Freedom: Bellcoast Island: Late Spring, 2349
Dying is not an option. At least not today. Freedom is my only goal.
The sky is a brilliant blue. I half-hear the ever-present, plaintive cries from the seabirds. Sweat forms under my braid as the late afternoon tropical sun slants down on my bare neck. Earlier, the sun was more intense. Now it is dipping toward the horizon, and the sea breeze cools me a bit as we walk the dusty road away from our long day at the crowded marketplace. Carisa and I were sent, ostensibly, to buy landscaping supplies and seeds for the late spring garden. Carisa just arrived here a couple weeks ago in the most recent thrall coffle and was assigned to me. She’s just a bit younger than me. She’ll be twenty in the summer and nice enough. Petite and blonde, she is the closest thing to a friend I have found here. I take care of the gardens at the villa. My talent for caring for green, growing things was noticed a couple weeks after I arrived here in Bellcoast almost a year and a-half ago. Old Dorothy had told them about it because I had talked with her about her herbs. Working in the gardens kept me safe for several weeks. Until He noticed me.
Though we purchased seeds and mulch and tools that the guards hauled back to the villa for us, they certainly didn’t have us dress like gardeners. No, given our filmy, sheer, and floaty attire, I suspect we had been sent to the marketplace to drum up another kind of business. I saw the guards handing out His card and talking price. But I don’t plan to be around the villa tonight to receive any of His visitors. In fact, I don’t plan to ever spend another night on this island.
I eye Carisa as we walk a distance behind Alexi, our guard. His laziness is to our advantage. I pull in a quick breath, and then I nod at her. Her face goes tight, and her eyes widen. She pulls in a breath as well, and her lips press together, probably mirroring the way mine look. She nods back. I pull the rock I had hidden away from my pocket and heave it toward the home to my right, shattering a window.
We run. I’ve watched Alexi enough to know it will take him a few moments to realize we’re gone. He’s big and strong but as slow and stupid as geese, so pulling his attention from the broken window and the ensuing chaos long enough to realize we aren’t there will take a while. Dashing back to the marketplace, I try to get us lost among the people, but the crowds have headed home. Now, just a few people remain, mostly merchants checking out their competition. They won’t help, being as terrified of Him and his guards as the thralls are.
“Is he following us?” Carisa pants. She’s so petite, her blonde head only reaching just past my shoulder, so the words seem to bubble up from below me. I glance down and shrug, then grab her arm and hustle her with me.
“Hey, don’t go away so fast…,” some trader calls after us in a slurred voice. I dodge to the left into the nearest tent stall and drag Carisa with me into the darkened interior, putting a cautionary finger to my lips as we sink down and creep beneath the counter. The trader stumbles past, calling, “Girlies…” I hear him trip on something inanimate and swear, then apologize to the stick or the rock that tripped him up. He obviously had his rum with a side of Glitter. I hear him heave himself up and stumble farther away. Time to move.
I tug at Carisa’s arm, but she pulls away, and I can just see her wide eyes through the dim light filtering in through the coarse cloth curtains of the stall. I reach out to touch her shoulder and realize she is stiff from…what? Fear? Resolve? No, it’s fear; that’s what her eyes say.
“C’mon.” I breathe the words as quietly as possible. She shakes her head, her fine features rigid with terror.
“I’m staying.” The words come from her at almost a regular volume, so they sound blaring given our previous whispers and silence.
“Shhhhhh,” I caution and keep my voice as low as I can. “We have to get to the airfield.”
“I can’t run. I’m going to hide. Like a rabbit.”
The image bothers me for some reason, and I shake my head vigorously. Not only to disagree but to clear the picture. “They’ll find you.” I tug once more at her. “They’ll hurt you.” She just shakes her head slowly.
I glare at her. How can she be a quitter? She came to me to escape, for New Earth’s sake, not the other way round. Apparently just being willing to run counted me as an expert, no matter how often I was hauled back or how much the punishments escalated. I put my hand to the unhealed wound that runs from my left ear to my right collarbone. I can’t get caught this time. I stand up and make for the next stall over, leaving Carisa huddled in her hiding place.
