| I opened My eyes. The room was filled with a golden light that bounced off the shiny meddle bars on the windows and doors. I became aware of footsteps in the passage outside my room, and the creek of a door opening and closing. As the footsteps drew closer, I reached for my stolen lightning rod and took up a defensive posission against the far wall. then my door opened.
"You there! Come!" the voice growled at me. I stood, unwilling to move. The guard took 2 steps forward and slapped me hard. I still didn't move. Fourteen years in this hellhole had taught me to never let my feelings and/or reactions show.
| There were two things I knew about my guards, and they were these: Firstly, that they were very mercurial creatures--the lot of them were shapeshifters, and they would be very hard to shake off. But the second thing I knew about them--and this was the most important--was that they were secure in the belief that they knew me. They knew I was a troublemaker and prone to escape attempts, and they knew I didn't cry easily and that people were hard-put to frighten me now, and they knew that I was all talk and no true fight. And they felt content to push me around because of it.
Those two facts were crucial.
I stood now with my hands behind my back, a stance I knew the guards had come to recognize in dealing with me. For all of six years I'd made sure to stand this way whenever they came in to haul me away--always consciously telling myself to keep my hands firmly behind my back, even when one of them raised a hand to strike me as they would invariably do. For six years, I would never bring my hands out until we reached the stairs.
So I waited. I stood face-to-face with the guard and waited. I was braced for the next blow, because despite his body's ability for change, his actions were like clockwork. Then he turned his head and called over his shoulder, in the surprisingly musical language I couldn't understand, to the others outside the cell.
I could have predicted the entrance of the reinforcements even if I'd gone blind and deaf in the night. There were two of them, marching stoically in and taking their places at my sides, hauling me forward with identical grips on my upper arms. I shuffled along, compliant, and held my hands resolutely behind my back.
The third guard locked the cell door behind him as he left--like maybe there was something in there someone might want to steal, which, I knew, there wasn't. Then we walked down the corridor together, and as we went, the guards loosened their grips on my arms. It was six years of carefully cultivated routine: I never, never tried escape attempts once I had been pulled out into the corridor. If I ever tried to run, I'd try it as soon as the door opened. They knew that.
I walked along in docile silence, up one corridor and down another, until finally we began to climb the steps. I swear I could almost smell the fresh air by that point, though I knew it was just my imagination--that the air indoors smelled no different from the air outdoors. We reached the top of the steps, and it was here--always here--that I would invariably drop my hands to my sides.
Except this time, they didn't stop at my sides. Together, they were raised to shoulder height, and I aimed and fired the lightning rod before either guard could hope to open his mouth and cry out. I had tucked it beneath my shirt and held it there all through the long walk, patient as only six years of carefully-followed routine can make a person.
The only drawback was that, as I shot the guards, they fell--and they screamed. They weren't dead, for lightning rods were nonlethal weapons (much to my chagrin, but it was all I could get my hands on), and they caused extreme pain. The three guards set up such a clamor as to wake the dead, and I was running.
I admit I hadn't counted on the noise. Foolish, but somehow I had invisioned the escape going off without a hitch--finally, after fourteen years, I'd be free.
But I could hear clattering feet and cries, and I knew I couldn't shoot all the converging guards. I had one chance. And if I didn't make it work for me, six years of manipulating and making sure people knew only what I wanted them to know would be gone. And they wouldn't trust me that much again.
So I ran, unkempt blond hair flying in my face, and hoped to high heaven I was faster than the shapeshifters.
|When I reached the outer walls of the compound, I stopped to catch my breath. I'd been running for about ten minutes without a brake, and it felt as if my lungs were on fire. The lightning rod was still in my hand. I rotated the knob on the stock of the weapon. Now, instead of just causing pain, it would kill. I was ready, but for what? Where could I go?|
| Being trapped in the compound for fourteen years wasn't conducive to good physical fitness. I'd counted on being able to escape the compound itself before I was forced to halt, but by the time I'd reached the walls, I could barely breathe and had to stop and rest. Lungs afire, panting for air, I leaned over to rest my hands on my knees. The rocky dirt below my feet was dry with the sun and I could see an ant making its sluggish way along down there. I rested the business end of the lightning rod on the ground and leaned on the butt, trying to catch my breath before I took off again. Fear and exertion made me nauseous and I could almost feel the shapeshifters getting closer with every second I stayed still.
