We're going out again? So soon?
Not my idea.
Doesn't he know we just lost someone?
Things still need to get done, and we're shorthanded. He's sending us to get intel on one of the Dorms.
Sure, but he could at least act like he cares.
What do you want from him? You know how it is. You grieve fast and you move on.
As fast as you can. You can't let it get to you. That's how I've stayed alive this long.
So what happens when they take me?
Oh, I fully expect my luck to run out before yours does. But if it's the other way around, I won't look back.
Don't believe me?
Actually, I do. Which Dorm?
Slipping away from the guards, breaking the perimeter, that was easy. Plenty of kids had managed it. But as soon as they left the grounds, their tracers would trip the alarm. The Myrmidons would pour out, and within minutes or hours the wayward child would be carried back through the main gates. The punishment for such escape attempts was severe.
Ninde had tried it herself when she was younger. She used to make a game of sneaking out of the cafeteria or under the night guard's nose. She never went so far as to climb the fences and trip the alarm, but she knew she could if she needed to. The problem was the tracer.
And that would soon cease to be a problem. The day between the inception of her plan and its implementation seemed to stretch on forever, a string of tedious tasks being performed for the last time. Every second, Ninde expected to be found out somehow. Every glance from every guard seemed to be a warning, as if they knew. Ninde couldn't help checking every time, nibbling her knuckle and finding reassurance in the steady, unintelligent droning of the Myrmidons' minds. They knew nothing.
"Quit biting your hand," said Sola, tapping Ninde's shoulder, "You look like you're going mental."
In the darkness with Delta's screams still ringing in her ears, Sola had been quick to agree to Ninde's plan. But in the light of day, her cynicism seemed to be reasserting itself. She still wasn't convinced that Ninde could read minds. Only the strength of Ninde's conviction was keeping her from dismissing the story about the tracer-deactivator as a flight of fancy. But Ninde knew her plan would work, and Sola would see soon enough.
Fog rolled in that evening, bringing darkness sooner than usual. By the time the girls left their last lesson of the day and began shuffling toward their bunks, it was completely dark outside. Ninde could see as much through the small, high windows along the hall. It would make it harder to find their way around the grounds, but once they made it past the perimeter it would help them hide.
Ninde waited until the lights were out and the whispers and rustlings of the other girls had faded into silence, then she stood. She rolled up her blanket and put it under her arm, then tapped Sola's shoulder. "Time to go," she whispered so quietly that she could barely hear her own voice.
Sola peeked up at her with terrified eyes. She had never stepped a toe out of line before. "Are we really going through with this?" she whispered in return.
Ninde dragged her out of bed by her elbow and stood her on her feet. "Stop being such a baby," she said, "And follow me." As they crept past the rows of bunks, some of the other girls stirred and watched them go. Silently, they went back to sleep. Most of the children would never raise the alarm against one of their own, even if they would rather not get involved with whatever risky scheme was going on. One girl waved solemnly to Ninde from her bed; Ninde returned the wave with a jaunty grin. They thought she was going to her death, but she would show them that it was possible to escape.
The main door was guarded by two Myrmidons at night, and was practically impassable. But there was an unlocked door that led to the bathroom, in case someone needed to go during the night, and that was where Ninde led Sola. There was a rusty service door in the corner of the room. The Myrmidons never used it, so they hadn't noticed when the lock had broken almost two years ago. It was common knowledge among the girls, but no one had dared to use it since Ashie's failed escape attempt. Ninde set her shoulder against it and shoved it open. The rusty hinges gave a muffled shriek, making her blood run cold for an instant. She and Sola froze, listening, but they could hear no reaction from the Myrmidons in the hallway.
Ninde stepped out of the gray light of the bathroom and into the pitch blackness of the service tunnel, but Sola hung behind. "I don't know if I can do this, Ninde," she whispered, her quivering hands drawn up to her mouth.
Ninde held her hand out with a smile. "It'll be easy," she said, "We know how to turn our tracers off, and I can read the minds of any Creature in this place. That's two things that we have that no one else ever did. We're sure to make it. Believe me, we'll be out of here and far away before they even realize we're gone."
"But where will we go?"
"Anywhere!" said Ninde impatiently, "Anywhere but here! Now are you coming?"
Sola reached her hand out, almost drew it back, and then finally placed it in Ninde's with a look of resignation on her face. Ninde squeezed her hand as she backed into the tunnel and closed the door behind them.
They groped their way down the narrow tunnel, their only sense of space coming from the bright outlines of other doors along the wall. Ninde knew the way. She chose their exit carefully. Once they were back in the main hallways, they would have to worry about patrolling Myrmidons. She chose the door that she thought was closest to the staircase that would take them to the second floor and the mysterious room.
