Seething with anger, I pick at the stew in front of me with a flimsy fork. I got myself here mostly on my own, I can’t believe they are treating me like a child. Especially Ryder who I thought would be better to me. I’m about to stomp out there and give them both a piece of my mind when the door opens. The men walk in with an aura of awkwardness. What in Geha did they talk about out there?
“Al, I need to ask you something,” Micah says first, looking at his feet. “It’s completely hypothetical, so don’t freak out.”
“Really?” I ask incredulously. I never believed that sort of thing when we were children, why does he think it’ll work now?
“Just humor me,” he requests, keeping his head down but eyes trained on me.
“Fine,” I groan. “What’s your ‘hypothetical’ question?”
“If we were to say, hypothetically,” he emphasizes. There are even hand gestures that go along with his speech, but he looks ridiculous. “If we were to say that Loyals were asking Burners to bring you back to the gate…do you know why they might do that?”
“Loyals are telling Unfavorable to bring me back to Geha?” I repeat, dropping the fork onto the table. It clatters loudly, filling the void between my thoughts. “Why are they telling that to Burners? No one got hurt, did they?”
“No, no, Al, this is just hypothetical–”
“Micah, cut the crap,” I interrupt, my tone a littler harsher and my voice a little louder than I anticipated. “Tell me the truth. What is going on?!”
“It’s okay, Al–”
“It’s clearly not–”
“Don’t you dare tell me to calm down right now.”
“Nothing is going to–”
“Stop treating me like a child and tell me what’s going on!”
“I’m not 10 anymore, Micah.”
“Okay, fine, but shut up long enough so I can explain.”
“Spit it out, then. From the sound of it, we don’t have all day to mess around or argue like toddlers.”
“You have got to be kidding me…” he mumbles, rubbing his left hand on his forehead as if it’ll remove the tension from his body.
Sibling rivalry. I missed this, but definitely not the time for it. Ryder is just leaning against the front door like he’s blocking me from making a run for it. Once Micah regains his composure, he turns to me and points at me like he’s laying down the law. His tone is strained, as if he’s struggling to contain his agitation.
“Yeah, okay, a bunch of Loyals showed up at the Boilers and threatened them with some kind of bioweapon. A friend of mine and Ryder’s died. Why would Geha want you so badly that they would threaten all the Unfavorable? The people that make sure they have power and food without working themselves?”
“I…” my voice gets caught in my throat. Someone died because my parents want me back in Geha? That sounds a little farfetched. They’ve never shown me that much affection, so it doesn’t make sense for them to go this far. “I have no idea. I’ve only been officially Favorable for four days, I hadn’t even picked a career path yet.”
“What?” Micah asks, confused. His brow crease deeply, trying to comprehend the concept of a Favorable going longer than a day without starting their path. “You went four days without picking a career? What was your score on the Rite?”
“Well, today would be day four,” I clarify, feeling awkward. “I received exceptional grades in everything. I thought it was common to score high on more than one section?”
“Not as common as you would think,” he mumbles.
“It has been six years since you took your Rite, though, Micah.”
“Things don’t change that quickly in Geha, Al, you know that. Even with everyone trying to assist evolution. Maybe one out of every 1,000 teenagers score high on more than one of the categories.”
“That can’t be true. There’s absolutely no way. There are only 468 citizens within Geha right now.”
“Micah, you’ve got to be kidding.”
“I’m not. I wish I were exaggerating. The fact you scored proficient in everything is practically unheard of. It’s literally been centuries since anyone has scored high on more than two sections, let alone all of them.”
“That makes sense,” Ryder cuts in.
“How?” I infer, getting anxious and biting my lower lip.
The answer should be obvious, but fear creeps slowly through my body as though time has stalled to a crawl, like a shadow threatening to swallow me whole. The anticipation of what is to come slips into my core, pumping adrenaline through me. The pounding of my heart switches my mind into panic mode. It’s difficult to hear Ryder over my excessively loud heartbeat as my heart attempts to escape my chest.
“The potential you have to advance everything within the city faster than their best brains combined? You can speed up productivity and growth by decades.”