After a moment, I forced myself laboriously upright and stumbled on as quickly as I could, gasping desperately and trying to ignore the stitch in my side. All I could truly think about anymore was that I needed to run.
I could hear the patter of light feet behind me, as if the guards had shifted to follow me faster. They probably had.
When I reached the metal gates that shut the compound away from the rest of the bustling world outside, I raised the lightning rod again and fired at the lock, hoping against hope my hunch was correct. Indeed, it was: The metal conducted the electricity brilliantly, melting the lock with its heat. I ran into the gate full force, ramming the thing outward as I fled from the pursuit.
I didn't quite see the gate guard until he'd jumped down in front of me, his own lightning rod raised. I barely even thought before I fired, didn't even stop to see whether I'd done any serious damage. I leaped over his fallen body and continued, feeling inexorable panic welling within me, clogging my throat and filling my mouth with bile.
The compound was settled on the edge of the woods, separated from the town by two miles, at least, of trees. That was my short-term goal. If I could get there, maybe I could rest. Maybe--
"Surrett!" My sirname was roared practically in my ear. While I'd been focused on the trees, the shapeshifter had bounded up behind me. He was nearly on my heels now, so close I fancied I could feel his presence towering over me. I tried to speed up, animal sounds of effort and panic tearing themselves from my throat, but I couldn't force anything more from a body that had spent fourteen years being mistreated and surviving on a diet of meals that were spartan and anything but regular. I nearly dropped the lightning rod as I pumped my arms for more speed, gasping in air that, despite the warmpth outside, burned my throat.
And then skin contacted skin as a hand clamped around my right arm. Screaming in panic, I kicked out backwards, but the shapeshifter was too far back for me to reach. He held me at arm's length, bringing his other hand up to clasp my shoulder harshly. I twisted, trying to aim the lightning rod, but he held me firmly with my back to him. I could feel my eyes burn with panicked tears because I knew that once they had me back, they wouldn't let me go again. Once I went back through the gates, Domitare wouldn't let me have a moment to myself for the rest of my sorry days.
"Come back, Efimia," the guard said in a half-menacing, half-coaxing way, carefully dragging me around so I could see the metal gates again. I felt another pair of hands getting grips around my waist, and the force of their combined pulling was unstoppable.
I couldn't reach either of them with the lightning rod, but the guards' quiet voices in my ear were too much. They weren't even talking to me anymore, but one was commenting to the other that Domitare had said he wanted me brought straight to him. No respite, just straight back to Domitare.
My ears were ringing and even though my chest and lungs felt ready to burst apart, I was hyperventilating, breathing too fast and too much. My vision was blurring around the edges, even though I couldn't feel any tears falling yet. I was almost dizzy--almost glad the guards were supporting me.
I could see a blurred hand reaching around, trying to rest the lightning rod from me. I tightened shaking fingers, disturbed to think that I should lose it.
"Effie!" The voice was in my head, almost fully covered up by the ringing in my ears. I recognized it vaguely, my subconscious giving it the name Caity before I could really register the undertones to her words. She sounded worried.
Metal bars loomed before my fading vision and I knew I was going back where even Caity's memory couldn't reach me. My reeling brain knew I didn't want to go there.
I was only half-conscious of raising the lightning rod and aiming, fumbling as I tried to keep the guards' fingers off it long enough for me to fire. 'You set it on kill,' I reminded myself. 'You set it on kill.'
I fired. I wasn't consciously aware of jerking back with the force of the electricity, letting the rod fall from spasmotically twitching fingers, hearing the guards cry out in surprise as excess electricity carried through my body to theirs. I didn't black out right away and had time to wonder, with a sudden pang of horror so acute it made me sick, whether the lightning rod had been fully charged. The kill setting only worked on fully charged, well-maintained rods.
If it hadn't worked, if this last ditch attempt to free myself had failed, I didn't want to think about what I'd do or where I'd end up. I could remember six years--ever since I'd been fourteen years old--of enduring the mistreatment and privation and carefully formulating my one desperate hope for escape. Ever since Caity had mysteriously vanished--here one day, gone the next--and I remembered vowing, in my rebellious fourteen-year-old way, that eight years caged in that prison was all I'd ever spend.