“Mary! Anne! Where the fuck are you two? Get your worthless asses out here, now!”
My breath draws in as I hear Alexi’s voice, which is as big as he is, booming ever closer around the quickly emptying marketplace as he searches…for Carisa and for me. Of course, he uses our thrall names. They don’t even know our real names. We aren’t even allowed to use them with other thralls, though Carisa told me hers when she first arrived.
“Worthless,” Alexi said of me. Maybe. I mean, certainly, my dad told me that often enough. “Worthless girl,” he always said. It’s likely true, but still, I can recognize an opportunity when one is presented, and this is an opportunity. Alexi has lost sight of me. Again. And of Carisa. I should go back. Convince her to run. I know they’ll find her there. I tried hiding the first time, too. They find you and they make you pay.
I’m standing as still as I can next to the stucco wall, half-hidden in the afternoon shadows. The marketplace may be almost empty now, but the smell of old oil and herbs and the heavy, sugary stench from the various food vendors mixed with sweat and pee and the sour, dusty smell from the never-washed drapes of the stalls permeate the air. Over it all is the smell of the sea. Bellcoast isn’t a big island, so the ocean is ever-present, and I can hear the surf on the rocks that border the town beach. The smell of fish hangs in the air. My heart is pounding, and my cheeks are getting warm even though the spring day is a bit chilly. Slow your breathing. Keep quiet. Think. Which way to run this time?
I put my hands over my chest and throat, trying to muffle my heavy breath and pounding heart. It is so loud to me. Can Alexi hear it as well? I imagine him moving among the stalls, lifting curtains and waiting to grab me and drag me back to the villa. I just have to be patient and quiet.
I won’t be caught this time. I am going to live through this. I am getting away. I look cautiously around the wall and move quickly behind the nearest curtain.
I hear Alexi yell and then a scream. Carisa’s scream, which after some scuffling is cut off with a sickening thud and then a grunt. I can almost see Alexi bodily tossing Carisa’s unconscious form over his shoulder. He’ll be back for me in a moment. Time to move.
I glance around and see that Morris, the lazy metalsmith, carelessly left a bag behind. His sloppiness is my good fortune. I spy a metal cup glinting in the bag and grab it. It’s heavy, more like a club than a cup. Might come in handy, though. Maybe I could use it to bargain with traders. I drop it into my skirt pocket and feel the fabric sag with the weight of it. I slide quietly from Morris’s stall over the cobbles to the next stall heading toward the gap between the marketplace and the landing area, where the airships are parked. The airships: They’re my chance for freedom.
As I start to move to the next stall, I see Alexi, unexpectedly back and closer than I had imagined, peering into the stalls. I gasp a little and push myself backward, trying to become part of the wall.
The head of the guards, whom I have dubbed Henry the Bastard, must be beside himself. He hates me because of all the times I’ve run. I think it reflects badly on him. Boo-hoo. Henry would love to personally break my neck and would have if The Boss hadn’t given specific instructions that He would dole out the punishments to me Himself. Maybe a broken neck wouldn’t be so bad. I shut my eyes and drop my hands to my side. I feel the cup and draw it out. A sense of resolve rises in my chest, and I set my jaw. Well, if dying is back on the table, I won’t go passively, like they would expect a thrall to. No, I’ll go like the free woman I am meant to be. I slide behind the fabric of the stall.
Alexi is a big man, heavily muscled, but he has vulnerable points, and he won’t be expecting me to attack. I make a little mantra in my head as I wait: his face, his balls, his face, his balls.
I see his feet come into view, and I pull in a deep breath as if I’m about to jump into the pool I used to swim in back in the North Country. How long ago was that? I see the fabric shift as he lifts it, exposing my hiding place.
“There you are, Mary!” He has a self-satisfied look on his face.
“My name’s not Mary, asshole.” I growl the words as I swing the cup as hard as possible at his temple and feel it make contact with a dull thump, while at the same time shoving my knee hard up and in between his legs. He groans a little and drops to his knees and falls forward on his face. For a moment I want to whoop a victory, then I turn and start to run, the cup clattering as it falls to the cobbles.