“We have to get her out of here,” Micah insists, turning to Ryder as if I no longer have any say in the matter. Truth be told, I’m too stunned to really talk anyway.
“What about Aukai?” Ryder suggests.
“That’s not really fair,” my brother says. “He’s already done so much for us, I couldn’t ask him to help.”
“That’s what family does, Mic.”
“Yeah, okay,” Micah concedes, releasing a deep sigh and rubbing the back of his neck.
“We better get her there sooner rather than later,” Ryder announces. “No one really knows who she is yet, but it’s only a matter of time.”
I recognize that they’ve stopped talking, but I’m immobile. The entirety of the Unfavorable community is looking for me to give me back to a society that wants to use me for my intellect. The only people I can trust is in this room with me.
Micah grabs me tight by the right elbow and forcefully drags me out of the hut, while Ryder is never more than a foot behind us. They take me to the right outside Miah’s hut and further down the path. The huts grow farther apart, which has me guessing we’re on our way to the edge of the village. With more area around me, the easier it is for my fear to grow. It weaves its way through my body until it finally hits my brain, cleansing it of all fog.
Thoughts run rampant through my mind at super speed. Aukai. He’s the Elder, or leader of this village. If the citizens of this village are on the lookout for someone causing this kind of chaos to their people, aren’t they going to go straight to their leader for guidance? A spike of panic jolts through my system, stopping me in my tracks and causing me to rip my arm from Micah’s grasp. He turns on me, clenching his teeth.
“We don’t have time for this, Al,” he insists.
Ryder steps up behind me, grabbing both my biceps, and attempts to push me onward, but I twist to my left and out of his grip.
“We can’t go to the leader of the village,” I squeal, panicked. “Are you two insane?”
“It’s the only place that’ll be safe for you right now,” Ryder explains, his voice soothing compared to Micah’s agitation. “Come on, let’s go. We’ll talk there.”
“No!” I scream. My volume and tone increases the longer I talk. “The entire community is going to be flocking there. It’s literally the worst place for me to be besides Geha.”
“Quiet down, Al!” Micah pressures, holding his hands out towards me as if it’ll get me to stop being so loud. “Keep it up and anyone within a 50-mile radius will hear you.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I yell louder, my voice cracking every few words from the strain on my vocal chords. “It’s only a matter of time before they figure out it’s me anyway!”
“Alora, listen to me,” Ryder sooths, stepping towards me. I take a step back, and he pauses with space remaining. Still, his voice calms my anxiety a bit. Enough for me to really listen to him. “He is the only person on this planet that can help keep you safe. The people listen to him when he gives orders. If he tells them not to touch you, they will listen.”
I take a step back from him, shaking my head and trying to hide the tears threatening to wet my cheeks.
“Hey,” he begins to mitigate. “I haven’t lied to you. I promise I’m not going to let anything happen to you. And neither will Micah.”
Glancing at my brother, he’s abandoned his agitation with me and, instead, is looking around for any villagers that might be getting a little too curious about our conversation. I go back to Ryder and he’s taken a step towards me. Keeping my feet planted, I let him continue to advance until he’s close enough to grab my hand and tug me towards him. My feet stumble a few paces forward and Ryder has to catch me before I fall face first in the dirt. A whimper escapes my lips, as well as a choked sob. However, my panic subsides a little from his touch. It eases my worry more than the sound of his voice, but not enough to wipe it away completely.
Still, it’s enough for him to guide me further away from Micah’s hut without any more disruptions. He wraps his right arm around my shoulders, holding me against his body, and leads me further towards the edge of the village. I have my arms folded against myself, as if trying to hold in all my doubts. Ryder’s left hand is resting on my left forearm to make sure I don’t try to implement another escape attempt. Micah falls into step on my right, walking briskly with us and making sure we aren’t being followed. My vision goes back and forth between looking to Ryder for comfort, and Micah to make sure this is all real.