I'd failed on that count, too.
Dirt flew before my rapidly-blurring blue eyes as if the guards above me were scrambling to do something before time ran out. Perhaps they were even now running to tell Domitare that they'd recaptured me, that I wasn't dead, just hurt ... Or maybe that I really WAS dead, finally, and that he'd have to find someone else to focus upon now that I was no longer an option. Feet scampered around me--how many of them were there? Hadn't there been only two?--and for some strange, inexplicable reason, Caity's voice continued prattling on in my left ear. "She's alive, it's all right, she's alive ..."
| My bones were afire from the inside out and I was suddenly ultra-aware of my heart, thumping its merry way along inside my chest. The pain had settled in every last inch of my body from head to toes and was so fiery, so intense, that I could feel involuntary tears tracking down my cheeks.
My first instinct was to curl into myself and try and keep the intense pain at bay, as if curling up would chase it out of me. But it felt as if the agony itself had liquidated my bones and muscles, and I couldn't even twitch a finger. I just laid there while reflexive tears trickled down my face and into my hair and reminded myself that once this was over, I'd be all right again, that this wasn't going to last forever. Such a practical mentality had served me well through fourteen years imprisonment and mistreatment, so I concentrated hard on that fact. It can't last forever, I told myself. Once it's over, it won't seem so bad. It can't last forever.
I was lying on my back on something rough and hard and solid, with my arms stretched out to either side of me, hands open palm-up. For several moments I was blind and deaf to the world, lying in my own personal hell with fire desolving my bones and no way out; then, slowly, noise filtered back in again. Chattering voices first; frantic-sounding rustling. I still couldn't see, but I realized absently that that would be because my eyes weren't actually open. I tried vainly to lift their lids, but nothing happened. I was still completely immobile.
I couldn't remember what had happened before I woke up here--for several moments, I was hard-put to call up my own name from the recesses of a consciousness frightened into hiding by the electric pulse I'd forced its body to endure. I definitely didn't know where I was though; my head ached and spun and the voices didn't seem to make any sense to me.
For endless moments that stretched on forever, I laid there and endured the fire, continually telling myself that once it was over, everything would seem much better. I didn't consciously realize I'd begun to groan incoherently until a voice--whose words I had more trouble processing than I'd ever had before--spoke near my left ear.
"Effie's awake! Damn ... Is that normal?" The voice was male and sounded slightly put off by the pained sounds I was making.
"Brett says so," replied another voice, this one feminine and easier for me to recognize. I heard her drop down on my other side. "He says she'll be in a lot of pain."
"Sounds like it," he responded, still sounding slightly strained, but covering it up with dry sarcasm. "When will she start actually talking?"
"Brett says give her a couple minutes," said Caity's voice. "She should be okay. He says since she dropped the rod right after she fired, there should be no lasting damage."
Things were piecing themselves together with excruciating slothfulness, as if I was just waking up in the morning, but ten times slower. I began to remember the mad dash I'd made from the compound, the guards' firm grips on my waist and arm and shoulder, the way they'd mentioned callusly that Domitare wanted to see me, my desperation, my sudden awareness of the lightning rod still clutched in my hand, my split-second decision to fire at my own chest, and the horrifying realization that my plan might not work anyway ... It came back in little snatches, each bit falling into place to create a full-fledged memory of the moments before I'd decided suicide wasn't entirely out of the question.
As I focused on that, the firery agony began slowly to recede, leaving me worn-out and sweaty, but much more aware of my surroundings. Rocks jabbed painfully into my back, and I could hear birds chattering away in the trees. I almost didn't recognize the sound, because I hadn't heard so much as a cricket in fourteen long, painful years. But memories from long ago, from before I was six years old, brought the sounds slowly back to me. Birds.
Where in the universe WAS I?
Slowly, I tried again to open my eyelids and found that, this time, they moved as I commanded. I opened them slowly and took a quick glance around.
