Welcome to another #TwoChapterTuesday! If you want to re-read previous chapters (or arrived at this page without having done so), you can start over with Chapters 1 and 2 here, and then follow the links at the bottom of each post to progress through the story.
And now, on with the tale. Remember; feedback is always welcome!
The Stars That Sing
“Lincoln and I were born a decade or so after the Break. Whatever stories you’ve heard, the reality was worse. A hundred times worse. Microwave flash-fried the Second United Congress when I was ten, and the whole nation just plain gave up. Looking back now, I think the old government would have fallen apart all on its own, but when the stories of what he’d done came out, it felt like someone had just flipped a switch, and turned off our hope.”
William shifted in his chair, the lantern painting his black face in shades of crimson and orange.
“After that, all anyone seemed to care about was getting their piece of the pie. We had new Powers popping up every few weeks; laying claim to the city and then disappearing almost as fast. The good ones didn’t have what it took to survive, the bad ones were too busy killing each other to worry about building something, and the crazy ones…” He shook his head. “They just wanted to watch things burn.”
“Mom died when I was fifteen. Lung cancer, we think, not that there was a doctor around to diagnose it. Five years after Microwave, and the whole city was a slaughterhouse. Something had to change.” He stared into the lantern’s flame, gnarled fingers spread out on the table in front of him, and shrugged. “We decided to be that change.”
“Lincoln had come into his power not long before that, and was already progressing from dancing toasters to automated lawn mowers. Wasn’t much of a leap from there to something that could kill a man. Anyway, we started small. Just a city block. Nobody thought we could even do that much, but we did. Killed anyone that stood in our way. Fought off the gangs that came to swat us down like bugs, and before you knew it, we controlled five blocks instead of one. Then twelve.”
“It took six years to take enough of the city that nobody was willing to stand against us anymore, and not a day of it was easy. Some stains seep into the soul and never wash clean. Some memories you can never grow old enough to forget. In the end though, Baltimore was ours. Lincoln’s bots patrolled the streets, and a handful of councilors managed each district, reporting to us. Maybe Rousseau would have called it tyranny, power bought with blood and murder, but it was a damn sight better than what we’d grown up in. No more people dying in the streets, no more roving war parties from the south. Peace. Finally.”
He paused and cleared his throat, and for another long moment, there was no sound but the lantern itself and the soft crunch of paper as Samara shifted her package back and forth.
“Then one day, Lincoln sent his robots to kill me.”
“What did you do?”
“I left. Not that day, of course, but when it became clear that the first attack hadn’t been some glitch. When one assassin became two, then five, I packed up what little I owned, and took off. Headed west.”
“You ran away?”
“You think I should have stayed and fought, CJ?”
“I guess I could have. Maybe I even should have. But I promised our mother I’d look after Lincoln. Half the reason I helped take over Baltimore was to make it safe for him. When he decided the city wasn’t big enough for the two of us…” He shrugged. “I don’t know. Didn’t see much point in fighting him for it.”
“Now?” William’s crooked teeth flashed. “Now I’m just an old man trying to make his peace with the world. There’s a lot I don’t understand about what Lincoln’s done to the city, pods and all that included, but Baltimore’s practically paradise compared to most places I’ve seen. He’s kept the peace for four decades. I’m not sure I could’ve done that. Not sure anyone else could have.”
“It’s not so great,” said Sammie. “Your brother controls everything. We’re only safe as long as we do exactly what he says.”
“Yeah. That sounds like Lincoln.” He nodded to the books he’d long since put back on the nearby shelves. “Smarter men than me argued for centuries about the line between security and personal freedom without ever coming to a conclusion. All I know is what this city was like before we took control, and this is a damn sight better, ugly-looking Eyes and all.”
“So you’re just going to go away again?”
“Not this minute; I have three weeks after all. Plenty of time to get some reading in. To properly say my goodbyes to the places I once knew. But then?” He sighed. “Yeah.”
“Will you take us with you?”
