“We'll divide into three teams,” said Evera as she scanned her tightly packed one room cabin. “I'll lead team one, Ramses will lead team two, and..." Evera's gaze dropped for a moment before looking back up to meet the many serious expectant faces shadowed in flickering candlelight and said, "Alif will lead team three."
A low murmur rippled through the assemblage of united Believers and Midlings. Alif seemed just as surprised as everyone else. Despite being Evera's brother-in-law, the very person who should have been her protection and support in Airun's absence, Alif had been her clear opponent. He regretted this, and had tried to rectify their relationship in his own way but until this moment he’d been unsure if there had been hope for forgiveness between the two of them.
Evera sipped from the steaming mug of coffee set before her then continued as if she had said nothing out of the ordinary. "I won't pretend that what we are about to do will be without it's repercussions. Sinistral City is a dangerous place, and it's not at all Believer or Midling friendly. Some of us may not make it back to our beloved woods alive. I can only speak for myself, but if given the choice between being captured and enslaved by the Scientists and death,” she said clamping a closed fist over her chest, “I'd choose death. So while I won't even pretend that what we are about to do is the smart thing to do, I'm certain that it's the right thing to do." A murmur of ascent passed through the room. Many heads nodded. "Airun is out there. Your leader, your brother, your son, your friend---"
Someone hidden at the back of the room yelled out, "Your man!," and nervous laughter billowed brightening the night weary room like no light could.
After the amusement faded, Evera said with a smile still on her face, but earnestness heavy in her voice, "No my friend. Airun is not my man. He is my husband, my fated mate, and I want him back." Evera stood up. "If there is anyone who wishes to stay behind, this is the time to say so. This is the time to leave. No questions asked, no grudges, no shame."
The room went silent as Midling territory under cover of snow. Not a single limb moved. It seemed, in fact, that no one even breathed.
----------------Malak and Truth rounded a corner on the far northern border of Sinistral city. Much like the neighborhood in which Malak had managed his old eatery, it was quiet and fairly clean but yet crumbling and forgotten. The brick buildings stood solid and strong, were beautiful in their own way, but against the steel and glass modernity that towered above them in the distance, they appeared like broken teeth on the skyline. Gentrification had missed this northern corner of Sinistral and this was not at all a bad thing. Being ignored by the Scientists who monopolized Sinistral resources and government meant less funding for schools and infrastructure, less fair representation. It also meant that secrets could lie.
"Are you tired, Truth?" asked Malak. "We’re in a safe area, so if you need to rest, we can stop a moment."
Truth glanced around seeing only the vague outline of buildings and vehicles parked against the curb. There were no people out at this time. No warmth. No light for him to see other than the warm brownish glow of Malak. "Of course I'm tired. But I do not wish to stop. How far before we reach the gardens?"
"Only six or so blocks." Malak pointed into the darkness. "I can see it up ahead, like a beacon in this dark night."
Truth could see the outline of an enormous structure up ahead, outlined high and low by flickering yellow lights. He squinted his eyes. "It does not look like a garden. To my eyes, flora always shines in bright green and yellow hues."
Malak chuckled and grabbed Truth's hand. "I've forgotten how much I missed you. Your vision always fascinated me. I envied your strength, but in a good way. I didn't want to be like you, but I wanted to be good to you." Realizing how he must have sounded, fawning over Truth as if he were a small boy, Malak fell into a shameful silence.
Moments later Truth said, "If not a real garden, then where are we going?"
Malak cleared his throat. "Gardenridge Penitentiary. It's an old defunct prison, closed down more than forty years ago. At first it was just a stone heap, too strong to crumble and too ugly to tolerate, but there was nothing we could do about it. Eventually, the Believers of Sinistral, the hungry and homeless, either went underground," Malak glanced back at Truth, "and I say that literally, or they went to the gardens."
"For safety and to escape persecution. For cohesive community. For a way to live with dignity. For a way to make a good life here, even in the midst of all that is wrong."
Just then Malak stopped in his tracks, head cocked to the left as he listened with eyes closed. Malak looked around and then pulled Truth into an alley so tight that they had go turn sideways to slip in between the brick side of two buildings "What is it?" whispered Truth after several tense moments.
Malak stuck his head out to look out at the street. "I thought I heard the heavy metallic footfalls of a security drone." Malak chuckled dryly and so softly that it was barely more than a rumble in his chest. "It wouldn't do to lose you again within eyesight of the Garden, your sanctuary, would it?" Malak slipped back out to the open street. "Come on. We're almost there."
"Why are Believers persecuted anyway? What have we ever done to deserve it?"
Malak shrugged his shoulders. "Believe."
"Believe in what, exactly?"
Malak turned around, eyes wide, "All this time raised with the Scientists, you've never had the chance to learn, have you? You don't know who you are?"
"Of course I know who I am. I am Truth." Truth squared his shoulders. His silver as the moon eyes focused heavily on Malak’s face.
Malak nodded slowly. "Yes but you are more than that. You are a Believer."
"I have no belief," said Truth, "other than in myself and in an innate understanding between right and wrong."