We walk for several minutes at a hurried pace, not once passing or even seeing another human being. The roads are oddly quiet and empty. Like the calm before the storm. A large hut three times the size of Micah’s comes into view and my brother picks up his pace so he’s jogging towards it, leaving my guide and me a few steps behind. Ryder keeps our stride consistent, following the trail toward either my doom or my sanctuary. I barely notice since I’m back in a sort of trance. It’s more of an insane panic that’s keeping me compliant.
The closer we get, the more dazed I become. I can only focus on small pieces of information at a time. As the hut draws closer, my gaze pinpoints on a man bending over a fire pit a few feet away from the entrance of the large wooden building. It looks as if he’s preparing to cook some sort of animal already suspended over the pit. The man straightens up and turns toward us. Micah isn’t being careful of the noise he’s making so I don’t doubt that is what alerted the stranger to our impending arrival.
I’m not sure how tall the man is from this distance – we’re still several meters away – but his aura demands respect, even with so much dirt still between us. His clothing is filthier than Ryder’s or Micah’s, as if he’s been working the fields harder than either of them. His hair is jet black with a few streaks of gray and his skin is tan and covered in wrinkles, like old leather that’s been well loved over the years. He’s a bit round at the belly showing he’s never been left wanting for food, but there are more muscles lining his body than either my brother or Ryder combined. It’s clear looking at this man that he’s seen many things. This must be the Elder, Aukai, Micah was talking about.
The Elder’s face brightens immediately upon seeing Micah jogging towards him, but as soon as his gaze falls on Ryder his joy fades. It morphs into concern as Aukai’s eyes move swiftly from Ryder and onto me. He wipes his hands on the pants of his chestnut overalls and patiently waits for us to reach him, his brow creased. Micah reaches him first, breathing heavily, with Ryder pulling me along. We stop in front of the Elder only a couple minutes behind my brother, Ryder holding me close. I can’t help but stare at the gentleman before us.
“Micah, Ryder,” the man addresses them, nodding at each in turn. His voice is higher than I expected. It has a gentle tenor timbre that’s melodic. Almost hypnotic. It probably would be if he wanted it to. “It’s good to see you boys, it’s been too long, but I wish it were under different circumstances.”
“What do you mean?” Micah asks between breaths. “We haven’t even told you what’s happening yet.”
“Boy, you know I hear everything,” Aukai accosts. “Even so, I don’t need to know the current situation to know that something is awry and that you need help.”
“Always intuitive,” Ryder mumbles.
“Always,” Aukai affirms. “Now, what do you boys need? Who is this young woman?”
“This is my sister,” Micah answers, holding a hand out to showcase me a bit. The Elder’s head snaps back to my brother, eyes wide with shock.
“Alora Travene,” Aukai mutters. “I knew the name sounded familiar. She’s the Favorable everyone is looking for.”
“Precisely,” my brother confirms.
“Quickly, get inside,” the old man insists, using his left hand to gesture us towards the enormous hut. “Hurry, before others arrive.”
Ryder glances behind us as he ushers me towards the structure, Micah taking up the rear in case someone surprises us. I’m pushed inside the hut by Ryder, and the other two follow us closely. Aukai is last, shutting the door behind him. My guide shuffles me towards a long couch, similar in design to Micah’s but twice the size, and sits me down before crossing the large open area where the other two are standing. They are several feet away from me and talk in whispers, thinking I can’t hear them.
“So, you’ve heard the news?” Micah begins, ruffling his hair unknowingly.
“Yes,” Aukai confirms, arms crossed and brows still furrowed. He’s staring at me as if I’m some unknown entity he needs to decipher. “Villagers have come and gone all day talking about the Favorable amongst us that Geha is intent on getting back, wondering whether I know of whom they speak.”
“We know your main concern is to keep the people safe,” Ryder begins. “But we hoped that you would see where we’re coming from. She chose to live outside the walls. They kick children out every day, it isn’t fair that she is forced back to a place she doesn’t belong.”
“It’s okay, Ryder, my boy,” the Elder comforts, clapping a hand onto both the boys’ shoulders as he talks. “I agree that she should not be forced back to that place simply because they have threatened us. It isn’t the first time they’ve threated our wellbeing, and it will surely not be the last. They cannot sustain their way of life without the help of those of us that take care of, what they consider to be, menial tasks for them. Even if they did have such a weapon that could render Unfavorable extinct, they would not dare use it.”