“Sammie…” CJ shook his head, eyes wide, but Samara wouldn’t take her own eyes off the old man. She leaned forward to place one hand on the table, slender fingers just brushing against the other man’s swollen knuckles.
“Will you, William?”
“You and Cornelius James are better off here in the city.”
“Tell that to Pod 7!” she snapped.
“Pod 7?” William waited for an explanation that never came, then sighed. “Samara, the road isn’t a place for kids on their own.”
“We wouldn’t be on our own. We’d be with you.”
“For a handful of months, yeah. But then what?” William shook his head firmly, and pulled his own hands back to the edge of the table, out of reach. “I’m sorry, but no. Maybe if I were younger. Maybe if things were different.”
“Or maybe you’re not that different from your brother after all. Maybe you’re just better at pretending to care!” Samara surged to her feet, dislodging the package she’d brought with her. With a scowl, she scooped it up off the ground, and tossed it onto the table. “These were for you. Burn them if you want.”
As she marched towards the hallway door, William carefully unwrapped several layers of paper to find three long-stemmed tulips. Even in the warm light of the lantern, every petal was a gorgeous shade of blue.
CJ didn’t know a lot of swear words, but he mentally ran through all of them, one after the other, even as his eyes darted from the blue tulips to the old man who’d been given them. He held his breath, waiting for the inevitable reaction.
Instead, William simply gathered the tulips up in his worn, weathered hands. “They’re lovely, Samara. I’ll find a vase.”
“Whatever.” Sammie paused at the door to glance back over one shoulder. Her eyes were hard, glittering in the faint light of the distant lantern. “Are you coming, CJ?”
“I’ll see you around, Cornelius James” said the old man, his smile as kind as it was sad.
“I guess so.” CJ threw the old man a wave, then darted after his friend.
Samara didn’t get mad often, and even when she did, it normally blew over in a few hours, like the spring storms that came through Old Baltimore every now and then. Not this time though. CJ waited a full week before broaching the subject of returning to the library, and she still just about bit his head off. Maybe he could’ve waited a few more days for her to cool down, but for the first time in his young life, CJ was aware of time slipping away from him. William would be gone in two weeks, and who could say what Lord Legion would do to the Hill then, let alone all the books inside?
The next afternoon, CJ headed to the Hill on his own.
He was a block away when he spotted the Eye. It was the same dual-rotored creature that Lord Legion had spoken to William with, but this time, it was down on the street, hovering directly in front of the break in the Hill’s wall.
Cornelius James hunkered down in the shadow of a nearby boarded-up rowhouse. With all the Eyes’ cameras, sneaking past it would be almost impossible, and he couldn’t risk getting caught. William might have Lord Legion’s temporary permission to squat in the no-go zone, but CJ was willing to bet that permission didn’t extend to citizens.
After a moment’s consideration, he headed north instead. As soon as the Eye was out of sight, he cut back across the street to the Hill, but the wall there was tall and unbroken. Maybe he could have climbed it anyway with Samara’s help, but Sammie wasn’t there and she’d already made it clear that she wasn’t coming.
He stopped to think again, a frown upon his face. The Hill was the size of at least ten city blocks, and there had to be other places along the perimeter where its wall had crumbled. The problem was that most of that perimeter was beyond their pod’s territory. There hadn’t been open battle between the pods in years—not since the example Lord Legion had made of Pod 7—but each pod was free to defend their territory, and the pod to the west, Pod 24, was known for its brutality.
Worse than an Eye though? CJ shook his head. Nothing human was. There had to be a spot or two in Pod 24’s territory where the wall was passable. He’d just have to be careful finding it.
He was two blocks into Pod 24’s territory when he found a way in. The wall hadn’t quite fallen, but it had buckled inward, as if something had struck it high up, long ago. Whatever that object had been—be it a Hand or even one of those cars that had supposedly been a thing before the Break—was long gone, but the top of the wall leaned inward toward the Hill, forming a steep ramp.