Ninde stopped at the door and whispered, "This is it. I'm going to check if anyone's coming." She felt Sola lean toward the door, pressing her ear to the metal to listen for footsteps outside. Ninde smiled. She had a better way.
Ninde began chewing her knuckle, and her mind reached out in every direction, searching for other minds to contact. She slipped past the rapid, dizzying buzz of Sola's mind and probed the hallway for less intelligent thoughts. A distant, monotonous drone was getting steadily clearer, steadily closer. "I don't hear anything," said Sola, "I think it's all clear."
Sola was about to turn the handle when Ninde grabbed her hand and shushed her. They both crouched there, unmoving and barely breathing as the sound of a Myrmidon's hobnailed boots on concrete suddenly became detectable. The sound increased as the Creature passed by their hiding place, then faded away to nothing. Ninde put her knuckle back in her mouth in time to hear its thoughts fade out of her range. It hadn't noticed anything, and she couldn't detect anything else nearby.
"Let's go," she said, wrenching the door open and stepping into the hallway. The girls blinked and squinted in the sudden light, but they kept moving toward the stairs.
As they climbed, Sola demanded, "How did you know it was coming? I didn't hear anything."
"I heard its thoughts," said Ninde. Sola rolled her eyes.
"Yeah, okay," she said, "Whatever." But Ninde thought she could hear a note of uncertainty that hadn't been there before.
They crept down the hallway in silence. Every footstep seemed to echo off the empty, sterile walls, and the girls' anxiety mounted with each step. Ninde put her knuckle in her mouth every few seconds, keeping track of the patrolling guards and staying out of their way. Sometimes she had to backtrack or turn the wrong way to avoid them, and the maze of hallways became more daunting with every change of direction. For a few horrible moments, Ninde thought she had lost her way, but then she recognized a corner where the paint was peeling. "It's here, it's right here!" she said, leading Sola toward a set of double doors that she had seen once before through a different set of eyes.
She was running now, excited to prove to Sola that her vision had been true, but Sola resisted. She pulled on Ninde's hand, trying to slow her, saying, "Wait! What if…"
But before she could finish, Ninde had shoved the doors open. For an instant, they caught a glimpse of the room full of shining machines, just as Ninde had described, before they were suddenly bathed in red light. The screech of an alarm made them clap their hands to their ears, and from farther off came an even worse sound: the wail of a Screamer, its voice audible even above the awful alarm. Ninde found herself staring into Sola's eyes, and she imagined that the shock and horror that she read there was visible on her own face as well. They were caught.
"I thought you said you knew what you were doing!" Sola screamed over the alarm. She managed to look furious even though she was still so scared that the whites of her eyes showed all the way around her irises.
"I knew where the machine was!" Ninde screamed back, "I didn't know there was an alarm on the door!"
"WHY THE HELL NOT?" Sola bellowed, taking her hands off her ears so she could gesture wildly, "I thought you could READ MINDS!"
"I CAN!" said Ninde, throwing her arms open helplessly, "That doesn't mean I know EVERYTHING! I got us THIS far, doesn't that count for something?"
Sola tugged her own hair in exasperation. "Not if we DIE!" she said, "We have to go back! Now! Before they catch us here!"
But Ninde's knuckle was already in her mouth, and she could hear the thoughts of battle-ready Myrmidons all around them. Every maniple in the complex had been awakened by the Screamer, and they were closing in on them from every direction. "Too late," she said, catching one of Sola's hands as it flapped in panic, "Come on! This is the only way out!"
Ninde dragged Sola into the room even as she tried to run the other way. The noise and the fear was making her head swim, but she managed to thrust Sola's arm into the aperture in the machine and replicate the series of buttons that she had seen the Myrmidon press in her vision. The Screamer's cry had reached such a crescendo that she could barely keep her thoughts straight, but somehow she managed to get Sola to activate the machine while she held her arm inside. She checked both their wrists; the red lights beneath their skin were gone. They were free.
"They're here!" Sola shrieked, pointing at the door. The first of the Myrmidons had arrived, and the only exit was cut off.
"Follow me," said Ninde as she tore a heavy, knee-high contraption away from the wall and threw it through the window. The Myrmidon started to cross the room, reaching for its quarry, which made Ninde's next decision an easy one.
She jumped out of the second-story window.