“Thank you, Aukai,” Micah states, hugging the man around the belly. The man chuckles heartily, rubbing my brother along his back.
“Of course, my son,” he responds. “Any family of my boys is my family, too. We take care of our own here.”
“What are we going to do, then?” Ryder questions. Micah slides out from under Aukai’s arms and looks between his father figure and friend, finding new worry. “What are we going to tell the others when they come looking for answers?”
“Not to worry, son. You three remain within my hut while I deal with the anyone who tries to question my decision. I will make sure she stays safe. I have no doubt they will be angry, but I will make them see reason.”
I can’t look at any of them as they talk. My gaze is fixed on the dirt between my feet while my brain attempts to process what’s happening. A faint rumble is heard coming from the village – the same direction we came to get here. My eyes widen recognizing shouts and cries from a mob on its way to us in search of me: the one Favorable who chose to live outside the walls of Geha rather than be kicked out. The crowd is chanting the Elder’s name, beckoning him outside the hut to give them guidance.
“Stay here,” Aukai mutters to us, taking his eyes off me for the first time since I stepped foot inside his home.
He rushes towards the exit, shutting the door carefully behind him. Although we’re unable to witness with our own eyes his show, we hear everything that’s said.
“My friends,” the leader yells. His voice booms over the growing noise of the scared and angry villagers. Within seconds there is a deafening quiet as they wait for the direction of the Elder about what to do. “I know of the news that troubles you. I hear your cries and fear over what those on the hill threaten us with. It is scary, I know, to hear they may have some kind of weapon that could wipe out every single one of us in an instant. But I assure you, even if they did have such a destructive creature, they dare not use it. Who would give them their small pleasures that we so graciously give them day in and day out if not for us slaving away?”
The crowd murmurs in doubtful agreement. It’s clear that, although they respect his opinions, they aren’t sure whether he is right just yet. Every one of them is still terrified, as their survival instincts have kicked in. I don’t blame them.
“Let us not give in to our fears,” Aukai continues. Their doubt doesn’t seem to faze or bother him. “We help them because they help us. We need each other, whether they want to believe it or not. Rather than give them what they want, an innocent girl who just wants to live her own life, we will fight back. It is time to remind them why they need us. Remind them that we are more than just the people they reject. We may not fall into the categories they choose to have for themselves, but each life matters. Each one of us is worth more than the petty coins and misgivings they throw at us. Let us give them back some of what they shove at to us each and every day. Strike at them so they know we will not accept their misuse of a human life!”
By the end of his speech, the crowd is roaring in approval. It sounds like they are all ready to go to war with Geha. War? That means more people will die because of me. Why am I still sitting here when there are people out there, good people, who are going to get hurt trying to fight back against Loyals? The only weapon the Loyals have within the city is a long, skinny baton in case a child is out after curfew. Or if a teenager is fighting against being brought below the city as a new Unfavorable… However, Loyals freely carry guns when dealing with anyone beneath the city. Micah told me how he had received the butt of a gun to the head several times when asking them to bring me word of his safety. Automatic assault rifles so that only two or three Loyals needed to go beyond the gate at once. I can’t allow these people to go against anything like that, let alone a bioweapon.
I stand up so fast from the couch that I practically jump up in the air, startling Micah and Ryder who had been quietly listening to Aukai speak. They didn’t look happy about a war either, but said nothing about it. They didn’t say anything until I began marching towards the door Aukai had exited from, on my way back to Geha.
“Al, what are you doing?” Micah asks.
“Where are you going?” Ryder questions at the same time.
Micah grabs my right elbow, digging his nails into my skin and spinning me around to face him.
“Al, stop,” he cries. “What’s wrong?”
“Are you joking?” I query, incredulously. “There’s no way I’m going to allow these people to face Geha. They will all die. I can’t let them die because of me.”
“Al, they might die anyway,” my brother acknowledges. “If Geha really has a biological weapon, every one of them will die anyway.”