I hear someone running toward me from the direction I am headed, so I dodge into a stall closer to the edge of the market, on the airfield side. This is the herbalist’s booth. The rough wooden walls have nails in them, and they smell pungent and bracing from the bunches of herbs that recently hung in there. It reminds me of my grandmother’s place in the North Country. I hope she is in the air here and will protect me. I’m her namesake, after all. I duck down in the corner.
Footsteps, first quick then slowing. Henry and others are looking just for me by now. Get smaller. Keep your head down. Don’t move. It’s so dim in here, but sweat is accumulating under my hair, and I can feel it soaking my tunic in the front. A musty, dirt smell seeps into my nose, and there’s a tickle, so I open my mouth to avoid a sneeze. The footsteps are getting farther away. Time to move.
I don’t want to be seen, so I crawl to the next stall and feel the jerk as my hand catches on my braid that has fallen forward. Fucking hair. Blowing out a disgusted snort that I immediately try to silence, I grab the broad coil and stuff the end inside my tunic. The hard, packed earth of the marketplace is fairly even, but I feel some small rocks under my knee. I peer—nobody to the left. I shift my gaze. Nobody to the right. Go. I crawl forward.
Dammit. A sharp pain in the ball of my left hand. Oh, fuck. It’s bleeding. There’s a big shard of broken glass in the dirt. I grab it with my right hand and hold it up and away from the ground and dodge into the next stall. I kick at the dirt behind me to obliterate the blood smears. Leaning back against the stall corner, I drop the shard in my pocket and pull out the blue kerchief and wrap my hand. I pull the shard back out and stare at it. It’s about as long as my palm and comes to a point, which is what punctured my palm. It’s sort of a triangle shape with two thicker, smooth sides and one edge that is irregular and sharp. I turn my head, feeling my hair shift where it lies in my top. I look back at the glass blade in my hand. I hate my braid. It was the only part of me my ineffectual mother ever complimented. It’s what He admired and would grasp during those horrible times. I shake my head to avoid remembering too much. But the anger is there, and it takes control of me.
I grab my thick braid with my wrapped left hand and pull it taut against the wooden beam of the stall. I raise the glass shard and start to saw at it, the tip of my tongue firmly in the left corner of my mouth as I concentrate. I get a rhythm going: “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you,” as I saw, my anger keeping me focused. The individual hairs release under the shard’s edge as I work it deeper into the plait. My shoulders feel strained and awkward. My left shoulder is pushed down to make space to cut while my hand keeps pulling the braid a little farther as I reach the halfway point. My right shoulder keeps moving my right arm up and down, up and down.
The air is dry and dusty as I pant with my mouth open as I cut and sweat stings my eyes. I’m thinking of a plan. I feel the hair separate more, and I pull the remaining twisted hanks over my right shoulder and up to my face, sawing more furiously until the hair comes away in my hand, and my head tips backward now, unencumbered by the heavy weight. Free. I slice the bracelet from around my wrist and let it drop to the ground, then pull the green ribbon from the pocket I keep wrapped around my waist and drop it into the dust as well.
Peeking over the edge of the counter, I take my disembodied braid and pin it with the shard to the corner post at my head level. Maybe. Might work. Old Dorothy would be proud of the deception. The first day I arrived at the villa, she was in the kitchen garden walking backward in her footprints when she picked her special herbs: “It looks like I just flew away!”
I reach for the curtains of the stall. The blue fabric stops me for a moment as it pulls the image of the blue fabric that covered Old Dorothy’s body yesterday. Then I remember Henry the Bastard pulling it off her as he threw a shovel at me, knocking me on my ass, saying, “The Boss says to get on with burying her.” I pull the curtains around the braid. Good.
I turn ninety degrees from the path to the airships and run down the dusty corridor between stalls. Passing the last curtained stall and a couple of meters farther, I turn to a wall and pause, scraping the dust off my feet and smearing it on the wall, my breath coming heavily. Control your breath. Ever so carefully, I backtrack my footsteps just as Dorothy had done. These bits of deception might buy me the time I need. When I get to the stall that marks the edge of the marketplace, I look up and take another breath, jumping to grasp the beam that the long curtains of the stall hung from. I swing my feet hard but not hard enough, and I miss, but then I swing again harder and pull with arms that have gotten stronger over the last several months. Gravedigging obviously has its advantages. My mouth forms a silent “Thank you” to the women I buried. I can feel the tightly pulled fabric of the roof of the stall under my body.