At the base of the wall, CJ looked and shivered. A very steep ramp. There were gaps in the stone that might serve as handholds or footholds, but climbing it would be a damn sight more difficult than the breach in the eastern wall had been.
On the other hand, it didn’t have an Eye hovering above it either.
Very carefully not wishing Samara was there to help, he started the climb. It was every bit as difficult as it had looked from the street, but the handholds were plentiful, and before he knew it, he was his height or more off the ground. In fact, he was only a few spans below the lip of the wall when he heard the sound behind him; long and slow, like something being dragged across the cement. CJ froze in mid-climb, utterly exposed on his stretch of the wall. Several minutes passed in silent terror, but nothing lunged out at him from the shadows. Clinging to the wall’s broken surface with both hands, he couldn’t turn to face the street, but a quick glance over one shoulder showed nothing out of place. Whatever it was—if it had been anything at all—was gone.
Restarting the climb, with his arms now burning and any sense of momentum long since lost, was enough to make CJ regret ever stopping in the first place. By the time he reached the top of the wall, rolled over, and dropped into the overgrowth on the far side, he was filthy, drenched in sweat, and the owner of a half-dozen new scrapes and bruises. The only good news was the small tree he found just inside the wall. Its branches looked sturdy enough to support his weight, and they reached all the way to the wall’s edge. At least the way back out would be easier.
Cornelius James ran one hand through thick hair matted with sweat, spared a thought to wonder how he’d look if he shaved it bald like William, and then headed up the Hill.
They caught him on the way out.
CJ had shimmied out onto one of the larger branches of the tree he’d spied on the way in and swung from there to the wall. Gravity had done the rest, and he’d slid all the way down to the street before he was even aware he had company.
There were four of them, older and far larger than CJ. Members of Pod 24 weren’t given real names. Instead, they were assigned colors; Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue and Black. With more members than colors, there were often multiple members with the same name, differentiated only by the number that followed their designation.
All of that information went through CJ’s mind in a panicked flash as he straightened out of his crouch. He didn’t know the three nearest men—each twice his size and old enough that they should’ve long since been drafted into Lord Legion’s service—but he knew the boy in back, black hair styled into spikes, a ragged scar charting a path down one cheek to disappear into equally ragged stubble.
Red Two smiled to reveal yellow teeth filed down to points. “Look what we have here, my friends.” He swaggered closer, peering at Cornelius James through the wall of beefy muscle that entrapped him. “At first I thought it was some new breed of squirrel, but judging by the colors on his chest, I do believe we’ve caught ourselves a spy. Or a thief.”
CJ shuffled backwards until the stone wall was against his back. He had no shot at climbing it before they reached him, but he wanted as much space between him and the others as he could get.
“Well, which is it, little squirrel?” demanded Red Two. He’d cut his lips on his own teeth, sending blood trickling down his chin in tiny rivulets.
“Are you a spy or are you a thief? Because if you’re a thief, we might just let you live, as long as you handed over whatever it is you took from the Hill.”
“I didn’t take anything.” CJ scowled, keeping an eye on the other men. “You can search me if you want.”
“If you’re not a thief, then you’re a spy.” Red Two shook his head in mock sorrow. “What do we do to spies, boys?”
The nearest bruiser lunged for Cornelius James, but he’d seen the man coming and was already in motion. He ducked down and to the side, under the outstretched arm, and then squirted forward into open space. He was past the members of Pod 24 before they even realized he’d escaped, arms and legs pumping for all they were worth. With screams of rage, his attackers followed in pursuit.
CJ was small, even for his age, but there was one advantage he had over every member of his pod, even Samara.
He could run like the wind.
He was a block and a half from safety, running parallel to the Hill’s wall and increasing his lead over the older boys with every stride, when a fifth man stepped around the corner in front of him. CJ tried to duck past again but the newcomer didn’t reach with his hands. Instead, he swung out a long leg, kicking the younger boy’s ankles out from under him, and sending him crashing to the asphalt.
By the time CJ had made it back to his feet, they were on him.