…requires quite a bit of time during the week we must get in our reports.
As a result, I did not get in last week’s chapter entry as I promised. So this week, Folks, I am giving you the next two chapters. Sorry about that.
Anyway, here are the next two chapters.
The Administrator strode toward his offices with an authority indicating he expected her to accompany him. The day of her interview by the examination panel reviewing her application, Karra had walked down this same hall. They informed her that they screened all applicants before accepting them into the Second Start Program.
“We must be sure,” a panel member had stated, her sounding as if she chose her words with care, “that your past does not interfere with (corrupt, Karra interpreted) the goals of the other students.”
Considering her family background, the panel was probably more worried about her politics than her legal profession, which included work like the evening entertainment Investigator Barnis thought he had purchased. The panel was right, she realized. Politics did get in the way. Had she not been so afraid of what the Nevian investigator was close to finding, she would never have accepted the job, either as his party favor or as an assassin.
Karra tried to blink past the massive headache developing behind her eyes. Her thoughts clouded as a storm brewed in her head. Her ability to think fogged.
She doubted incoherent thoughts plagued the Administrator’s brain. He had invited her to his office with a definite purpose in mind, she was certain. He had no trouble seeing a relationship between barbarians and benefactors. He guided her toward his office in the Administration of Education wing of the school.
Being the Council member in charge of public education, he might even take a personal pride in his people’s nearly successful attempts to destroy the diverse cultures of this planet. Graduation from the Public Academy allowed its students access to several of the private upper level academies. It advertised that all graduates qualified for a number of Inner City jobs. True enough, but a person could starve before receiving one of those cherished jobs. Karra had one other sibling who attended the Public Academy, her brother Dugaan who was four years younger. The rest of her siblings attended a local Primary Basic school.
Primary Basic schools, scattered throughout the Area, taught Irelli language, reading, basic math, Nevian history and civic duty. Although not required, such an education was available for Sector Five children from six through fifteen. No subjects in geography were included in a Basic education. No ties to the mainland and to the Homelander cultures that once lived there were ever offered. For a Basic student, their world began and ended within the city of Sector Five’s walls.
A Primary Basic allowed Area citizens to be more valuable to their Nevian employers. Saril, the sister just younger than she, although sixteen, had been permitted to remain in the local Primary Basic school in order to graduate by the end of the year. Saril would be the first among Karra’s siblings to receive that distinction.
Ahead of his class, Dugaan would graduate next year, planning to become a physician someday. Most Area residents found the cost of any of the upper level academies prohibitive. Dugaan would too, if he failed to find someone to sponsor him. Area residents rarely made more than just enough to survive.
Such realities usually incensed her, making her want to lash out at the Nevians. But today she needed to focus on the issue at hand, meaning how to satisfy the Administrator of Education’s curiosity and still be able to remain at school. That story she had written, still clutched in his hand, waved at her like a flag of caution.
The plaque on his door gave his full name and title. She squinted past the headache to see it clearly: Hannok Se Walliz, Chief Administrator of Education, and was sorry the moment she did. A new dart of pain stabbed through the back of her brain.
She tried to distract herself by recalling what she knew of Master Walliz. The man sat on the Sector Five Council along with the various heads of this Sector’s administrative committees that met regularly with the High Commissioner. She wished he had chosen to administer education from a separate facility altogether. All others on the Sector Five Council kept their offices in Level Three. The canned blurb maintained that Level One, being the closest to the Outer Area streets, made Sector Five education accessible to everyone, but most Homelanders knew otherwise, even Level One Homelanders like Sinda.
His hand gripped her elbow as he propelled her past the door and through the outer office where his human receptionist sat keying entries at her desk. Although not a Nevian, the woman would betray her own kind to Security before she would risk losing her Inner City job.
Walliz closed the door. She winced as the sound of the latch closing hammered in her head. Go away, she told the headache. Think through it, she told herself.
Out of habit Karra studied the room. It contained only one massive desk with three matching chairs, his behind the desk and two guest chairs facing his desk. One wall boasted of a floor-to-ceiling bookcase opposite a marbled window. Further examination showed the window presented no function outside of decor. Not meant to open, it even refused to let light in well.
The only way out, she finally realized, was the way in. The sudden thought brought another crash of thunder in her head.
