She couldn’t be sure if it was the laughter that slowed her down or the stumble.
The boy appeared as if sliding out of the wall. His eyes flashed. The roaring of the peace-keepers’ motorcycles lurched upward. He smiled. “Don’t let them catch you now.”
She gave a breathless grin. She never had time for any other kind, but they were off already, and he was leading her, and she was almost positive that the city labyrinth hadn’t looked quite this way this morning, but she wasn’t going to complain as they skidded around corners, rats darting into deeper depths and old flyers amongst other trash flying into the air. The steady hum of the city’s inner workings crept over the thunder of the cycles till the oppressive mechanic drone drowned it out.
The boy tugged her around another corner, but it wasn’t an alleyway this time, just a niche where the walls curved inward for no apparent reason. He was a man, she realised as he pulled her into the alcove. His heart beat nearly as loud as hers over the electric city, his overly warm hands grasping her forearms, his breath and smile heating her face.
“Shh,” he smiled again, leaning in close. A breathless smile, a hopeful one. She forgot to breathe for a moment.
Instead, she looked down at his ill-fitting, holey t-shirt, the ripped jeans, the good tennis shoes. All of it was clean, a hard thing in a city where the clear water ran in different areas each day, and any other water was sewage.
The hum of the city’s life took precedence now, the distant and not-so-distant scraping and grating as walls rearranged themselves and apartments moved. “For equality!” the People’s Leader had said. She had straightened her shirt slightly at that point in his speech, glad that she had been able to wash her clothes of the grease stains the night in the dumpsters had given it.
“What’s your name?” The boy spoke in a low voice. At her startled glance, he offered a tentative smile. “Isn’t that what people ask when they make your acquaintance?”
He was one of the street runners who snuck into the Cinema then, if he spoke like that.
She shrugged, bitter taste in her mouth. “What’s your name?”
“I asked you first,” he teased. A further gentling of his smile, and not without a fair amount of humour. Her muscles relaxed.
She swallowed back the weighty memories, choking globs of phlegm she could only hold off for so long before they wracked her body with coughs, souring her mouth when they came out. She tried for a smile, face brittle. “Maybe I don’t have one.”
He hummed. It harmonized with the city.
She twisted out of his grasp, eyes scanning the alleyway – street, actually – before she flipped around to wave cheerily to him. “Thanks for the company. Maybe I’ll see you round.”
If the city allowed it. That was implicit.
Shadows covered his eyes as she spun to face forward again. She was off in another breathless moment. She never had time for any other kind.
She slowed to a jog as she wound further and further away from the boy. Generally, neighborhoods stayed the same even if the edges of them would locate to an equally disreputable place. “Equality!” but the People’s Leader sure didn’t look like he lived on a Roman street with dumpsters below windows from which take-out meals and waste alike were tossed. Her memories belied such as well, but it was fine not to dwell. The city certainly didn’t.
By the time she reached the gutted building, it was well past nightfall. Sagging with the relief of not another night on the streets, she slipped through the boards and ignored the skeletal insides of the structure, going instead for the debris-covered hole. She lowered herself into it, dragging a board back over the entrance till only a crack existed and then dropping the few feet to the ground. Her feet hit the dry dirt with an unusually unsteady thud. She crawled forward, moving another board out of her way and then relaxed completely.
“All right,” she sighed, flipping the vents open and lightbulb on, the metal grafted into the earth like a cyborg’s computers. She unloaded her wares from the day, putting them in their new proper places. She swallowed an Energy Capsule and curled up on the blankets with a pencil and notepad. “Time to end another day,” she swallowed and stared at the page. As the lightbulb flickered, she drew. The pencil fell limp. Her eyes drifted close.
A sharp crack and splintering.
She jerked awake. The notepad and pencil fell to the ground. The bulb swung. More splintering. Low voices. She scrabbled to pick up the paper, clutching it to her chest. Dirt flew up, fine mist over the shelves of papers. Another crack and one particularly flimsy shelf broke. Her records and maps written on the backs of flyers, pamphlets, and newspapers cascaded to the floor.
Splintering and then a final crack. Her eyes went to the vents, but all were no bigger than the widest part of her head. She dropped down, pulling the blankets over her. The shuffling of knees upon ground paused. Someone stood. More shuffling. Her breath came short. Suffocatingly hot air filled the small space under the blankets. It was a stupid place to hide, but nothing else was large enough to cover her. Quiet footfalls.
They ripped it off. Fresher air filled her nostrils, cooled her face. A peace-keeper tall enough to have to bend dangled the blanket to the side. It was ridiculously decrepit next to the man’s pressed uniform. Two more peace-keepers rose to their feet behind the first, and she wondered wildly if they’d use up so much oxygen, all of them would pass out.
“Take her.” The first peace-keeper nodded at one of the others as he spoke.
Electricity sparked in her. She lunged at him with a cry, her fist closed.
He caught it and twisted it and her around till she was bent over with her arm at her back, panic clawing at her chest.
“At this time, you can crawl out of here. Do that again, and we’ll tie your hands and drag you. Understand?”
She couldn’t breathe. She nodded. Everything was a gasp. The air shortchanged her.
“Yes,” she croaked.
He turned and threw her towards the egress. Her palms smarted. She’d hit a rock. She bit her lip. Eventually, every street runner ended up here. She knew it. Now she knew it.
