Highway 8 was the only road from Soroton that accessed Sinistral City. It was a direct route, but treacherous with no pedestrian lane. Autos sped along this otherwise deserted stretch of road without observing the speed limit, but there was little reason to. The signs were faded beyond noticing and there was no one to enforce the old law anyway. The Authorities had better things to do than cite speeders. They had more serious crimes to investigate and commit.
There was another reason for Highway 8's reputation for danger. The Midlings, who lived in the wooded areas surrounding Highway 8, would hide along the road in derelict buildings and ramshackle posts high in the trees. They were known poachers and they hunted people stupid enough to walk the highway alone. The poachers would sell their prey into service or experimentation to the Scientists. This is how they made their money and their reputation for ruthless inhumanity. In these times, your worst enemy wouldn’t even turn you over to the Scientists, and neither would the Midlings, but they'd sell you in a heartbeat. The Midlings were named so because of their position. They believed in a god, but felt he did not matter. They believed in science but only as much as it benefitted them.
Honor had always been able to protect herself, but she wasn't interested in a confrontation on the road to Sinistral. She'd been in enough trouble recently and she needed to get to Sinistral as quickly and inconspicuously as possible. Three days prior to her departure, she contacted her friend Evera. Evera was a Midling but still somewhat sympathetic to the Believer's cause. She had been one of Old Mother’s lost children and had grown up in End Row. Like Honor, Evera didn't know her parents, so when she reached the age of maturity and it was time for her to move on, she found herself alone. She came to live among the Midlings when she met her husband, Airun, the informally elected leader of the Midlings. Shortly after their marriage, Airun left on a mission to raid a Scientist transport freighter plane of medical supplies at the Sinistral City airfield. He never returned. Since then, Evera had held the position of leader in his place. It hadn’t been an easy transition and there were many among the Midlings who still didn’t accept her. They wanted her title and her life. There were stories about Evera's prowess, and Honor had seen her in action. Evera was the only person that made Honor doubt her own strength. The woman was tough. Before Honor, Evera had been the protector of the innocents in End Row. She had been the wall between Mad Mike and the ignorant youth he'd hoped to exploit.
Evera had promised to escort Honor through Midling territory, which consisted of about 20 acres of the last bit of real living forest in the Northeast. The land supported a few old homes and underground mines that the Midlings were said to have converted into living facilities equipped with electricity and clean water. Those were the stories anyway.
Honor leaned against the pole of a shattered lamp in the crumbling parking lot of a long defunct Stop&Shop grocery store. The edge of the forest was only a few yards away. All that Honor could see of the forest in the deepening twilight were the dark outlines of the oak and birch trunks. Then, as if she were an apparition, Evera seemed to float into sight as if the darkness had given birth to her. She was smiling and her thick jagged hair framed a face too sweet for the harsh world that they lived in. Although nine years older, Evera looked about the same age as Honor, but this was an unwitting deception. Evera could be dangerous if she wanted to be.
Honor rushed forward to meet her old friend. "You're late. I thought that maybe you had changed your mind about coming."
Evera wrapped her arms around Honor and squeezed. "I have missed you too little sister."
Honor smiled and returned the hug.
Evera stood back and looked up into Honor's face. "You've grown about a foot since the last time I saw you."
"Not really. Maybe a couple of inches. That's all"
Evera frowned, her thin eyebrows pulling together into a straight line across her brow. "No, I insist. At least a foot. And look at your face. So serious." Evera released Honor's shoulders. "But you always were a serious kid. Like you were carrying a bad secret." Evera locked eyes with Honor.
Honor's heart dropped. Obviously, the word had passed beyond End Row and into Midling territory that she had done something different and frightening. People had seen her shift, and they were talking about it. The Authorities would want her for what she'd done to Lulu. The Scientists would want her because of what she could do, and they would try to use her gifts for their own ends. Now that the story had spread, any idiot looking to make a name for himself would want to challenge her in order to boost his own reputation. The person capable of beating the woman who could disappear and reappear yards away and beat a 300 pound human bulldozer without breaking a sweat would have more clout and renown than they would know what to do with.
"You want to talk about it?"
Honor shook her head. "No, I just want to go."
Evera's smile returned and she held out her right hand.
Honor pressed the twenty pieces into Evera's hand. Everything had a price, even among friends.
Honor followed Evera into the forest and they hiked through the carpet of fallen leaves and undergrowth without speaking. This is just how Honor liked it. Honor suddenly remembered why she had always been so fond of Evera. She had always been there when you needed her. When you needed her to back off, she would do that too.
They reached the first checkpoint about fifteen minutes into their walk. With a nod and the exchange of passwords, they passed the woman on sentry duty. They continued this way through the next three hours, coming upon a lone sentinel about every fifteen to twenty minutes. The moisture that hung in the air from the earlier rains made the pressing chill bite. Honor eventually slipped on her gloves and buttoned her coat up to her neck.
Honor couldn’t help but wonder how Evera was able to navigate the woods. All of the trees looked alike and in the darkness it was difficult to tell the figure of a tree from that of a person. The sounds that Honor heard were also somewhat unnerving. There were whistles and cries and somehow Evera was able to decipher their origin, whether man or animal, and their meaning regardless of origin.
About three acres from their destination, Evera slowed and Honor who kept pace behind noticed her back stiffen. Honor used her senses to reach out to her friend, to try to read what was troubling her, but she touched someone else instead. Silent as a ghost, a tall man as pale as the scarce moonlight that managed to press through some of the branches, drifted from behind a tree. He wore a black over jacket and camouflage pants. A rifle was slung over his left shoulder. He looked to be about twenty-five years or so.