Her eyes left the window and rested on the man as he sank his stocky body in the chair behind his desk. With stumpy, gray-lined fingers he pushed back a lock of blue-black hair that had fallen across his forehead.
Odd, she thought when she also began to see herself last night, stroking Barnis’ forehead, combing his scantier hair with her fingers as though she enjoyed it. She shuddered. The money compensated.
“Please sit down, Mistress Willo.”
Was the room growing warm?
“Just the other day I thought about you and decided to pull your file. Yes?”
What have I done to make him think of me? Fear slashed at her, throwing hot daggers into her head, causing her vision to blur. Beads of sweat dampened her brow. She tried to hide the barrage of emotions behind a placid expression, and knew she failed.
“Here we are. ‘Karra Andra Willo,’” he read. “A pretty name.” His black-within-black eyes searched her face for some reaction.
Barnis’ face kept trying to overlay the Chief Administrator’s. She cocked her head to one side in an attempt to see which one was really speaking. The movement sent a red lance behind her eyes.
“Yes,” he continued when she remained mute. “Pretty. ‘Father: Jon Carlon Willo.’ Hmm, same name as your oldest brother. Would that not be confusing?”
Confusing? She shook her head, more to clear it than to answer his question. More pain. Keep to the subject, she reminded herself. What was the subject? Oh, yes, my brother’s name. “My father used the name Jon. We call my oldest brother Carlon.”
“I see. ‘Mother: Chalatta Zanne Willo. Both parents deceased.’”
Dead. A flash of red pierced her sight. Administrator Walliz’ stumpy fingers fired a rifle that assassinated her father. Scarlet blood oozed across the carpet.
What chemicals were in those tablets, Barnis? She clutched for a strand of reality.
“Another name similarity here,” Walliz commented. “Chalatta, your daughter, has the same first name as your mother did. Is this a common practice among Homelanders, giving people in the same family the same names?”
“My mother was a woman of virtue. Why wouldn’t I want to name my daughter after her?” Sudden anger pulled at her. He dared to challenge her decision?
You see nothing! But she would make him see. Oh, yes!
Karra took a deep breath to stifle her growing rage and to smother a wave of terror headed her way.
He returned his attention to the folder. “Is this accurate? Eight children survive your parents?”
“Yes.” Every two years Mama birthed a baby while Daddy lived at home. His first arrest had produced the gap between the three eldest siblings and Karra. The second imprisonment had killed him. She usually avoided that memory, but right now it all but screamed at her. She blinked rapidly.
The image changed. Although his blood still stained the carpet, she now saw her father pounding his fist on the table like a meat cleaver in a butcher’s shop. “Sann’s Health Center isn’t about health at all. It’s a sterilization clinic, just another form of Nevian-approved genocide. They’ll use anything at their disposal to kill us off, or enslave those of us who refuse to conform, all quite legal, of course, like their education and employment laws.”
But a glance at the Nevian in front of her told her he never heard her father’s tirade. She clenched her teeth in grim determination, willing away the vision of her father pounding on the table.
“But eight! An incredible number of children, especially for a family trying to survive in the Outer Area! Why did your mother not have herself sterilized?”
“My father wouldn’t have permitted it.” Karra doubted the question ever surfaced. But their poverty had not killed him. Bullets had. His assassination was all she remembered about that day, but that one fact kept her burning with rage against her conquerors. Her fury was part of the reason she had finally let herself be talked into this last (Jem promised) job. The other part was that Barnis Ves had become a threat to both the Homelander Front and to her father’s work.
“Barbaric.” He shook his head in disbelief. “‘Father was political activist, imprisoned for treason before his death.’” He looked up from the pages in front of him, studying her. “One of your brothers, the second from the oldest, I believe, is Jem Hesson Willo. He continues as a political activist, Mistress Willo.” He raised the black arches above his eyes and gave her an expectant look.
She could not think how to respond, so intent she was on not losing herself to the red, pounding headache of insane paranoia that crouched in her mind.
He tapped the file in front of him. “You see that we have many facts at our disposal regarding your family.”
She supposed she should have been impressed, or at least intimidated, but the pain in her head kept growing, as did the flashes of images (hallucinations?) that should not exist.
When she still remained silent, he asked, “Do you have any idea where your brother Jem is, Mistress Willo?”
