I landed on the small wooden boat with a soft thud, internally grimacing. I definitely could have managed that landing better, but at least it counted as a landing. I shot a look over my shoulder, where the first alarm bells were starting to ring. The Emperor apparently didn’t like my particular brand of artwork. Grinning in the darkness, I tossed my spray paint can over the side of the boat. (No, I don’t endorse littering, but cut me a break… it was evidence!).
That done, I stretched my hands over me head and shook out my tired limbs. Another beautiful success, if I did say so myself.
“What are you doing on my boat?” A voice—a voice that definitely did not belong to my getaway driver—demanded irritably.
Well, a nearly-beautiful success.
In a remarkable feat of rapid thinking, I launched myself at my unsuspecting companion, throwing her to the ground and clapping my hand over her mouth to prevent her from giving me away.
“This isn’t what it seems.” I told her immediately, then I gave a double-take. I knew this woman…
“Mmphhumphfemf!” She muffle-screamed into my hand. Remembering myself, I quickly shifted my weight so I wasn’t pinning her down quite as hard.
“Hey, hey, Aian, it’s me—” I peeled my mask from my face. “It’s Mandy.”
Her eyes widened in recognition, but I was still cautious. “Don’t scream, okay?” I asked, hushed and hurriedly. She hesitated for a moment, then nodded slowly. I released a tight breath, and removed my hand from her jaw.
“M? I thought you’d died or something.” She hissed, eyes narrowing. “Also… can you get off me?”
“Oh. Right.” I hopped to the side, offering her a hand up. She ignored me, and picked herself up with an annoyed expression.
“I’m guessing those alarms are your fault?” She glowered. I flashed her a sideways smile.
“Technically, a guard set them off.” It was true. The alarms started when I accidentally knocked a guard across a tripwire. In my defence, he came at me with a baton.
“Huh.” She folded her arms across her chest. “Get off the boat.”
That… was not what I was expecting at all. I blinked in surprise. “What?”
“I said get off. I’m not harbouring a stowaway.”
My gaze flicked to the shark-infested waters racing along the side of the boat, shock rippling through me. “You’re kidding me.”
“No, I’m serious.” She started clearing up the ropes and equipment that had fallen during our scuffle. “I won’t be busted for your antics.”
“There’s no way I’ll make it to shore!” I protested, the heat of anger racing through me.
“That’s something you shoulda thought of before you jumped on the wrong boat.”
“Four years of friendship, and this is what I get?”
Aian gave me a long look, something dark flickering in her eyes. “I won’t risk Amos, too.” She whispered, her voice catching. Suddenly, it clicked.
“They won’t trace me back to you.” I promised.
“You can’t be sure.”
“I’ve done this before.”
“I said no.”
“Aian. Please.” Something in my voice gave her a pause, and she turned her gaze to the stars. I took my chance. “You know it’s not right, what they do. You know they’ll kill me publicly if they catch me. And you know that’s wrong.”
“You broke the laws.”
“And that warrants the death penalty?” I shot back, sensing the weakness in the armour. “All I did was paint a wall. You wouldn’t hang me for that.”
There’s a long moment of silence, but I knew I’d already won.
“Get below deck.” She ordered, spinning on her heel and dismissing me.
It was colder than I was used to, especially from a woman who had been my best friend. But it wasn’t rejection.
I hastily ducked below decks.
It must have been no more than twenty minutes later before Aian joined me under deck, bearing a bottle of water and an extra coat. “Here.” She threw them at me. I caught them, appreciating the gift despite the giver’s clear frustration.
“Thanks.” I had the coat half-on, when the design gave me a pause. “You… you held on to this?” I peered closer at it in the dark. It was a coat I’d given her to celebrate our second friend-iversary.
“Well duh. Coats aren't cheap.” She answered gruffly, folding herself into the chair beside me. “My pilot’s taking over the journey.”
Panic exploded through me. “He doesn't know—”
“Of course he doesn't know anything about you.” She chugged from a bottle of water, not looking at me. “I’m not stupid.”
“Thank you, Aian.”
She huffed in response.
“So… how have you been?”
“As good as ever.”
That meant not good at all. Ever since the Regime had taken over, there wasn't enough food to go around. People were dropping dead of starvation. Anyone who complained or criticized the Emperor vanished… probably killed. The best bet was to live with your head low to the ground, and hope for the best.
“Is everyone up?” Code for, has anyone died?.
“Yeah.” She paused, then bit her lip. “So far.”
“They won’t figure out you helped me.” I promised again.
“It doesn't matter.” Her shoulders slumped, the weight of the regime seeming to crush her. “Disease, starvation, it doesn't matter. When they promoted the one-party state… It became a matter of time.” A tear tracked a grimy trail down her cheek, and she swept it away with a furious strike of her hand.
I drew a long breath, wondering if I could tell her. How much could I say without incriminating myself? Or worse, my allies?
“The regime isn’t gonna last forever.” I told her. She scoffed, the firelight dancing on her cheeks.
“Yeah. That’s what they keep saying.”
I fell quiet again, the wheels in my head racing. “Come with me.”
She practically bolted to her feet, and was at the foot of the stairs in a half-second. “No. No freaking way.”
Then she was gone.
I sank back against the chair, groaning aloud. That hadn’t worked according to plan, either.