I spread my arms and legs out as wide as possible and crawl like a lizard, grasping the framework of the stalls over the length and width of the marketplace. I’m approaching the edge closest to the airships again, and I look at the tree line and toward the village. I see no one. Then there’s a motion under the trees, and I hold my breath. It’s a rabbit. I roll onto my back and take three deep breaths. Fucking rabbits. Either the other thralls thought they were good to eat, or the younger ones thought they were cute. I don’t get it. They make me sick to my stomach. I flip back and rub both dry eyes with the heel of one hand, then drop to the ground. I flip back my chopped hair. It just skims my shoulders and feels heavy with grease and dirt. Run. Now. My legs start moving. The visiting airships are parked just a kilometer or two farther. One is bound to be unlocked.
Something in the brush makes a sound, and I stumble a bit. What was that? Maybe it’s The Bastard in pursuit. Glancing over my shoulder as I run shows no one behind me, but as I look back, a tree root rises up and grabs my foot, and I fall forward. The balls of my hands catch my weight. Searing pain cuts through my left palm, and I feel the pebbles in the mud embedding themselves in my right palm as the side of my face lands heavily next to them, sliding to a halt. My cheekbone feels hot and cold at the same time. That’s gonna leave a mark. Keep going. I scramble to get up from the slick sludge and wipe the dirt and scum from my left eye, smearing it down my face. I focus forward. Get going, legs. When I was in primary school, a teacher said the faster I pumped my arms, the faster I’d run. I work at pumping my arms back and forth, fast. Can someone’s heart actually explode? Mine might. I can’t hear anything over my own breathing and the blood pounding in my ears. A branch catches at my hair, jerking me back, but I simply jerk harder forward, pulling it loose, and keep on running. My scalp is burning now. Holy fuck, I’ve made the flight line at the landing field. I’m here.
I run up to the first airship. It’s large and silver and has a shimmering F and A on it. The Federal Alliance. There are countries all over the world that are part of that. My dad hated them. Too rich and too powerful, he’d say as he took my pay and told me what to do. Hell, I’ll go there; wherever there is. Why not? There’s a pole with a keypad. I see the door’s outline on the hull. Which buttons do I push to open it? Fuck. I don’t know.
I plug in this year’s date: 2349. Nothing. I run to the next ship and then the next, pounding the year into the keypads. Nothing.
Finally, I get to the small airships. The first has a green hull with a flying waterfowl etched in yellow and the numbers 2014 emblazoned on it. I try those and nothing happens. I try this year, and nothing happens.
Move on. A dark, black hull. I plug in the year and am finally rewarded by a grinding sound as the hull door slowly descends. I step back from it and look at the airship with its folded wings and double airscrews and realize this is one of those I have seen land on the water. I squint at the black hull and can just make out what looks like a sailing ship etched on it. That’s odd. I glance behind me and then turn and run up the ramp.
My breath is rough and ragged as I stand in the doorway. I take a moment to lean on the wall and feel my chest expand and contract. Slow your breath. I pull air in through my nose to the count of four like my grandma said. I hold it for a bit and then blow it out of my mouth to the count of eight. Thanks, Grandma Rina. I feel my heartbeat slow.
I open my eyes. No people in the airship. But how the fuck do I shut the door? I turn to the wall and see another keypad. The buttons I push are random, and suddenly I hear another grinding, and the light in the airship starts to dim. Yes!