Nobody does. Investigator Barnis Ves, last night’s assignment, had also been looking for Jem, but he had been more interested in locating a certain collection of Homelander literature reputed to be held by Jem. Jem knew nothing about those books and papers.
The Investigator’s questions, however, had led him too close to her own secret place, the very building where she had placed the literature. According to the paperwork she destroyed, he planned to search the building this very afternoon. She killed him right after he let her read them. Too close! She wondered if anyone else would pick up the thread of his investigation and nose around her hideaway in the future.
Nevian authority, uncertain as to which of the Willo children had hidden the work, usually blamed Jem, since he led the militant resistance organization, the Homelander Front. But not even Jem knew where she had hidden their father’s work.
V’anel Kees Sol, the Council member heading the investigative committee, had hired Barnis to confiscate all Homeland subversive materials. His specific instructions were to locate and destroy the history their father had collected before his death. They wanted nothing to counter their version of history claimed Nevians had rescued Homelanders from barbarism and savagery. They allowed no other viewpoint. Her father’s collection would reveal that Nevians had subjugated this peaceful planet with their own barbarism.
In truth, Homelanders had developed three distinct cultures across the main continent, none of which had ever been savage. The Irellis, her mother’s ancestors, had built this Northland city and the cultivated regions surrounding it. Nevians now called it and the surrounding land Sector Five. Irellis had once called this city Northlight Viewing for the display of northern lights that appeared during the long winter nights. They had called the rich farmland surrounding the city the Blue Sentinel Plains and the mountains that sheltered the plains the Blue Sentinels. The mountains, rugged, always snowcapped, looking like rows of white-helmeted sentries, protected the city and the plains from the worst of the bitter Northrange Winds that howled past the Blue Sentinels each winter. But the Irelli names for their land had all but disappeared, along with the Northlights which could not be seen because of the well-lit city the Nevians had constructed.
The Zarindan, her father’s people, vibrant traders and storytellers, used to share news as well as trade. Northlight Viewing had been so far north its residents hungered for each tale the Zarindan traders shared. Her father’s father, a Zarindan storyteller himself, had traveled the all over the main continent before the Nevians’ arrival. During the winters he fostered his children in Irelli homes to attend Irelli schools. Her father, Jon Willo, had inserted his natural propensity for storytelling into his love of history and had taught history at the Public Academy before Nevians had changed the curriculum.
Jon Willo had only taught Irelli and Zarindan history since he knew too little about the people to the south, the Krindarwee, who kept to themselves. The Krindarwee were the least industrial of the three groups, but they had never been savages either. Soon after Karra’s birth, authorities silenced Jon Willo’s version of history by arresting and imprisoning him. Afterwards he had found a part-time teaching job at a local Primary Basic school. When Karra turned nine, her father had been imprisoned for the last time, then killed for collecting and hiding what he knew of the Homelanders’ true history.
To entice her into accepting the job to stop Barnis Ves’ investigation, Jem had complained that the Nevian was getting too close to the Homelander Front. Even so, no matter how much money Jem offered her, Karra refused the job until she learned how close Barnis Ves was also heading toward what their father had died to keep hidden.
“Not even family knows where Jem is.” This time she stared directly at the Nevian. Let him prove otherwise.
She shifted her attention to his thin eyebrows, as black as his head hair, finding them easier than staring into his black-upon-black, alien eyes. The dark pupil seemed to bore into her whenever she met his gaze. Even so, except for bluish-gray skin color and the strange black eyes, they looked almost human, another fact that upset her. Aliens should look more—alien.
“I see.” He frowned. “We keep our records as accurate as possible on the families of known political subversives. You understand that, yes?”
“Yes.” She expected this enemy to find out all he could on families like the Willos. Sweat dampened her clothing where her body pressed it against the chair.
Subversive. Subversive, a voice in her thundering head echoed.
“Good. You have a very difficult past to overcome. I would like to believe we could begin your future on a note of trust. I will trust you to be honest with me. You will demonstrate that your past is indeed where it belongs and I will insure that you receive the benefits of Inner City citizenship. How does that sound?”
“Fine, Master Walliz.” Exception, Master, she wanted to say. What is this going to cost me besides the lives of my father and mother? Jem’s life? My own?