An hour had passed. Within another half hour, we’d be docking at the edge of the forest, where I’d disappear again. Images of the successful vandalism danced in my mind’s eye. It had been an impressive feat—the sort of thing that earned my the prestige I enjoyed in the city’s underworld.
It was this mess with Aian that kept me from resting. If only… But no. She’d made her stance perfectly clear. I wouldn’t be convincing her.
I pulled my hair into a bun, and climbed the steps, slipping the mask back over my face.
“I’ve missed you.” I said to Aian as I approached. She flicked her attention towards me, then shrugged.
“Same.” She fell quiet again. I wondered at the transformation. This wasn’t the girl I’d grown up with. The loss of her freedom had radically changed her. She was a husk of the spirit I’d known.
“We’ve got people watching your people.” I was talking before I could even think about whether it was a good idea telling her all this. “We’ve got people all over. There’s some on your block, right now.” What was I doing?! “You come with me, and we’ll have your family at our base within a half hour. You wouldn’t have to hide anymore.” I had just given away operatives! “Just say the word.” I was really not doing well tonight! I quickly turned away, so I wouldn’t say anything more devastating. She turned to face me, and I could feel her eyes assessing me.
“You mean that?” She said finally.
“Is that a ‘Yes’?” I asked hopefully.
“If… If you get my family out of harm’s way…”
“Done.” I said, a little too fast. I was relieved—half relieved that she’d agreed. Half relieved that she and I were now equally incriminated. I didn’t wait before I tore out a flashlight and send a rapid series of flashes towards a boat I knew was tailing us—my actual ride, dutifully shadowing me in case I’d run into trouble. Within a moment, the responding flashes came from my ally, no more than a hundred feet behind us.
“What was that?” Aian, who’d seen the lights, gave me a sharp look.
“It’s one of my men. Your family will probably beat us back to base.” I smiled, the tension releasing my shoulders.
“You just had to make sure I couldn’t turn you in.” She grumbled, but there was a note of appreciation in her voice. It was that note that allowed me to relax against the railing.
“Yeah, you might be right.” I relished in the spray of the water springing up the side of the boat.
“State your name and business!”
My blood froze. Aian grew suddenly still. The pilot—a boy named Mark—cast us a worried look from behind the wheel. We’d coerced him to joining our insane break for freedom, although it hadn't taken much pressure. Turns out he’d been waiting to do something crazy.
Now though, with a patrol boat bearing down on us, we all realized we were in hot water.
“Just. Don’t. Act. Suspicious.” I told Aian quietly.
“GERONIMO!” Mark shouted, before a blast of fireworks and boat oil shot towards the patrol boat, coating it with a slick covering and then illuminating it with a brilliant show of greens, pinks, and blues.
“Ah, crap.” I snapped. So much for playing it low-key. Mark was already gunning the boat forward. Remarkably, the patrol boat had survived the assault mostly unscathed, aside from a few scorch marks, and the operators were now signalling for backup over a radio.
I dove to grab an extra batch of fireworks and a match.
“What are you doing?” Aian screamed, eyes wide with fright.
“Getting ready!” I practically threw a bottle of alcohol at her. “Stuff these with rags covered in gas!”
“So’s he!” I pointed meaningfully at Mark, who was howling at the top of his lungs and gunning it for the shore. Three patrol boats were closing in. I hurled one of the alcohol bottles towards the closest one, seconds before it exploded right in front of the pursuing vehicle. Shouts of alarm and frustration rose up. Aian glanced at me, then at the bottle in her hand, then at the boat. And then she did what I did.
“Nice shot!” Mark yelled enthusiastically.
“Mark! Drive!” Aian shouted over the drone of the motor.
“Heads up!” Four more fireworks joined the fray, much to the dismay of our pursuers.
“Smoke bomb?” Aian suggested, holding up a strange looking device. I cocked my head, surprised.
“You carry those?”
“Thought I’d better be prepared.”
“Send ‘er!” Mark hollered.
“Sure.” I shrugged. Aian obliged, and within a minute, the entire lake was coated in a glaze of smoke.
“Mark!” I motioned urgently. “Yelling defeats the purpose of a smoke screen!”
“Oh. Right.” He chuckled sheepishly, quieting the engine and doubling back around the fog bank, coasting the last few yards to shore. We hastily dismounted the boat, pulling it into the cover of the trees. From within the billowing rolls of smoke, I could hear the calls of the patrols. They were, it seemed, hopelessly lost in the banks.
I appraised my new allies, sincerely impressed.
“You two might just be crazy enough to make this work.” I told them admiringly.
“Thanks!” Mark beamed. Aian just rolled her eyes.
“You said base was this way?” She pointed west, already moving.
“Yeah. Your family’s probably already there.”
“What about the boat?” Mark protested.
“We’ll get people to collect it.”
“You’ve got people all over.” Aian griped good-naturedly.
“Well, I can’t do all the work.” I quipped.
“No one would want to leave you to your own devices.” She snickered. “You totally botched the mission tonight, didn’t you?”
“I prefer to call it a mission upgrade.” I mused philosophically. “I managed to succeed, plus I’ve got two firecracker recruits.”
She shook her head, bemused. “It’s good to see you again, M.” The words were quiet, sincere.
“It’s good to see you, too.” I turned, casting one more look to the patrol boats. Their silhouettes spun in unorganized circles.
I considered this a success.