“That’s why this is the best plan,” I insist. “If I go back, then no one has to die or risk their lives for me.”
“It’s not as simple as that,” Ryder pipes in. I glare at him but he doesn’t seem to even notice as he continues talking. “This agitation with the people within the city has been building over decades. This just finally pushed everyone off the edge. Whether you go back or not, I don’t think anyone will back down from showing Geha that we mean more than slaves.”
“It’s worth a shot.”
“No, it isn’t,” Micah announces. “Al, I just got you back after trying to connect with you for six years. Don’t make me go through that again.”
“Al, I will lock you in this hut if I have to,” he interrupts. “I’m not letting you go anywhere near that gate again.”
“Listen to him, Alora,” Ryder begs. “I know you want to be the good person and do the right thing, but it won’t matter in this situation. Aukai is right, this has been a long time coming whether you were part of it or not.”
“You two are scary together,” I point out, finally able to get a word in. “If we all live through this, there will be no more of this ganging up on me happening.”
“So, you’ll stay then?” Ryder brightens. Micah loosens his grip on my arm.
“You two drive a hard bargain,” I tease. “I don’t think I had any choice.”
“Damn straight,” Micah nods, letting go of my completely.
The murmur and cheers from outside the hut finally die down. With a sigh, I listen for what’s to come next, Micah and Ryder following suit. None of us move, anticipating strategies of war to be discussed.
“How will we get inside the city?” one of the villagers ask. He must be near the back of the crowd, because I can barely hear him speak.
A rush of wind blows past me, startling me. Looking in the direction it went, I see Ryder rushing towards the door as he fidgets with something in his back pocket. There’s determination in his stride that almost frightens me. Micah and I quickly follow him out, curious about what he will contribute to the discussion.
“Aukai!” Ryder calls.
By the time Micah and I spill out from the hut, all eyes are upon us, even the Elder. Each gaze is hungry for a fight, waiting to be told what to do and who to hit.
“I know how we’ll get inside the city,” Ryder continues, pride gleaming from his pores.
“Well, what say you?” Aukai prompts.
“I was working in the scroll room before the Loyals came into the Boiler room,” he explains, holding up a thick, folded piece of parchment. “I found an old blueprint from when the city was first built. It shows an old tunnel that they used to get goods that is now hidden.”
“You’re certain?” the Elder asks, bewildered.
“Yes,” Ryder confirms, unfolding the paper. “It’s a long way, but it goes straight into the city without having to go through the gate. I didn’t even know about it until I saw these designs, so it hasn’t been used in centuries. I guarantee that they have forgotten about it, too.”
“My boy,” Aukai comments, patting his large hand on Ryder’s shoulder again. “This is fantastic news.”
“I want to lead the raid,” Micah volunteers, stepping towards the Elder. “It is my sister they are after. I want to make sure they can never divide us again.”
“Let it be so,” Aukai agrees, nodding. He turns back to the rest of the villagers before speaking again. “Now we shall feast, for tonight we make our move on Geha. Prepare yourselves for a raid that will be written in their history books. Tonight, we show them we are more than workers, we are free people. Tonight, we stop the tyranny by taking down the man who leads their people into this darkness. Tonight, the Governor dies.”
The crowd hoots and hollers, scattering to prepare food for the feast that was promised them before this evening’s events. Through the cheers, dread finds me. I stomp up to my brother and grab his elbow tight, turning him towards me.
“There’s no way you’re going,” I tell him. “If I can’t go back to save these people, then there’s no way you are. I don’t want to lose you either.”
“Don’t worry, little sister,” Micah comforts, laying his hands on my shoulders. “I’ve been through a lot since I was 16. This will be easy. Plus, these people need someone to guide them through a city they know nothing about. I have to be there.”
“I don’t care that what you said makes sense,” I pout. I’m hoping that acting like a child will get him to feel bad and stay. “I don’t want you to go.”
“I’ll be back. I need you to stay and guard the hut anyway.”
“Everyone likes you, no one will try to steal your stuff.”
He chuckles at my comment, then pulls me into a hug.
“Don’t you worry, little sister. Everything is going to work out.”