Heat seared her stomach. Had she asked those questions aloud?
“Let us begin with the story you wrote for Stiveson’s class. What do you have to say about it?”
Say about it, say about it, her head taunted. Yes, what will you say about it?
“It was a fantasy assignment, so I wrote about some marauding barbarians destroying a civilized culture.”
“No. What else could there be?” Fear tinged the edges of her voice. What else could there be-be-be-be-be. Her head repeated the single word in rapid fire, like the bullets that had taken her father’s life.
“Stiveson suggested a parallel between your barbarians and, ah, Nevians. You were smiling.”
“I was? I…I must have been embarrassed by Master Stiveson’s conclusions.”
Embarrassed? You? A grin filled with teeth formed in her mind.
“Yes. Mmm.” He returned to her recorded history, reading to himself until he found what he wanted. “‘At fourteen years of age, Karra received a yellow certificate from Sann’s Health Center.’ Fourteen! You were hardly more than a child! This says you were sterilized because of an illegal pregnancy—at fourteen, Mistress Willo?—and accepted the yellow certificate option of your own free will. So, should I expect you have suddenly made a change in your life?”
A bit surprised, Karra stared at Barnis. Last night Barnis had very definitely not wanted her to change.
Change, change, change, her head insisted.
“No,” she assured him, wearing last night’s seductive smile. “I don’t think I’ve changed at all.”
He responded with a twitch of his lips and returned his attention quickly back to the file, as if he needed to force himself away from her. “Perhaps.” Several long seconds passed before he continued. “Still, you did promise the school panel your prostitution days were over.”
I did? When did I promise that? At Sann’s they had told her that the yellow certificate option was permanent. If she signed the papers, she would always be registered. They gave her the opportunity to change her mind because she had been so young. She had signed anyway. At least the registration would give her a way to earn a legal income, should she be so inclined.
“You may be surprised that I find you a remarkable woman. Prostitution is, after all, a legal profession. Your goal, of course, is to provide an adequate future for yourself and your daughter. Am I right?”
Right, right, right, her head echoed, its striking tempo increasing.
“Yes,” she told Barnis, confused by his question. She couldn’t remember telling him about her daughter.
“Do you see why I admire you? Even the limitations of an illegal pregnancy have not eliminated your desire to begin life anew.”
Admire you. Begin life anew, her head mocked.
Barnis resumed reading. “’Highly intelligent. Passed all exams through the Public Academy requirements.’ See what I mean?”
Mean, mean, mean. Investigator Barnis knew, somehow, that she was attempting to return to school. That didn’t matter. He already knew too much for his own safety. But what bothered her was his statement that she had passed all of her Public Academy requirement exams. All the Second Start Option offered was a Public Academy education.
Ah, yes, the voice in her head jeered. Why enroll you if testing indicates you’ve already passed?
“How old were you when you last attended school?”
School, school. What difference does that make? But she decided to humor him.
“Twelve, maybe thirteen. I didn’t go regularly after I turned twelve.” My, the questions this Investigator had for her! The room blinked in red.
“Thirteen? Oh, yes, it is right here. (here, here, here!) Yes, your attendance was terribly erratic.”
Anger replaced her fear. In that moment she wanted to entice a fight, force him to defend his reasons for incarcerating her father and for making her sit and listen to the words in her file. How had Barnis received a copy of her file anyway? He had nothing to do with the school.
“Ah.” Barnis examined the file with renewed interest, not noticing the tightening of her lips and the scowl at her brow. “Yet you’re such an accomplished writer. Yes? Do you like to write?”
Blink. Blink. Blood. Blink. Ribbons of blood began swirling around his head. He was causing it. He was making the very air cry blood!
She slipped her hand into the pocket of her skirt.
“Have you thought about attending a writing academy after you graduate?”
“No…“ The idea appalled her. She remembered the pride she had taken in writing her fantasy story. But once within the walls of their academy, all stories of barbarians would be smothered until her very ideas bent to their collective will, the same will that had imprisoned Daddy.
“I think you should. Why, with one short story, you managed to disrupt a whole class. Where do you get your background material?”
A sound clicked audibly in her mind, the sound of a gate closing—or prison doors.
