Wasn’t the future supposed to be neon, bright and sharp? Not grimy concrete, cruddy wifi, and everything crumbling back to dust. But envisioning the future and preparing for it didn’t stop it from curving sideways. Everyone had learned that the hard way.
My footsteps echoed back at me, but none of the prisoners stirred. Did they hold their breath as I passed by? Hope I wouldn’t turn my attention on their block tonight? Night shift was known to be brutal. Especially when it was assigned as a way to punish or shame a day guard. I had seen the footage.
Here it was. Block B92. I wiped my sweaty palms on the legs of my uniform. Glance both ways down the hallway. The last thing I need is for Toothless Tom to show up and make a scene. Toothless Tom was known for being a brainless brute. A “ravie” (radiation victim), most of his teeth had fallen out, and with them so had common sense. A shift with Toothless Tom meant double the work for any guard on duty with him. It also meant that what I did here tonight would likely go unnoticed--but ravies also tended to be unpredictable. A double-edged sword.
One last glance at the cameras. A.J. had almost caught me programming the video footage. I had spent so many blasted hours reading the torn coding textbook I had looted from the abandoned library, trying to understand the ins and outs of cybersecurity. It had almost taken me longer to figure the code out than to get to the right position in this hellhole of an internment camp.
I unlocked the door, inwardly cringing at the clang of the key in the lock. Another guard would look the other way, expecting me to take out my frustration and inner rage out on the prisoners. Maybe I’d drag them all outside for a midnight roll call. Make them stand in line and beat any who collapsed from exhaustion. Maybe I’d just take the club to the crammed rows of bunks.
Still, the less attention, the better.
“Ramirez?” I hissed into the humid darkness. It stank in here. Sweat, urine, and misery.
The whites of eyes turned toward me in the gloom, like raccoons caught in the dark.
I strode down the line of bunks. “Ramirez!” No one stirred, except the few who shrank back from me as I neared the slab of wood they called a bed. I slammed a fist against a post, hard enough that it shook dust loose from the rickety structure. “Ramirez. Now!”
The room held its breath. No one spoke. No one pointed fingers. They were all better than me.
A thin man unfolded himself from his lower bunk, which was little more than a couple splintery planks held together with rusted nails.
“I am Ramirez,” he said.
Skeletal hands reached for him, along with pained whispers and hushed protests. A young man scrambled after him. “I am Ramirez, don’t listen to him!”
The man, his face hollow and haggard, a scraggly beard clinging to his face, pushed the boy back. “Don’t be a fool,” he said, but his tone was soft.
“Leave him alone!” a pale girl whispered at me, her voice shaking and her eyes too big for her face.
I won’t hurt him, I wanted to shout. But instead I glared at her until she shrank back, trembling.
“Sir.” Ramirez bowed his head, and I grabbed him roughly by the wrist.
“Come with me,” I said and I towed him down the line of bunks. Eyes followed us all the way out of the cinderblock cell.
There was no time to explain. The footage wouldn’t last forever. Someone was going to catch on soon enough. I marched him down the hall in silence. Ramirez stumbled along behind me. Slowing down, however, was a bad option. Turn right. Down the corridor with the middle light that was always out. Left, past the infamous haunted janitor’s closet and its rusted metal door. (It was “rust” not blood.) I unlocked the first gate--a set of metal bars that were the least tarnished thing in this whole place. Then I pulled Ramirez along in silence once again.
It wasn’t until we went through the second gate that he spoke.
“Where are you taking me?” he said, pulling back just a bit against my grip.
“Out where?” The question was cautious, but his tone firm.
I looked back at him. He stopped, right in the middle of the hallway. I tugged at his arm. The exit was so close. Just down the next corridor.
“I won’t leave without my brothers.”
“We have to go,” I said, glancing up at the cameras.
“Not without the rest of them.”
“I’ll come back for them.”
Ramirez shook his head. “No. You won’t,” he said. “I leave with them, or no one leaves.”
“I can’t rescue everyone,” I hissed, glancing around as if someone might be listening. Someone might be. The wrong person coming around the corner and years of planning would vanish in an instant.
“I’m not leaving without my brothers.”
I should just knock the man out, throw him over my shoulders, and carry him out of here. The difficulty of this plan would triple without his willingness, however. I shoved a hand through my hair. There wasn’t much. I tried to keep it shaved short.
There was a supply closet just up the hall. Sometimes Franklin kept his spare uniforms in there.
Years of planning, and the future was throwing curveballs once again. I hated having to spontaneously change things in the middle of an escape, but by the face Ramirez was giving me, it looked like I was going to have to.
Oh, I really didn’t like this.
“Fine, come on,” I said.
“I’m not leav--”
“I know, I know. You’ve made yourself clear. We have to get to the supply closet.”