Caity was on my right, just as I'd thought, but it was astounding how different she'd become. She was six years older than she had been when I'd last seen her. She was taller--I could see that even though she wasn't standing up. Her hair was much longer than I remembered it being, the coarse black strands falling more than halfway down her back, and the way it lay accentuated her high cheekbones, giving her an almost angry look. It was a strange contrast to the voice I'd been hearing--worried, maybe, but mostly unconcerned and definitely not angry.
I gazed the other way now, barely able to turn my head, to see the young man on my left. I wasn't sure I recognized him--at least not the way he looked now, though his face stirred a vague recollection in the back of my mind. He looked to be even taller than Caity, with fairly neat-looking light brown hair, gray eyes and a build that made it appear he hadn't eaten for some time; you could clearly see his ribs. It took me several seconds to put a nearly forgotten name to his familiar face. When I did finally figure it out, I decided I must be in hell (which explained the pain still throbbing through my body) and that the electricity had really done its job. He'd been dead for years, as far as I knew. Dead since I'd been seven years old, fairly new to the compound prison, and in dire need of a role model. He'd been so, right up until he'd vanished one day and I'd never seen him again.
Vanished just like Caity.
He answered, visually if not verbily, to the name I remembered him telling me long ago, looking down to see my open blue eyes and then glancing back up at Caity. "She's fast," he commented.
"Always was. You remember, she was always quick on the uptake and got over colds faster than you?"
He shook his head. "Of course I do." He looked back down at me. "I hoped you'd stay out longer. We're going to have to put you back under again."
I decided that I didn't really want to think about why I was having a conversation with someone thirteen years dead, so focused on his statement instead. "Why?"
"You've got a tracking device lodged at the base of your spine, under the skin," he said. "Brett thinks the shock you gave yourself might have shorted it out, but we can't take any chances. They're taking it out as soon as they can."
"Where--" The belated question was cut short by Caity, who answered before I could finish asking.
"In the forest not too far outside the compound," she said. "We're taking a risk, but we have to get rid of your tracker before we do anything or go anywhere else."
I shook my head, still in pain and muzzily confused. "But--"
The crunch of footsteps alerted me to someone else's presence. I glanced up to see an unfamiliar dark-skinned man striding toward us, looking down at us with a reassuring smile. He caught the last exchange.
"Not right now, Efimia," he said, formally using my full first name. "Right now, we've got to put you back under and get rid of your tracking device. We're too close to Domitare for comfort and we can't stay here."
I nodded slightly, mute with confusion and lingering traces of pain. He approached and knelt down with a syringe in one hand. "You should wake up feeling better than you are right now, hopefully," he added as he held my elbow in one hand, kneading it to find the vein.
Anything that would help the pain was all right with me at that point; anyway, I was still exhausted and couldn't quite bring myself to feel real, true fear. I closed my eyes in response, felt the prick of the syringe going in and coldness as the liquid was injected.
I started out missing little bits of time--one minute I was lying on the ground, the next I was being helped bodily along by someone. But as seconds passed the moments of lucidity grew fewer and farther between, and I didn't even realize when I blacked out completely.
| Hours later, or so it seemed to me, I began, once again, to hear voices. The pain wasn't nearly as bad as it'd been before, but I still felt like my bones and muscels were being melted by hydrochloric and sulfearic acids at the same time. Nevertheless, I could make out what the voices were saying. One of them, Katy, was saying: "Ah, good. She's coming round. Thank god!" The male, Vaun, replied in the affirmative. I then opened my eyes.
I was lying on what felt like a matrass of some sort. My arms and legs were held down by soft, padded straps. While these restraints didn't really hinder me, they didn't help me much either. I then looked around and saw Katy on my right, just as she was when I awakened the first time.
Vaun, who was leaning over me, looked at me and grinned.
"I was wondering when you'd wake up."
"So was I," I replied. "Did you remove the tracker?"
He nodded. I sighed. Now they couldn't tell where I was...or so I thought.
| In the compound, they hadn't cared about me, all the guards and doctors who were my only sentient contact. They'd kept me alive because Domitare said so--because as long as I was alive, so were they, but the moment I died they knew Domitare's attention would be turning their way.
But it didn't mean they had to be gentle. If I could stand, they figured, I could walk. It'd been that way for fourteen years.
I took it for granted that my rescuers, whoever they were, would take the same philosophy. So, once my head had stopped buzzing from the drugs they had pumped me full of, I tried to get to my feet.