Now she understood the Investigator’s line of questioning. Although Barnis’ people had arrested Daddy twice for pages they had found of his pre-Nevian history, they found neither any trace of his source material, nor the finished manuscript. Somewhere they knew he must have an extensive library, all pre-Nevian, and therefore all illegal. She was next in line on the Nevians’ arrest and murder list, unless she found a way out.
Out! Out! Out!
“I read whatever I could find.” The truth. Anytime she found herself in her sister’s home, she literally devoured her younger siblings’ schoolwork.
“What did you find?”
“Homework. My brothers’ and sister’ homework.” She would never admit she supplemented their homework with her father’s collection of books and papers.
But Barnis was not fooled. He tapped the papers on his desk and glared at her. “By these test results I have here you learned far more than your younger brothers and sisters were able to bring home. The oldest three never graduated from the Public Academy, although young Carlon attended. You have been out of school for six years, yet you could enter any of the upper level academies. Explain it to me. Please.”
The top of the wall bristled with rifles. Terrified they aimed at her, she glanced around the room for a way of escape. Her father bled into the carpet, his anguished eyes staring at her. “Karra!” he pleaded. Please, please, please.
Daddy! She wanted to scream, terrified. The room grew incredibly warm.
She jumped. How did she know her name? She had told him her name was Desire, and now he was calling her by her legal name.
“You were about to tell me how your test results are so excellent. Isn’t that right? Right? Right?”
She could think of nothing to say. Daddy bleeds into the carpet and rifles point at you from the top of a mud-colored wall! Do you want to die with him?
Investigator Barnis Ves gave an irritated sigh. “Your story indicates supplementary material. Does your daughter also read additional material at home? Shall we ask her?”
Ask her. Ask her. Ask her.
“Chalatta!” Her heart beat furiously. The Nevian wanted to use Chalatta!
“What was that, Mistress Willo?”
“Nothing.” But her fingers slid past the hole she had torn in her skirt pocket.
“Nothing? Oh, I am positive you have something to tell me, sooner or later, especially if I choose to bring your daughter into this discussion. What do you think of a special school, for her as well as you?”
Her head began pounding to the tempo of special school. Special school, special school.
“A school?” she managed to ask over the noise.
“Oh, indeed! An Inner City education for the both of you. A writing academy for you, and one of the best children’s institutes for your daughter.” He offered a fake smile. “I can arrange for your greatest ambitions to be realized. Am I asking so much in return for a lifetime of reward?”
Special school. Special school. For you and Chalatta. A lockaway school. For a lifetime.
“Think,” she said aloud. “Must think.” The room began to breathe in red and black. She widened the tear in the pocket of her skirt until her whole hand could slip through.
“Time to think? By all means! I don’t have another appointment until ten hundred, which is, by the way, with the administrator of Barre Academy. Your reward. We make an exchange: your father’s educational materials for your future education. You and your daughter could move out of the Outer Area this very evening into one of Barre’s lovely new student apartments. There need be no delay. Since you already meet all the requirements, we can transfer you today at ten hundred, when the administrator arrives.”
Today! Trap! Trap! Trap! Trap!
Bolts slid back. Rifles drew bead.
She watched in alarm as Barnis’ head grew as he leaned toward her. A grin filled with pointed teeth split his face.
Terrified, she grasped the hilt of the knife she always kept strapped to her thigh.
“Why wait.” He rose, smiling, his hand holding the contract he expected her to sign.
“Why wait.” She stood with him.
Walliz knew that once he brought Karra’s daughter into the discussion, she would be forced to give up Jon Willo’s collection of illegal books. The new High Commissioner was stupid to outlaw using children for political or military purposes. He would prove it when he finally brought in Jon Willo’s collection of subversive material, finally succeeding where even V’anel Kees Sol had failed. Surely he would be rewarded handsomely. Then maybe the High Commissioner would rethink his position and allow the military to resume its control over Sector Five, and abolish the ridiculous Security Watch. Why, they were hardly more than civilians! And they allowed humans, even Outer Area humans, to join the Security Watch! Once Walliz demonstrated his success, he might also be released from this frustrating education administration position, as if anyone really cared if Outer Area Homelanders were allowed in Inner City schools. Oh, he would keep his promise to this Homelander girl and her child. What did it matter as long as he got what he wanted through them?