He followed me, but hesitantly. I could feel his gaze on the back of my neck, watching for me to betray his trust. I ought to betray his trust. I was that kind of person. It would be expected.
I unlocked the supply closet and shoved Ramirez inside. We squeezed into the narrow space, chest to chest amid shelves cluttered with everything from buckets and bleach to garden shears and bags of soil to what appeared to be a forgotten plastic doll. I had no idea where that had come from, and I didn’t want to know how it had ended up in here.
Franklin’s spare uniform was hanging from a bent nail stuck in the wall. I pulled it off and shoved it into Ramirez’s hands.
“Put this on,” I said, and then pulled a key from my pocket. I was going to regret this. I wrapped his hand around it. “The key to my car. It’s small, sort-of off gray, but the right passenger door has no paint. Still has a license plate, useless as those are these days. HSK 903. Got that?”
He nodded, staring at the key in his palm.
“If I’m not back in ten minutes, you walk out of here, go right, and through the double doors at the end of the hall. You have to go across the courtyard. March straight through those floodlights like you belong. There are two gun towers. They will not hesitate to shoot you down if they think you are suspicious. Go out the side gate. I’ve left it unlocked..”
“You must come back. I’m not--”
“If I am not back in ten minutes, you will do as I’ve instructed. Am I clear?”
Ramirez nodded, closing the key inside his fist.
“Ten minutes,” I said. “Now, tell me. Which ones are your brothers? Names, quickly.”
“All of them.”
“I can’t. We will all die,” I said.
“Eternal rest is better than living like this.” He patted my hand gently, looking me square in the eye. I swallowed.
“I’ll try. Ten minutes. If I’m not back, you do what I said.” I squeezed past him and out the door.
In the corridor, I paused for a moment, running a hand over my face. A moment of weightless panic. Every scenario had been run through. Every possibility considered. But not this. I was flying blind.
How on earth was I supposed to get an entire block out of this prison?
There was nothing for it. This was the payment for my sins.
I walked briskly down the concrete corridors. It would have to be fast and bold to work.
I reached Block B92 and threw open the door. Startled eyes turned in my direction.
“What did you do to him?” a voice hissed in my direction.
“Everyone up and out,” I said. “Follow my directions. Don’t speak. Do as you are told.”
No one moved. A bead of sweat rolled down my forehead. “Quickly!” I snapped. “And silently! Now!” I clapped my hands.
Years of having a response beaten into them paid off at last, as they scurried out of their bunks, like rats fleeing a ship.
“Straight line, down the hall. Now.”
Most of them obeyed mutely, eyes on their feet. A few of them glared at me from the corners of their eyes, when they thought I wasn’t looking. But they did as I said. My heart thundered in my chest as they shuffled down the hall. I had no plan, except to get them as far out as possible before we all were killed.
We marched through the cracked, dripping corridors. I counted the people as they trudged in front of me in troubled silence. Eighteen. I had space for maybe five people in my little car. There was an old 20-passenger van rusting in the corner of the abandoned lot where I had parked my car. One side was a little bashed in. Who knew if it had gas or if there was a key, though.
Was there a supply truck scheduled for tonight?
We reached the closet I had shoved Ramirez into. I prayed he was still there, or out of here for good. When I threw open the door, he peered out at me, his brows furrowed with concern. He sighed a little when he saw me. The rest of the block milled about in the hallway like a flock of confused sheep.
“Get out here,” I said. “I’ve got your block, but I’ve no idea what to do with them. Do you know how to hotwire a car?”
Ramirez squinted at me. “I do not,” he said.
I cursed under my breath. “This is suicide,” I said. “I can’t rescue all of them.”
Ramirez pulled a key out of the chest pocket in his uniform. “What is this to?”
I snatched the key from his hand. Franklin worked in maintenance. And he had access to the crawl spaces under the buildings. He had been complaining about them recently--the pipes were corroded and leaking and the cramped, cobwebbed spaces were the best way to access them. There were tunnels that linked them too, if one could really call them that. One of them led to just outside the guard building. They still had to cross the abandoned lot to the passenger van and somehow start it, but if they were quick and quiet they could do it.
“I have a plan. Follow me, and be as fast and silent as possible,” I turned to the line of people behind me. They eyed me with suspicion now and shared glances between themselves.
“Any of you know how to hotwire a car?” I asked in a low voice. “This isn’t going to work unless we can get an old passenger van to start. We can siphon the gas from my car. There’s a tube and a gas can in my trunk.”
Gas was expensive. You got it where you could.
“What isn’t going to work?” someone asked in a barely audible whisper. I thought it might be the girl who had protested earlier.
“Getting out of here,” I said. “We have to go back in the direction of the block.”