Vaughn, still at my side, motioned me back. "Hold on there, Effie, what do you think you're doing?"
"We have to go," I said. The words were not as crisp as they could have been, but the aftereffects of the drug made my lips feel unusually thick and unwieldy. "Brett said ..."
"We are going," Vaughn soothed. "Right now, after Brett's done packing up, we're going."
Vaughn patted the makeshift gurney I was lying on. "Wheels," he said. "We've got you covered. Brett doesn't want you moving around a lot. This was a field operation. He says he'll fix you up fully once we get back and he has better equipment."
He would be twenty-three now, I calculated, falling back to logical numbers to prevent myself being swept away by the sudden influx of change around me. Ten years old he was, when he'd disappeared one day and we'd never seen him again. He was so different now; not even his voice was the same. Except for sometimes--some of the words he spoke carried that tell-tale accent that had never gone away. As he spoke, it cropped up from time to time--just one word--as if to remind me that I wasn't dreaming; that this really was Vaughn, and not simply someone who bore a frighteningly similar appearance.
Somehow that made things simultaneously harder and easier to bear. It was hard, because my six-year-old brain had grasped, all those years ago, that Vaughn was dead and that he was never coming back. It had engrained itself into my brain and now I was being forced to reconsider, and it was hard to simply accept.
But at the same time, at the same time ... It was so comforting to have run, to have fled finally from the compound and fallen straight into the arms of two people I'd grown to love and thought I'd never see again.
And they both knew what they were doing. It was clear in the way they moved, the way they interacted--just the plain fact that they were here. Some part of me wanted to lie back and let them take me, let them take over for once.
But fourteen years of complete self-sufficiency is hard to let go. Still ... I could feel it as a mask now, instead of as my entire being. So I laid back, making sure the look I gave Vaughn was one of grudging acceptance, and inside let myself relax as he wheeled the gurney over to Brett and Caity, who were waiting near the edge of the clearing.
"We're ready," Vaughn said.
"Let's go." Brett nodded at Vaughn, then started off into the trees at a quick walk. Vaughn followed with the gurney, and Caity took up a position a few paces behind him, keeping an eye out to our rear. I just stared. It was still hard to move; the drug had not quite warn off completely, but that was all right. The sky was so open, so clear--so different from the perpetual stone roof which I'd lived with for so long.
And it was always changing somehow, with the flight of a bird, with the passing of a cloud, with the slight change of a color's hue, that I didn't even want to look away.
Taking Bits In
| Once we reached wherever we'd been heading, the straps on the gurny were unfastened, and my body lifted out. I was set down on my feet, and lead over to a soft, velvet-covered bench. I sank on to it greatfully, welcoming the support. My mind was still a little fuzzy, but I was beginning, slowly, to piece together bits of the information I'd overheard whilst I'd been in transit.
Apparently, I'd only been moved here temporeraly, so as to prevent the shapeshifters from catching me again, at least for the time being. As far as I could gather, I'd soon be on my way with Katie and Vaun, but to where, I knew not. The tracker had indeed been removed; they'd shown it to me when the process had been completed, and I thought that it'd looked much, much different than the small, black square of cylicon I only vaigly remembered being forceably placed under my skin as soon as I'd been lead into the compound.
Aside from that, I was completely confused as to what was going on, and my sluggish mind wasn't making things any easier to take in. I'd been told that I would be feeling this way for a few more hours. A few more hours! I could be learning new information now, but my mind would be like this for a few more hours! The thought of remaining like this infuriated me, so much so that I almost reached out a hand and snapped one of the picture frames on the wall in half.
| Katie noticed my detress and placed a hand on my shoulder. "Effie, don't let your anger rulee your body. i know you're confused. I understand that you feel that you're being rushed hither and thither. But trust me. YOu'll be steeled down shortly."
Vawn nodded in affirmation. "She's rightt. We're pretty much at the end of the road here. All we need to do is get you on a shuttle, and we'll be headed away from this place."
I nodded. It made sence. I could see why they'd want to move me away from this place. Even though the tracker had been removed, the shape shifters could still track my sent, but only if is was right near the compound. Thus, moving me would make it impossible for them to find me again.