Before he realized her fingers clutched a knife, it flew past his outstretched hand. He felt a sharp pain as she shoved the blade into this throat and tore outward in one deep slice. For several very long moments he struggled to breathe as his lungs filled with blood. Then he felt nothing at all.
As her knife tore to her right, she leaned to her left to avoid the dark gout of the bluish ochre Nevians called blood.
Karra returned his smile.
When she finally came out of the nightmare, Karra found herself dancing. She remembered slashing through ribbons of dark, Nevian blood that streaked air made red with the tears of Homelanders. She did not remember using Walliz’s facility to clean her knife blade and wash away blood residue. She studied the knife still clutched in her hand. It gleamed back at her. No blood. Perhaps she had also imagined…
A nudge of hope welled inside her. She turned toward Walliz. His head on his desk, he appeared to be napping, except for the extraordinary spray of dark Nevian blood on the wall and floor. Her heart fell. Not a dream. I really killed him!
A glance at the wall clock startled her. She had spent nearly two hours in the Chief Administrator’s office altogether. What happened in here? Did you dance for two hours? Before or after you killed him? Oh, you stupid, stupid woman!
Her thoughts, still fuzzy from the bizarre episode, kept tangling. I must leave this place quickly, she knew, but his desk held the evidence of her visit, specifically her file now splotched with his blood. Furthermore, no student simply walked out of the building past door proctors without signed passes. If I were an administrator, where would I keep them? Not right on top of my desk. No. They would be in the drawer closest to me. But how to move him…
Just as she eased the file from under his forehead, she uncovered a packet of permit-to-leave-school slips complete with his stamped signature. What luck! She tore off the top slip. Next, folding the bloody side in, she tucked the file under her arm. Now, if her luck would just hold a few minutes longer…
Heart hammering, she opened his door and peeked out, almost expecting Security ready with guns drawn. A person did not kill a Council member and expect to exit unscathed.
One piece of luck, the secretary’s workstation was empty. Karra exhaled in relief as she passed her desk and stole down the hall. She rounded a corner just as she saw the secretary escorting a Nevian female in an expensive business gown.
Karra backtracked toward another door. She pretended to open it, keeping her back to the secretary as they approached. She hoped one school uniform looked so much like another that the women would see simply a non-descript student, not Karra Willo.
Several years ago a friend had tried to teach her how to bend light and shadow to seem to disappear, but she had never successfully accomplished the feat. In desperation, however, she tried to bend the room light around her to appear to be the same as the door she faced.
A frisson of something like cold static electricity stroked her body.
She felt their energy as they passed and tried to hide her own. Each moment she expected the secretary to address her, maybe to ask her why she was not in Hannok’s office, maybe just to introduce her to the Nevian female who must be from Barre’s.
But they passed her by without incident, just as if they had never seen her. Had it worked? Karra shuddered. The use of the energies, if that was what she had done, terrified her nearly as much as Hannok’s threats.
As she left the building, the door proctor’s face jarred her slightly. He was different from the one who had seen her enter. While she waited for him to release the door, her fingers brushed against the small bulge in her skirt made by her sheathed knife. But he let her out, barely glancing at the permit-to-leave-school note she held in her left hand.
Alarms rang, signaling an emergency. Karra turned with curious passersby while her heart hammered in her chest. She fought the temptation to run. Running attracts attention, one of Jem’s old lessons reminded her. Blend in. She kept her strides casual, her gait easy, as if she had not just participated in the strangest morning of her life.
But her mind raced as she questioned the morning’s events. The easy answer, of course, was that Barnis’ pills were not designed for human chemistry. Still, Karra prided herself on her ability to overcome every obstacle. She did not react. She acted. She avoided. She lied to misdirect opponents. She twisted events to control the outcome she desired. I do not respond to obvious hallucinations!
Yet that was exactly what she had done. When had she experienced feeling so out of control…? A memory from childhood nudged at her. She pushed it away. No! I am no longer that helpless child! Yet hadn’t she acted exactly like a child caught in a firestorm of events? And wasn’t she now running for her life?
In that moment, she did run, her free hand pulling up her heavy uniform skirt to give her legs freedom. She rounded a corner to race to the nearest airway and stumbled into the membrane, not pausing for the elderly couple who protested at being shoved aside. Hand trembling, she let go of her skirt and fumbled to press the code that would take her to the exit closest to home. As the bubble sped her toward its destination, she tried to take deep breaths to calm the panic threatening to overtake her.
