Children of Eden Page 32

“Hold your fire!” someone shouts. The voice is familiar. I hear feet pounding far behind us . . . but not far enough. They’re closing in!

I’m too tired to run any faster. Before long, I won’t be able to run any farther. My side cramps as if a claw was gripping my ribs, my swollen ankle throbs, and I can hardly catch my breath.

I have to get out of this open space. Finally I see a little side road between two buildings. I dodge sharply in and stagger against the wall as I run painfully on. But the walls get closer together! The road narrows into a dead end filled with piles of stinking garbage.

I whirl around, but it’s too late. The two Greenshirts are blocking the entrance. One of them levels his weapon at me. I press against the wall, fall to my knees, curl up in a ball . . . and hope the end will be quick.

There’s the sound of a tussle, a thump. I look up to see one Greenshirt standing, the other sprawled at his feet. The one who is standing holds a gun . . . but he’s pointing it at the unconscious Greenshirt on the ground, not at me.

I recognize the burly young blond Greenshirt from my first venture into the city. Rook, was that it? He looks scared. Of me? That can’t be. Could it be for me?

He beckons, but I stay cowering in the garbage.

“Come on!” he whispers urgently. “The others will be here soon.”

Cautiously, I rise and approach. His face looks so young. It doesn’t match his burly body and menacing uniform. “Do you have a safe place to hide?” he asks.

I shake my head. He looks down the road in the direction we came from. “Where is he?” he asks aloud to himself. “Look, I can’t take care of you. It’s going to be hard enough covering this up.” He gestures with his gun to his unconscious comrade. “Just go and hole up somewhere. But come back to the breadline after dark. He’ll find you.”

“Who will find me?” I choke out, completely confused. “Why are you helping me?”

Apparently the answer to both questions is the same. “My younger brother.”

His brother is another second child?

Before I can ask any more questions he curses, and hisses, “Run!” I see other Greenshirts approaching, marching swiftly in tactical formation. I stagger off, clutching my aching side, while Rook squares himself in the line between me and the other Greenshirts so they can’t fire at me.

He fires, though. And he misses, deliberately, each time.

I turn toward the only place the Greenshirts might not follow me: the wasteland beyond Eden.

 

 

EVEN THOUGH ROOK is helping me, I know I’m far from safe. I have one ally, compared to the entire might of the Center, all of the Greenshirts, the securitybots that will cut me down, even the little cleanbots that will alert all the rest of my whereabouts.

But no, I think as I limp away at a half trot. There might be other people on my side. There’s Rook’s brother, whoever he is and wherever he is. Though I can’t expect any help from him unless I can survive the day and sneak back to the breadline tonight.

And then there’s the hobo in rags, his second-child bright hazel eyes twinkling mysterious advice at me. And what had happened at the charity station? When all of those people—mostly mothers and children—crowded around me, I was sure they were part of a conspiracy to capture me. But then when I was spotted, and fleeing, they seemed to step between me and my pursuers. Did I just imagine that? It casts the first occurrence in another light. Though I’m a little incredulous, I think maybe when they closed around me they were trying to hide me, to protect me, to shield me.

But why? I’m a stranger from an inner circle. A second child who threatens the very existence of Eden. Why would anyone help me?

The part of the outermost ring I’ve seen so far is dirty, crumbling, a place of desperation and squalor—but still, apparently, habitable. As I move outward, though, what was bad becomes so much worse.

Entire buildings seem to have been knocked from their foundations and lay sprawled across the streets like disheveled drunkards. There are huge holes in the road that look like bomb craters. I’ve read about the wars people fought back in the days before the Ecofail. They slaughtered one another for the flimsiest reasons: disputes over nuances of myths, or ownership of the toxic forms of fuel that gave the world energy back then. But these craters must have been caused by something else, right? Collapsed water pipes or faulty infrastructure. There’s no way that the last remnants of the human species could engage in anything like a war.

Whatever the cause, this stretch at the extreme outer edge is like another world, an alien landscape of tumbled masonry and exposed pipes, of shadow even in the brightness of morning. Of loneliness. I don’t see a living soul anywhere out here. The wind makes a mournful sound as it wanders through the wreckage of a city.

But alone is good. Alone is safe. Surely somewhere out here amid the devastation is a place where I can hide until nightfall.

Then I hear voices behind me.

“There she is! Get her!”

I dodge behind what was once the wall of a clothing store. A faded sign still clings by one bolt to the lopsided masonry, advertising the latest fashions at a reasonable price. Just as I disappear behind the cover, a spray of bullets embeds itself in the wall. I have the impression that this time the miss isn’t deliberate.

“Take her alive!” I hear someone shout, but I can’t tell if it’s Rook. There are reasons other than compassion why the Greenshirts and the Center might prefer to have me taken alive rather than gunned down in the street. Torture. Interrogation. A public example to the citizens of Eden . . .

I break cover to dash as fast as I’m able to the next crumbled edifice. A quick backward glance shows them moving slowly in tactical formation, as if they’re expecting to be attacked themselves. Maybe out here in this outlaw place they have more to worry about than me. I thank my lucky stars. I’m so slow now that if they pursued me at speed, I’d have no hope. But as long as they move in that cautious, stalking, defensive way, I can limp fast enough to stay ahead of them.

For a while, anyway. Until my ankle gives out, or I make a wrong turn and get cornered.

Panting, I lean against a wall riddled with what look like old bullet holes. What on Earth happened out here? My leg muscles are starting to twitch in protest, and my side is cramped, but my ankle has swollen enough that, for a little while anyway, the nerves are too pinched to hurt much. I know it won’t last, and any minute the stabbing pain will start. I just hope the ankle can bear my weight.

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