Luckily, the rain and fog of the last couple of days had left the grassy earth beneath the window soft and spongy. What should have been a bone-breaking fall merely stunned Ninde momentarily. She lay there in the mud for several seconds, squeaking weakly as she tried to draw air into her lungs. She managed to lift her upper body, but the stabs of pain down her left side, where she had landed, made her collapse back into the mud with a groan. Just as she was getting ready for another attempt at standing, there was a scream and a thump and Sola was lying in the mud next to her.
Feeling like her whole body would be one big bruise the next day, Ninde managed to lift herself off the ground. The floodlights and sirens all over the courtyard confirmed that though they had escaped the room, they were far from safe. Ninde dragged Sola to her feet and quickly patted her down, checking for broken bones.
"That…" Sola gasped, slowly regaining her wind, "Was the most… terrifying… thing… I have ever… done… Are you… completely… insane?" She was bruised as badly as Ninde, and her wrist seemed to be sprained, but otherwise she was fine.
"Got us outside, didn't it?" said Ninde as they began to run for the fence, "I was worried there for a minute. I thought you'd be too chicken to jump."
The Myrmidons seemed confused. Without tracer signals to follow, they seemed to be running around haphazardly. Ninde knew that soon they would bring Tracker teams to bear, and that they had to get out and find water before they picked up their scent. She reached the fence, ducked a searchlight as it passed overhead, and then threw her blanket over the top of the razor wire.
"You first," she said to Sola. The other girl was faltering. She was hurt and exhausted, and her nerve ebbed with every passing minute. Ninde could see that jumping from the window had taken the last of Sola's courage, and she didn't trust her to climb the fence on her own. Sola didn't respond. She was breathing shallowly, and her face was blank. She seemed about to go catatonic, but she managed to climb the fence and roll over the cushioned spikes at the top. Ninde followed her, but the ripped blanket didn't afford much protection. As she slid down the other side, a point of the razor wire caught her skin and sliced her from ankle to knee. She barely felt it.
She didn't have time to rejoice at being on the other side of the fence before a searchlight swung straight into her face and illuminated both her and Sola. Sola stared into the light in horror. Ninde shielded her eyes and began to run. She had made it a few strides when she realized that Sola was still clinging to the fence, frozen in the beam like a frightened animal.
She ran back and began dragging her friend along with her. "Come on," she grunted, "They saw us. They'll be coming out to get us any minute." They had reached the road. Behind them the entire Dorm was lit up, with sirens blaring. Ahead was inky, silent darkness.
And there, in the middle of the road, Sola stopped. Ninde tried to continue forward, pulling on her hand, but Sola dug her heels in and refused to go any farther.
"What are you doing?" Ninde demanded, "We have to go!"
Sola stared into the dark unknown with fear in her eyes, then turned to look at the bright, familiar grounds of the Dorms almost whimsically. "Ninde," she said, her voice surprisingly clear and quiet, "I can't do it."
"There's nothing to do!" said Ninde, "We already did it! We're out!" She looked over Sola's shoulder to the main gate. It was grinding open, and two maniples of Myrmidons were waiting to pour out and collect the escapees. There was no time to argue. She had to get Sola moving or they would be caught, and it would all have been for nothing.
"You don't know what's out there," said Sola, still not budging, "What do you think will happen? That you'll find some grown-ups to take care of you? That it'll be easy? What if there's nothing? For all we know, everyone who ever escaped just starved a few weeks later, or froze to death in a ditch. You could take three more steps and get snatched up by a Ferret, and that would be the end of you. But back in the Dorm, we could have food and a bed and our friends until we're fourteen. Ninde, I still have a year! I want that year!"
Ninde's eyes flashed fiercely. "And I want the year after that!" she said, "And the year after that! We'll survive! If we escaped from the Dorm, we can do anything! We can make it!"
Sola shook her head. "I'm sorry," she said, "If we go back now, maybe they'll forgive us."
They stood there, hand in hand, separated by the painted yellow line on the asphalt. Ninde looked into Sola's eyes and saw the same despair there that she had seen in all their classmates. The despair that she had pitied and held in contempt. The despair that made a girl think that a year in prison was better than taking a risk on freedom. On life.
She tried one more time. "Come with me," she begged.
"No," said Sola, gripping her hand more tightly, "You come with me."
The tromping of the Myrmidons' boots was drawing closer. There was no time left, and they had each made their choice. There was nothing left to say. Without a word, Ninde let go of her best friend's hand, and Sola did the same.
Sola turned and ran back the way they had come, waving her arms and shouting, "I'm here! I'm here! I surrender!" She ran back toward the light, her tiny body illuminated by dozens of spotlights and dwarfed by the huge Myrmidons that surrounded her.
Meanwhile, Ninde quietly slipped into the shadows and disappeared.