By the time the membrane opened and Karra stepped into the Area streets, she presented to the world an outward edge, looking very much like a girl taking an unauthorized school holiday.
Oh, baby, she told her little girl within the silence of her mind. I’m so sorry this happened. Her plan to get both herself and her daughter out of the Area had vanished in the insanity of deadly hallucinations and the murder of one very public official. No matter that he intended to use her daughter to force her to turn over her father’s priceless history collection, Chalatta would never understand why her mother was suddenly running from Nevian authority. Always before, she had left certain jobs to alternate identities, never performing them under her own name. Had she been under control, she would have lied her way out his door, and dealt with him later, especially if he made good his threat and tried to take Chalatta in for questioning. Instead, she had responded to a red storm of fear and laughter, dancing through ribbons of black blood and red tears as if she were a savage drunk on the blood of an enemy.
She stopped in mid-stride, touching her fingers to her lips. Had she actually drank that Nevian’s blood? The thought churned her stomach, threatening to toss its contents onto the street. Karra leaned against a brick wall to steady herself, pushing the unwelcome image away.
Once she regained control, she began to wonder why Walliz suggested bringing Chalatta in. After her parents’ deaths, some laws had changed. As a Council member, he should have known it was no longer legal to abduct children for political purposes. Had his suggestion been no more than a threat, and she had overreacted?
She scowled. At least the headache was gone.
Karra headed for the closest public incinerator to destroy the file she still clutched in her left arm. Although positive that Walliz kept a copy somewhere in his database, she refused to give any accusers ammunition to point to the printed file as the reason for his death. With it gone, nothing except her presence in his office pointed to her.
Yes, he called me into his office. But after a long discussion about my barbarian story, he became so angry he gave me the permit-to-leave-school note and told me to never come back. It sounded plausible, she decided as she tossed the file into the incinerator.
People called to her from the pushcarts. She ignored the vendors selling food, local handicrafts and tools, and strode through the familiar, winding streets. She passed bars where one could meet friends or make enemies, pick fights or pick up a person, get drunk or drugged enough to forget for a while that this was home and escape was rare.
Manroy crossed her mind briefly. Who benefits? he had asked, knowing who did not.
In a moment of impulse, Karra turned around and stared at the Nevian city structure, admiring the pastel colors under the bright autumn sun. Shades of vibrant yellow, orange, gold and red blended with the muted hues of the lightweight structures that climbed above her. Tiny neighborhoods, called pads, leafed and branched overhead, all connected with the silver threads of the airway system, a xansitweb in a flower garden planted in the sky.
She breathed in the aroma of the Inner City gardens. From her position, however, the Area street smells overwhelmed the fragrance. The remains of the Homelanders’ culture lived here, and, like the survivors’ treasures in her story, would be buried here. But her father’s treasure, his special collection of books, research and papers, no longer remained where he had hidden them. Karra, along with his collection, resided elsewhere.
It took an hour, unless she ran the whole way, to reach her neighborhood. By the time she arrived, she knew Security aircars would already be patrolling her neighborhood, looking for someone wearing a school uniform. In the Area, an Inner City schoolgirl attracted attention.
“Pretty mirra,” a vendor called as if reading her mind. “You’re a long way from school, erren’t you?”
Karra barely glanced at the woman, noticing instead the goods she peddled: used clothing, probably rummaged from someone’s garbage bin. But rags would be less noticeable than the uniform she now wore.
“Yeah,” Karra said. “And I erren’t going back, neither. It was a stupid idea to think I could better myself. What sass!”
“So what’re you gonna do now, lollie?” The woman peered at her from under a mop of gray hair.
“Dunno.” Karra looked through the woman’s clothing and picked out pair of thickweave pants. “That school thing broke me. I had a job, y’know? But I quit it for something called the Second Start Option. It was supposed to give me a chance for a better future. That’s what they said. A better future.” She frowned.
“It didn’t work out that way?”
“They got me doing all this freet slappin’ stuff that don’t get me nowhere. Like what’s writing stories gonna do for me? They call it ‘rounding out’ my education. Sass! Give me something I can use, like… I dunno. Maybe work in a bank or something?”
