Old Mother saw the copse of trees just up ahead. She was out of breath, but she kept up the pace. Every few feet or so, she looked back to see if she was being followed, but there was never anyone there, unless ghosts counted. She didn’t really believe in ghosts, but she worried that after a confrontation with Cutter, that is all that would be left of Hashimoto. Worrying about Hashimoto’s safety though, was pointless as he had had always been quite capable of taking care of himself. The problem was that Cutter, though one of her children, was still such an enigma that she was unsure what he was capable of.
In a way, Old Mother didn’t think Hashimoto deserved to live, considering the evils he had committed, but Old Mother wanted him to at least live long enough to see how wrong he was and to somehow try to make amends.
Old Mother caught sight of a sequence of pale lights flashing up ahead. Eight blinks in quick succession followed by five seconds of nothing. Then two blinks followed by five seconds of nothing. Then eight blinks again. She knew this as the Midling sign to alert that there was a sentry on guard and waiting. With this, Old Mother felt her strength renewed and she pushed forward despite aching legs and back and the burning in her lungs. She focused ahead to the jagged line of trees and forgot all else.
The last time she’d gotten this much exercise had been the day that Honor had fought that fool Lulu. One of the children had come to inform Old Mother that Honor was fighting several blocks away in front of the neighborhood grocery. Old Mother had run four crumbling city blocks without stopping. She knew that if Honor lost her temper she’d lapse, uncontrolled, into shifting and she hoped desperately to reach Honor before this happened.
When Old Mother arrived there was a crowd of people who had been too afraid to stand up to Lulu in the past, people who hated him as much as Honor, people who hoped that in Honor, at least this once, Lulu would meet his match. He did. When Old Mother arrived, Honor had already taken a few blows to the face, had become enraged. Had shifted. All Old Mother could do was hope to stop Honor and remove her from the situation before the authorities came, before they could cage her, harm her. She took a glass bottle from the gutter and threw it against the brick face of storefront, and luckily, somehow, this was enough to draw Honor’s attention long enough to keep her from actually killing Lulu.
Old Mother slipped through a part of the wire fence where a post had fallen, leaving a gap wide enough to pass through. She waded through the high bushes and called out in the direction of the lights she’d seen. “It’s me,} she hissed, “mother to all.” A tall pale young man with shoulder length blond locks exited the forest. His face was serious. “Password?”
He smiled, showing all of his teeth. “Old Mother, it is good to see you after so long.” He stepped forward and embraced her.
Old Mother pulled back and looked up into his face. “Alif, is that you? You have grown!”
Alif had been with Old Mother for almost year when he was about thirteen. During that time, the Scientists were making regular raids on Midling camps so his elder brother Airun had sent him to Old mother for protection. This is how Airun had come to meet his wife Evera, when he would come to visit his junior brother.
Alif held Old Mother’s elbow as he navigated the dark woodlands back to Midling headquarters camp. “So, I hear that you have some big news.” They spoke easily as they walked, as if they had never been apart. Alif’s memory of his own mother was vague as shadows. As the story went, one day she left to patrol Midling boarders and never returned. In a way Old Mother was the only mother he could actually remember.
Old Mother looked up into his face, “I do, and it concerns you as well.”
Alif raised his head when he heard a cawing bird, and said, “We’re close, Old Mother.”
Seconds later a young woman no more than five feet tall stepped from behind a tree. She wore all black and she had a rifle slung over her shoulder. “You should hurry,” she told Alif without sparing a glance for Old Mother, there have been a couple of forest intrusions tonight. It is important that you two make it to Evera safely.”
Alif nodded. “Anyone captured?”
“No one,” she said patting her rifle. “But the night is still young.” They heard another series of bird calls and then she was gone, melding into the darkness.
Alif had Old Mother’s elbow again and they were now moving faster. Old Mother thought for a moment that she might die of heart failure before they made it to headquarters. Fortunately, she was wrong. In less than five minutes they were walking into a lighted clearing. At the farthest end of the clearing there was a cave entrance guarded by two sentries. Alif stopped momentarily to ask about the security situation, but neither or the sentry seemed to be aware that there was anything untoward happening on their land. They passed into the mouth of the cave.
“Shouldn’t those men have been aware of the breach?”
Alif shrugged, “Not unless someone came specifically to tell them.” Alif ducked as the ceiling of the cave dipped about a foot. “Once assigned, the sentry remain in place for a full eight hours without once leaving their post.”
“Even to eat?”
Alif nodded. “Even to relieve themselves.” He smiled.
The next hundred or so feet of the cave was constructed of yellow chipped and smoothed limestone. However, the deeper they went the more things changed. The dirt floor transitioned into smooth tile and the walls were lined with concrete. A steel door was set squarely in the wall steel door at the end of the tunnel. Alif removed a key from an inner pocket of his jacket and unlocked and opened the door with an echoing clang as it scraped against the tiles.
Old Mother’ mouth fell open when she saw what lay beyond. The walls here in this cavern structure were as perfectly angular as in any normal building, painted a dull mauve and decorated with plush and elegant furniture. Evera sat in a red leather chair at the end of a conference table. When she saw Old Mother she crossed the room and greeted her with a hug. “You are one of the only outsiders we’d allow to enter our territory.”
“I realize how serious the Midlings are about protecting their lands. I am sorry to have bothered you, and on such short notice, but I think that you will understand when I tell you why I have come.”
Evera assisted Old Mother into a chair. “The truth is, this is a very bad time. We have had several false alarms this evening. I’m worried and I don’t know what to make of it.”
“Bit mentioned this as we passed through her post, but she didn’t give me any details,” said Alif. He poured Old Mother a cup of water from the pitcher in the center of the conference table.
“It looks like strategic perimeter breeches, all of them at different parts of our border.” Old Mother set the cup down on the table. “It sounds as if someone is testing you.”
Alif and Evera turned to look at Old Mother.
“What do you mean,” asked Evera.
“Well, it looks to me as if someone is trying to see just how securely you guard your borders; reconnaissance to determine how difficult it will be to get inside when they are really ready to do so.” Old Mother shrugged. “Looks pretty obvious to me.”
“Now that you mention it,” said Evera head hanging, “why couldn’t I see that?”
“Yes, why couldn’t you? My brother would have.”
Old Mother glared up at Alif. “When you’re in the thick of a situation, sometimes the simplest things are the most difficult for us to see. Besides, I didn’t see you figuring anything out.”
Alif’s pale cheeks and neck flushed pink.
Old Mother reached out to Evera. “I know you to have a fine mind, so don’t you go berating yourself now. This isn’t the time.”
Eyebrows pulled into a tight stitch across her forehead, Evera said, “What do you mean?”
Old Mother took another long pull from the glass of water before answering. “Two things.” She held up a finger. “Number one, Supreme Scientist McKinley is desperate for Honor and he will do anything to get her. In fact that might be his men testing your perimeter. If they think that Honor is in here, they’ll be coming to get her.”
Evera opened her mouth to speak but Old Mother held up a hand, “Don’t ask me how I know, just believe me.”
Evera nodded. “And number two?”
Old Mother held up two fingers this time. “You’d better get your best men and women in here because your man Airun is alive and we’ve got to make a plan to go and get him.”