"But your people believe there exists more than the trappings of this world. There is a God..."
Truth held up a hand. "If belief in a god is the criteria for a Believer, I am afraid that I am seriously lacking."
Malak's started to tremble and he dropped Truth's hand. He felt suddenly cold. The triumph of rescuing Truth, his old charge and pupil, from the Esclaves suddenly seemed a hollow victory. All of his effort and education and grooming had been erased in the ten years of Truth’s absence and Malak was suddenly painfully aware of what he certainly always already knew but had taken for granted. It wasn't lineage or origin that separated Believers from Scientists, but a simple state of heart and mind. A matter of simple faith, of basic belief. Truth could just as easily be a Scientist as a Believer, whichever he chose. No one truly had a claim on him, and at eighteen years old, no one even had the right to try. No one had ever considered that perhaps Truth didn't want to join the Believer cause. No one had considered his heart. Afraid that he might have been just as criminal as the Esclaves when they stole Truth away so many years ago, Malak decided right there on the street to try to rectify any wrong he may have committed
"What do you believe?" asked Malak, his voice sober and quiet.
Truth was silent for a moment as he considered this and then said, "I believe in the right of every person to believe what they want without fear of persecution or shame."
Malak's heart lightened a bit as he remembered the stories he'd heard about Old Mother. He'd never met the champion of abandoned Believer children in Soroton, but he’d always wanted to. Malak had heard stories about Old Mother that few people could honestly corroborate as she was somewhat a mystery; that she was a former Scientist who could not hold with injustice for a simple difference of understanding, for a matter of faith. Like Truth, they said that she did not believe either, and yet she was the most powerful person on the side of the Believer cause.
Malak swallowed hard, nervous about asking the next question as either answer he got would require him to act. Nevertheless, Malak decided in that moment that he needed to give Truth not only his voice, after so many years of being muted in the Esclaves prison, but his right as well. "Tell me Truth, what do you want?"
------------------Honor held out her hands and allowed McKinley to link the security bands onto her wrists. He smiled the entire time, so she closed her eyes so that she would not have to see his pale plastic waxy face.
"I fully understand," simpered McKinley with a sickening smile on his face, "that if you wished to, you could destroy me and the five drones guarding this room, so allow me to thank you for your...” his eyes flicked heavenward in mock thought, “restraint."
Honor opened her eyes when she heard Taha struggle against the drone that had secured his arms and legs and pushed him standing into a corner. "Stop struggling, Taha. What good would it do you to get hurt?" said Honor.
McKinley turned to face Taha, painted on smile shining like a light. Taha had the insane urge to pluck every single one of the impossibly white teeth out of McKinley's head, but he held still and he held his tongue. He'd been trained for this and he was determined to make it out the seemingly impossible situation.
"Your love of people is a weakness, my beloved," said McKinley as he turned to face Honor again. "It is a weakness I am all too happy to exploit. If only you'd have been willing to risk the lives of these two," he said throwing a glance over his shoulder at Taha and Airun, "you could have left here, maintaining your freedom and thwarting me." McKinley made a circuit around the room inspecting his prizes. He stopped in front of Taha, “Another Believer child.” He wrapped a manicured finger into one of Taha’s brown curls. “What can you do?”
Taha steeled his gaze on McKinley for several long seconds during which McKinley’s smile crumbled into a grimace.
McKinley nodded. “I see.” He massaged his temples. “I suppose I should be careful of you as well.”
"You shouldn't have done that," hissed Honor. "Now you've made yourself vulnerable to that freak. He'll want to start experimenting on you, or some other sick thing."
Taha shrugged, his face breaking with a wide smile of his own. Then Honor heard Taha speak to her, his voice echoing and overlapping. "I couldn't help myself. You know that I'm a show off. Besides, I can't see the harm in giving this old geezer a cheap thrill." But this wasn't at all true. Besides Old Mother, Taha was the most genuine person that Honor had ever met, and in the entire time she'd spent in the sewers, berating and chastising him, he'd never once let her know that he too was gifted. Honor also heard Taha's voice in her head, layered like gauze over his audible voice. I was just distracting him. Look at monitor sixteen.
Unaware of their exchange, McKinley's smile came back in a flash. “Today is such a lucky day for me. I get the girl of my dreams,” he swept his arm in an arc to point to Honor, “and another very powerful Believer child.” He strolled over to Airun. “Unfortunately, my valet has turned out to be untrustworthy. The upside,” said McKinley patting Airun paternalistically on the cheek, “is that I now know how devious you’ve been and can do something about it.”
Honor managed to catch Airun's attention. She nodded, almost imperceptibly toward the bank of monitors that glowed in front of them.
McKinley didn’t notice, in the haze of the pain medicine given to him by Malak earlier, as well as the haze of his own sense of self-triumph, what the rest of them could clearly see on monitor sixteen. Three dark lithe figures, slithered in the shadows at the rear of the building near the loading docks. Airun didn’t know who they were, but Honor and Taha did. Siti, took up the head of this group followed by the tall wide figures of Michael and Seraph.