"What’s the word?" he said.
"Waterfall," said Evera in response.
He nodded at Evera, but his eyes lingered on Honor. "Who is she? Not one of us." He stepped forward; close enough for Honor to see the bleached yellow of his eyebrows and lashes and the translucent water gray of his eyes. Even the thin mustache that shadowed his upper lip was so light that it was barely noticeable. Honor had only ever seen one other albino and he had been sun sick, with tiny lesions all over.
"She is one of us today," said Evera.
"Says who?" He asked this without once looking in Evera's direction. He circled Honor. When he came to stand in front of her, he fingered the lapel of her coat and leaned back to get a better look at her boots.
"I say." Evera moved to stand between the pearlescent-skinned man and Honor. "Do you have a problem?"
He seemed to be looking straight through Evera with those translucent eyes. Talking directly to Honor, he said, "I like that coat and those boots. I have a little sister who could fit them nicely."
Honor shrugged, shifted from one leg to the other. She knew what he had in mind. She could feel it in her bones, and her stomach, but she was not afraid. He was foolish and thought too much of himself. Honor did not want to bring him down a peg, didn’t want to be bothered, but she would if she had to. "You think so?"
"Well, I guess you can have my stuff, if you can take it. You big enough to do that?"
He smiled, set the rifle against the tree and answered, "Yes."
He moved into position, raising his bare fists in front of him, widening his stance. It was almost as if he didn’t see Evera standing there in front of him. Honor pushed her hands into her pockets but otherwise remained still. She would fight him, if she had to, but she got the sense that this was not really what he wanted. This wasn’t about her so much as it was about Evera. Evera seemed to realize this too. Honor was capable of sensing a lot of things, some people were as transparent as water, but she didn’t expect what happened next.
Evera retrieved the rifle the man had set down next to the tree, lifted it to her shoulder and aimed it at his head. "She is one of us today." Her voice was as smooth and friendly as ever. She even smiled. The rifle was threat enough.
"But we don't know her. She doesn’t belong here." He did not relax his fighting stance.
"I know her, and that is all you need to know." She moved forward a bit, pressing the barrel against his temple. "I am the leader and what I say is the law, unless you want to challenge me."
He stood straight and faced Evera. "Maybe I do."
"You can try, but I have your rifle."
He shrugged his shoulders. "So, it’s empty."
Evera dropped the rifle to the forest floor. "Ok. But I have her." She nodded in Honor's direction.
At this the man laughed. His voice cracked open the muffled silence of the forest. "She's just a girl."
"You've heard about what happened to Lulu?"
"What of it?"
They all remained silent as he looked from Evera to Honor and back to Evera again. It took a while, but eventually realization cleared the doubt on his face. His eyes brightened and his mouth fell open. "Her? You mean to say that she is the one?"
Evera looked to Honor for confirmation, and she obliged. "Now, now Evera. It isn’t polite to brag." She looked the man in the eyes and said, "Let’s just say that it hurt Lulu much more than it hurt me."
His name was Alif, Honor later learned, and he was the younger brother of Evera's husband Airun. Alif had never wholly accepted Evera, and had stood in quiet opposition to her ascension to leader of the Midlings. He had always believed that the position of leadership should have gone to him by default, as Airun’s brother and next in command instead of Evera. Evera’s friendship with Honor changed things. An ally as powerful as rumor said Honor was could only be a boon to the Midlings. This relationship boosted the reputation of Evera as a strong leader with even stronger connections. Honor felt the swing of his emotions before he ever verbalized them.
Alif reached into an inner pocket of his jacket and pulled out a small metal canteen. He handed it to her. “Thirsty?” She accepted the canteen and nodded approval to Evera who kept the barrel of the rifle against Alif’s temple.
“It’s okay, he won’t do anything.” Honor told Evera as she accepted the canteen. It was full and heavy in her hand. She had been thirsty.
“How do you know?”
Honor unscrewed the top of the canteen and pulled deeply on the chlorinated water. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “I just do?” She handed the canteen back to Alif, but he refused to take it.
Alif escorted Honor and Evera the rest of the distance to the border between their wooded territory and the city limits of Sinistral City. He said little else, but on several occasions, Honor caught him watching her with shrewd interested eyes. He was trying, unsuccessfully to read her. He had no idea that she could read him as if his secrets were kept behind a pane of glass.
Alif kept pace a few yards behind Honor and Evera, or to the left or right, until they reached the border. Then, he hung back to allow them to speak in private.
“Are you sure that he can be trusted?”
Honor looked in Alif’s direction. “I am sure. I can feel it.”
“In that case, you have done far more for me today than I have for you.” She handed the twenty pieces back to Honor.”
“I haven’t done anything.”
“Alif is Airun brother and he was my opposition. With him supporting me, No one else will dare deny my right to hold this position. Most think that he is the rightful leader, but now that he is willing to move aside for me there is no way that I can fail.”
Honor accepted the money. “I just don’t understand why you would want to be their leader. This significantly shortens your life expectancy. Midlings can be brutal.”
“I know, and this is why I think that I should be leader. Before Airun left, he had revolutionary ideas about the Midling position in our society. He felt that it was time for us to choose sides, to help turn the tide for goodness. He was never able to make this happen. I will carry the mantel until I am unable, because someone has to.”
“Always the caretaker. Just be careful.” Honor hugged her friend.
“You never told me why you are going to Sinistral City.”
Honor turned and looked down the road. A fifteen minute walk and she would be in Sinistral, and then what? She didn’t even know. Honor shrugged her shoulders. “I’m looking for something, future, past, present. I don’t know. But I will let you know when I find out.”