With a peace-keeper in front of her and two behind, she crawled forward. They let her climb out of the hole. A fourth peace-keeper, standing next to a fifth, snapped the cuffs on her wrists as she stood, the quiet whirr and beep assuring all that she was secured.
She was secured.
Her knees stung as they hit the ground. She dry-heaved, fly-aways from her hair flying into her mouth.
“That’s enough.” A peace-keeper grabbed the cuffs and yanked. She cried out, scrambling to her feet. He pushed her forward, and she stumbled. The stumble from yesterday, the laughter, the boy, the freedom, the sudden memory flooded her. She pushed it away. Then the ground blurred beneath her and there was an open door and a ledge and she was being pushed in and her head was pushed down and the manufactured lavender scent overpowered the stench of the city and
She was sitting on stained faux-leather seat as shadows blurred behind the bars and two-way tinted glass. She closed her eyes and counted turns.
She startled awake at the gruff voice. The first peace-keeper slipped a blindfold around her head and pushed her forward. She nearly tripped on the step down. He nearly caught her. The ground was smooth beneath her. He drove her forward by the bar connecting the cuffs, and she lurched into step. No garbage knocked against her feet. Their prisons were better than their streets.
More turns and she missed most of them and couldn’t remember others, and it didn’t matter anyway because she couldn’t go back. Not to her papers, her research, her history. That was all she was going to leave to the world, a capsule in the ground in testament to a horrid time.
They had taken even that.
The peace-keeper pushed her forward, hooking her ankle, and she fell to her knees. She gave a gasp and then cursed it. They’d get nothing more from her.
“Father,” a steady voice said. It was almost as if . . .
The blindfold came off. The boy stood before her. No holes in his clothes. As clean as before. Tailored silk upon his shoulders.
“She’s a vagabond,” the People’s Leader, sitting in his ornate chair on level ground, frowned. His dark eyes looked to the boy, then back to her. “She deserves little more than a life sentence in stasis.”
“It’s a birthday gift, Father, as you promised.”
She closed her eyes. “Just kill me.”
A moment of silence.
The People’s Leader laughed. “My dear girl, we’re not savages. You won’t be killed here.” She ducked her head, pressing her lips together. “I can see she has spark. And humour. How about you put her in the Stand-Up Section. Let her work as a Dummy and actually earn a living.”
The boy hummed. “I would prefer her as the Women’s Speaker.”
Her eyes snapped to the boy. The People’s Leader just sighed. “The Women’s Speaker must be approved by the Women’s League-“
“Not if we are in a partnership.”
The boy kept his eyes on his father. He hadn’t looked at her yet. Her stomach roiled, a waterless storm at sea.
His father’s frown deepened. The boy purposefully relaxed his shoulders as he spoke, “You know that a partnership can be dissolved at any time.”
“And if she would dissolve it?”
The boy shrugged. “Then she is the lazy ingrate you believe her to be. I will learn a lesson, and you will be right.”
She barely kept her head up, hands trembling but unable to be clasped.
“Very well, but if she refuses to accept the partnership or the partnership is dissolved at any time, her sentence reverts to that of stasis for life. Is that clear?” the leader addressed her. “Is that clear?”
“Yes.” She breathed it out. She choked it out.
“Is that clear to you?” he asked his son.
“Yes,” he smiled. A breathless smile, a hopeful one.
“Take her away. Get her ready for the ceremony. Of all the people for you to choose.”
The peace-keeper dragged her to her feet as the People’s Leader spoke.
“Stop,” the boy commanded. The future People’s Leader. He already had the voice. His hand was outstretched to the peace-keeper. “She will be my partner. Give her some respect, please, and take off the handcuffs.” Another whirr and beep. Then a click as they disconnected. She brought her hands around to the front of her body, clasping her opposing elbows in half-folded arms. The boy came closer. He slipped a hand through her arm and smiled again. “Let’s go together.” He gently nudged her forward. She walked. He was just as warm as the day before, same smooth hands. She should’ve known.
In the marbled hallway, he nodded at the peace-keepers. “We’ll be fine from here.” When they didn’t leave, he inclined his chin and stared. They left.
He began walking again. A brisk stride. He bothered to give her a smile. “Sorry about that. My father’s a little set in his ways. It’ll be different when I’m the People’s Leader.” She tried to keep in step with him. He slowed down his pace. Another smile. “Father always chooses someone from the Upper cities to be the speakers, and the people on the leagues always approve them. I can’t control the leagues nor any of the other speakers, but one of our predecessors made a Needful Decision that the Women’s Speaker didn’t have to be approved if it was a family member of the People’s Leader. The Women’s League at the time was just beginning, and it needed the support that the 439th Needful Decision gave it.”
She didn’t see the connection. He didn’t notice.
“So I can control who the Women’s Speaker is to a point by making you my partner. We don’t have to be actual partners, like the antiqued definition-“
“Spouses.” The word slipped out of her.
“Yes, yes. Spouses, husband, wife, all those words. We’ll just be partners by the new definition of it. Equal in all ways. It’s a really good deal for you.”
He was smiling. He was smiling and offering one of his hands and they were standing before a door that she didn’t know how to reach because she hadn’t counted her turns in a part of the city or maybe even a different city entirely that she had never been in. He was smiling and offering one of his hands and on his other all she could see was decades upon decades of stasis as she aged in unconsciousness with not even her dreams as a companion.
He was smiling, so she forced one as well. “Of course.