied to me, saying she was sent by Szark, but still you think, somehow, that she’s acting the same as Dad. Just for saying that, I should turn her in to Szark the next time I’m there. You’ve got some nerve showing up here and asking me this.”
Ari sighed. Her heart hadn’t stopped racing. And now she’d done more harm than good by coming.
“I came here hoping you’d understand,” she said quietly. “But I guess you don’t. I guess even though you said you joined the military in honor of Dad, you really have no idea what he stood for.”
“I joined the military to be in the military. Getting stuck in Kelmar wasn’t part of my plan.”
“And reporting about some stupid plan the prince has to bring the Enders into civilization wasn’t part of my plan either. You think this was why I became a journalist? Don’t for a second think that you were the only one grieving Dad’s death.”
“How exactly did becoming a journalist have anything to do with Dad?”
“I wanted to find out why it happened. Dad knew the slaves, he would have heard something from them if there was an uprising planned. I think Kumaari got blown up for another reason, and that’s why I became a journalist, to find out why.”
“Right. And how’s that going for you?”
“You’re not the only one whose career has been sidetracked because of Kierah Kaelen’s world. I got pulled off the Kumaari research project to cover the Ender experiment. It isn’t what I wanted, but it’s what I got. I’m trying to make the best of it. If that means helping someone else help the slaves like Dad did, I’m okay with that right now. I was hoping you’d see that angle too.
“Getting demoted to working in the barracks wasn’t your idea. You got sidetracked, just like I did. But none of it was Kierah’s fault. And, I don’t know, maybe this is a better way to honor Dad’s memory than our original plans.”
She sighed. “I’m asking you to just step aside and let her do her thing — to see that she has the same motives as Dad did. Working for something you believe in, isn’t wrong. Even if it means risking getting caught. Even if it means dying.”
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[Eight years ago] Ethan heard the boy’s sobbing from down the tunnel. Swinging the pick back and digging it into the rock wall, he tried to drown it out. He didn’t know who it was or why he was crying, but he didn’t really care. He couldn’t let himself care. He’d been there long enough … Continue reading Chapter 16: Eight years ago
Flying training was done for the day. Kierah left the speeder hangar, energized and mostly happy. Like combat class, and unlike ballroom dancing or tea etiquette, she could imagine finding a practical use for the knowledge back in her normal life, once the experiment was over. Granted, flying would require her somehow having access to … Continue reading Chapter 18: “I don’t think you should go back”