I feel my knees bend, and I slide to the floor. I give myself a moment of breathing to slow my heartbeat, and then I look at the fuselage. It’s small with only five full seats and one smaller one folded up on the wall. The cockpit and the helm are essentially one and the same. Cargo netting is mounded behind the seat most remote from the helm. I see some rough pieces of fabric off to the side of the cargo netting. I snag one of those, moving in front of the helm and pull my makeshift blanket around me. When will the crew return? Tonight? Tomorrow? Next week? I try not to think about water and food. I’ll deal with that tomorrow. I can go without for a while. I’ve been practicing with His help, though He doesn’t know it. He holds onto water and food to get compliance. I’ve been pushing my needs for those things more and more. His face clouds with annoyance when I can go without, and that little bit of power delights me. I have paid for the delight in blows, but it meets Goal Two of my life: inconvenience and annoy Him. Goal One, of course, is to survive, so that sometimes requires I moderate Goal Two.
I lean my head against the helm. Could I sleep? I shouldn’t. But I’ll hear that grinding of the door, right? I feel the weight of the last few hours descend on me as the adrenaline subsides. I think about Carisa and my stomach hurts. Should I have gone back for her? But my eyelids are heavy. I close them for a moment, promising that I will open them to the count of ten. As I reach five, the emptiness of the airship starts to echo, and I feel my neck sink to the side and my head loll down to rest on the deck. I feel the sensation of the rough fabric on my face fade, and I slip willingly into a dreamless sleep.
Gasp. And then I hold my breath. The surface I am lying on starts to shake. What’s happening? Where’s the baby? What baby? Then I feel the cool metal under my hand and remember where I am and that it’s an airship. It must be taking off. I hold my breath in an effort to maintain my hiding place. The longer I’m invisible, the better off I am.
“Hey, Teddy, looks like there’s a refugee on the lee side of the helm.” The language I hear is different from home and different from here, but still similar enough that I can understand most of it. Dammit. Is it too soon? Will they turn back and turn me over? I won’t go easily.
“I saw,” comes a gruff voice. “Let’s get airborne before we suss out the details.”
Several minutes later, after I feel the curious drop in my body that comes when an airship goes aloft, I hear footsteps and then a grunt. I can feel someone’s presence near my head. It’s foolish but I try to stay still and imagine that I am invisible even though I know they obviously see me. I feel a tentative tug at the fabric I have pulled over myself, and I hold onto it more strongly. I hear a chuckle. Then the cloth is peeled back from my clinging hands, and even though I grasp and pull, eventually my face is exposed.
“Hey, it’s okay.” I hear a deep rumble from the brown face I am squinting at. It holds more than a few wrinkles, and the hair has more salt than pepper, but the eyes are kind and questioning, not dead and mocking like His.
“Whatcha found there, Teddy?” This is a woman’s voice.
“Looks like one of the thralls from the villa. I hate that they use our Glitter to keep them docile.” He shakes his head and looks toward the voices above me.
“Hey.” He turns his focus back to me. “You got yourself here. You are safe. I’ll take you to Miriam.” He looks right at me, and his eyes dart over my face and the scar on my neck and down to my hastily wrapped hand. Surprisingly, they stop there. That is different and welcome. But I’ve been down that path, and I’m not going to be taken in that easily. Not any longer. Dammit, I am going to die free, and not even this old man will cage me with false kindness and manipulation. I lift my chin and pour all my resolve into my eyes.
There is a pause as he looks me in the eye and smiles.
“I get it,” he says. “Don’t worry. Nobody is touching you. I won’t touch you. You’re fuckin’ strong. You got this far. Don’t forget that. You are free. What’s your name?”
He calls over his shoulder, “Can we get a better blanket, here?”
A soft, furry blanket is passed over, and he carefully lays it over me as he draws back the rough cloth.
I stroke the softness with my fingertips and look at the man sitting back on his heels, his hands entwined. He surely has passed half a century. It hard to tell his height as he crouches but he isn’t particularly tall, but his shoulders are broad, and I get a sense of strength from him. He has a day’s growth of beard, and his eyes are a deep brown. I try to read those eyes. There’s no look of expectation. No lustful approach. No, if anything, he looks . . . impressed? Don’t know why. I’m a thrall on the run. But still, something in my brain begins to wonder what it might look like to see pride for me in that face. I take two breaths as I look at the brown face, wrinkles carving the cheeks and eyes and forehead and into the soft brown eyes. My name? I haven’t been allowed my real name for a year and a half. It’s not fucking Mary.
“My name is Kat. Kat Wallace.”