There was an entrance to the crawl spaces from the “haunted” janitor’s closet. I herded them back down the corridors.
I pulled open the door, cringing as its hinges squealed. Shelves loomed in the darkness, hulking metal constructions filled with an assortment of strange shapes. Hooks and boxes, cartons with neon warning labels. I pushed aside a stack of boxes filled with acid bottles. Behind them was a door spray-painted gold. Patches of pre-existing red paint still leaked through. The key turned in the lock. I pulled it open with both hands. Behind the door was little more than a dark hole with a crumbling ceiling and metal grate steps disappearing into the maw of the tunnels.
I turned back to the silent, wide-eyed crowd behind me. The prisoners, thin and pale, looked like they could be the ghosts that haunted this place.
“Hope no one is claustrophobic,: I said. “Get in.”
Everyone was frozen, statues among ropes and hooks danging down like morbid vines.
“Hurry!” I said.
Ramirez pushed his way to the front. He looked at me, at the stairs, and nodded once, before ducking into the tunnel.
One by one, the rest of the prisoners shuffled past, glancing at him and then vanishing into the gloom. I followed after the last one.
The ceiling pressed against the base of my neck and my shoulders, until I almost had to kneel. The walls narrowed, until they almost brushed my arms. Cobwebs collected in my hair and whispered along the sides of my face as I passed through. I followed the scuffling feet of the person in front of me. The space grew tighter and black slime grew on the walls. I could hear someone panicking up ahead, their breaths short and sharp. There was no time to comfort them. Whoever it was, they knew they had to press on.
The space eventually grew so tight that we had to army crawl on our bellies. The floor beneath us was slick, and the air was putrid. A pipe somewhere was leaking. Drip, drip, dripping. There was a shout up ahead. My heart caught in my throat.
Whispers reached back, passed from mouth to mouth. They had found the ladder. We waited in silence, listening to the skitter of some insect through the foul puddles that soaked my pantlegs. The scrape of the cover echoed through the space of the tunnel. I held my breath, trying not to imagine another guard on the other side. There was movement. We were out!
One by one, we climbed out. My heart sank, however, as I climbed out. I had misjudged. We were on the inside of the fence. But the unlocked door was just a few feet away. I pointed at it.
The prisoners ran across the short distance, in pairs or alone, waiting a sporadic amount of time. Always fast. Always silent. I kept my eyes on the sniper towers. There were too many people.
Ramirez and a young boy made it through the gate first. They darted around the perimeter of the camp, where the barbed wire fence tangled with bushes and weeds. They had their eyes on the van.
“Well, well, well. I always knew there was something off about you.”
I whirled around to see Toothless Tom lurking in a nearby doorway. He grinned at me, showing his pink gums.
“I’m taking them out,” I said, trying to use a menacing tone.
“I believe you,” he said, and then ran out into the spotlights, waving his arms. I tried to grab him, but his shirt slipped out of my grasp.
“Escaping prisoners!” he screamed.
“Run!” I shouted at the prisoners. They bolted like a flock of startled birds.
Ramirez had unlocked the trunk of my car, and was siphoning gas into the can. The boy who had been with him was currently under the car. “Hurry up!” I hissed under my breath.
The snipers found their targets. The first shot was an older woman who fell with her fingers just brushing the metal bars of the door. Everyone had to jump over her body to escape now.
I ran. The few feet to the gate felt like the length of the old football fields. The spotlights were blinding. A man beside me collapsed with a sharp exhalation of breath, a bullet between his eyes.
Then there was a sharp, burning pain in my arm and I hit the ground. I couldn’t breath. My lungs felt like they were collapsing. I must have slammed my head against the pavement, because there was an ache in the back of my head and my vision swam. I heard a thin scream, and a moment later a ragged sob. A bright light shone in my eyes and then the world went black.
When I regained consciousness, my whole right shoulder throbbed along with my heartbeat. I blinked, but the world outside blurred in my vision. A second later, I realized I was in a moving vehicle. I turned my head. Ramirez clutched the steering wheel, staring out at the road.
“How many?” I rasped.
“Ten made it.”
I closed my eyes and nodded. Should I feel sorrow? Relief? All I felt was exhaustion and radiating pain. It took effort to even breathe.
“I...was afraid,” I said.
“No…”I said. “Before. When I turned you in. I was afraid that the world would change. Of...the unknown. Of...I don’t know.”
“I know,” Ramirez said. “I knew it was you. The day they came I saw you watching through the blinds.”
“The world changed anyway,” I said. “And I ruined your life.”
“And then you risked it all to save me,” he said.
“Why did you rescue me?”
Ramirez shrugged, the night speeding away outside the windows of the van. “Perhaps it was my second chance.”