The vendor chuckled.
Karra fingered a pair of thickweave pants. “These look remade. Good work. You fix the pants yourself?”
“Me daughter and her husband, they remake what we find. I used to do the mending meself, till me eyes got too bad, but I trained me girl well. Keeps us fed, and warm in winter.”
“Yeah? Willing to bet that’s a skill they don’t teach in the Second Start Option. Nice pants. Wish I hadn’t quit my job. Coulda used a good pair of pants more’n this stupid uniform they gave us. Gave us! I wish they gave us the uniforms. No, we had to buy these freet suckin’ things. Can you believe it?”
“You had to buy that?” The old woman pretended to be repelled by the uniform, while her eyes gleamed with desire.
“Yeah. Now I got me something I wouldn’t wear to a street fight. What good is it?”
“Well,” the woman offered. “The fabric’s nice.”
“So it’s nice. I erren’t your family. I can’t make sass out of this thing. I’m stuck with it.”
“What d’you mean?”
“I could trade those pants you like so much for that skirt.”
“Really? You would do that for me?”
“Of course I would, sweetie. I could also trade you that ugly child’s shortvest for a pretty blouse. See this frilly little jewel? Imagine how you would look in it! I’m sure it would help you find another job in a heartbeat!”
The woman held out a scrap of flowery fabric.
Karra hesitated. “It don’t look too warm.”
“Depends.” The woman gave her a sly smile. “You’d look so lovely, your next employer will fall over himself wanting to hire you.”
Karra brightened. “You really think so? I would look nice in that blouse, wouldn’t I?”
“You would have those sassin’ freets linin’ up. What do you say?”
“What about my blouse?” Karra removed the shortvest and handed it to the woman who gave her the frilly blouse in exchange. “Could you trade, oh, I dunno, that flannel shirt for the blouse? And where would I change clothes? I erren’t taking off my clothes in front of all these people!” Not that she cared. She was more worried someone would see the knife strapped to her thigh under the skirt and associate the school uniform with the knife. That could lead to some interesting conclusions, should a few locals be stopped for Security questioning.
“Tell you what.” The woman pulled a blanket from a shelf under her cart of clothing. “I got me back to this wall, here, and I’ll step forward and hold the blanket in front of us. You change behind the blanket. But just the blouse and the pants, no extra flannel shirt. See this piping around the collar and cuffs? And just look at all that lettering. Don’t know what it say, but who wants to wear something like that? Me daughter would just about have to completely remake that uniform blouse to make it look less Inner City. You get me meaning?”
Karra nodded, not caring. She had no intention of wearing the uniform blouse, regardless.
The deal made, Karra changed quickly, dropping the uniform on the ground as she hurried into the thickweave pants. While the woman rattled on about the fine work her daughter and son-in-law did, Karra slipped from behind the blanket and slid a flannel shirt off the cart. She stuffed it inside the front of the shapeless pants walked away, leaving the woman still holding the blanket. Once out of sight, she lost the frilly blouse designed to make a future employer take notice of her, and replaced the uniform shirt with nondescript flannel.
Then she loosed her waist-length hair from its binding and shook it free. She had hated the bun she always wore at the nape of her neck at school, but Nevian regulations required bound hair, long sleeves and ankle-length skirts. She felt as if she were shaking herself free from chains. Finally liberated, she strode purposefully into the streets.
Karra checked the skies. Security knew where the Willo siblings lived. Theirs was also her legal address, even though she lived elsewhere. She wished she could warn her sister Suzin that Security would soon invade her home. But she dared not take the chance. She did not, however, worry that any of them would take her daughter. The new High Commissioner, A’nden something, had made it plain that the previous administration had stepped out of line by practically ripping children from their parents’ arms. Thinking back on it she was more convinced that the Administrator of Education had probably been making an empty threat about bringing Chalatta in as a bargaining chip. How she wished she had been able to think clearly enough to see through him at the time!
A’nden had earned a grudging respect from most Homelanders. She doubted the Security would even consider taking her daughter into custody. But even if the reports were true and her daughter remained safe, her sister Suzin wasn’t. No matter who the Council voted in as the current High Commissioner, the Security Watch would probably still knock Su around until she convinced them she knew nothing. Karra wished she could at least warn her they were coming.