Authors: Anna Carey
Gunshots sounded somewhere in the southern part of the City, where fires burned, their flames urged on by the wind. There were hundreds outside the gates now, a great mass of people, firing up at the soldiers stationed along the wall's watchtowers. From where we were we could see just a sliver of the north gate and the sudden flash of explosions beyond it. The silhouettes blended together in the growing darkness, one indistinguishable from the next.
The older man with white hair was sitting with his back hunched, his arms folded on the railing. Another man, no more than forty, stood beside us. “They'll never make it through the gates,” he said. “There was an attack five years ago. A gang made bombs with gasoline. It must've burned for an entire dayâthe whole north end of the wall was consumed. Even they couldn't get past. Whatever riots are going on in the Outlands should be controlled within a couple of hours. No need to be frightened.” He bowed slightly, his expression so earnest, as if he alone had the power to reassure us.
I turned back, trying to catch a glimpse of the southern end of the wall, where one of the remaining tunnels lay. The man was wrongâthe rebels would make it into the City, if they hadn't already. Moss had described it in detail: how the north gate would be attacked first, then, once the soldiers had been called to that edge of the wall, another wave of rebels would move through one of the remaining tunnels and into the Outlands, bringing in additional supplies. Now that the siege had started, I couldn't be certain when the rebels would reach the City center. But if we weren't back in the Palace, with Moss, when they swept through, we'd both be dead.
I started toward the exit, pulling Clara with me. “We need to leave,” I whispered to her. “I don't know how much time we have.”
A small crowd had formed by the exit, peppering the soldiers with questions. A short woman stood in front of them, her hands gesturing frantically. Now that the sun had set, she'd borrowed a short red jacket from the waiting staff to keep warm. “But I have to go,” she said, her voice uneven. “My sons are just two blocks south of here. What if the rebels make it through the gate? What will we do then?”
“They won't make it through the gate.” The soldier's head was completely shaved. The skin at the back of his neck came together in thick, pink folds. “We're more concerned right now with the dissidents inside the City. It's safer here than down on the street.”
Three men stood beside her, listening. One reached over the soldier's arm and pushed at the top of the metal door, seeing if it would give. “Get back!” the other soldier yelled. He yanked the collar of the man's shirt, pulling him away.
The man struggled free of the soldier's grip. “We have families we need to get to. What is it to you if we want to leave?”
“They're right,” I said. “How long are we expected to stay up here?”
The heavy soldier glanced sideways at his colleague. “These were your father's orders.” He looked less certain now, as a few others moved toward the exit. “They need people off the road so the Jeeps can pass. They're supposed to remain here. It's just for now.”
“We're just supposed to sit here?” One of the men by the door had taken off his suit jacket, revealing a sweat-stained shirt. “What about our families?” A few tables were still blocking the exit. He grabbed the legs, pulling one of them back. “Someone help me move these.”
The heavy soldier went to stop him, but I took his arm. “You have to let us leave,” I said. Another explosion went off in the Outlands, the smoke rising up in a sudden massive cloud. I steeled myself against it. “All of us. If we stay here much longer we'll be trapped.”
“Eve,” Clara whispered. “Maybe they're right. Maybe we just have to wait it out. We shouldn't argue with them.” She watched the heavy soldier readjust his rifle as the crowd moved.
But I pushed forward, grabbing one of the chairs from the top of the pile and passing it back to her. Two tables were wedged against the door. I slid the bottom one sideways along the roof's edge. The soldier hovered there, uncertain whether to stop me.
The hollow, popping sound of explosives was much louder than before. “We need to go
,” another man yelled. He was in a waiter's uniform, the vest undone. He pushed his way through to the front of the crowd.
The people behind him followed, knocking us forward. The soldier pressed one arm back against the man's chest, trying to stop him, but the crowd kept moving. A woman fell into me, and we pushed toward the doors. She was so close I could smell the coffee on her breath.
My knees faltered. I lost hold of Clara's hand. There was shouting as the crowd moved in one great mass. The doors gave suddenly, and everyone lurched forward. A younger woman with a red hat stepped over the chairs that had been propped against the exit. As we ran down the stairs, spurred on by the dense flow of panicked people, I looked up to see two of the men holding the soldier against the wall while the rest of the crowd passed.
It was quiet as we spiraled down the stairwell, watching our feet, our steps echoing on the concrete. An older man stopped in front of me, panting, his hands on his knees. A few people darted past him, nearly knocking him forward as they did. “It's all right,” I said, taking him by the arm. “One at a time.”
We continued down until the stairwell spit us out on the bottom floor of the renovated hotel. The sprawling lobby was empty. The old gaming machines were covered with sheets. Each restaurant was closed, door after door locked. The crowd dispersed through the maze of hallways, trying the different exits while I waited for Clara. “Thank you, Princess,” the older man said as he started through one of the dark halls. I watched him go until he was a tiny speck, swallowed by darkness.
The silence terrified me. Beyond the glass doors the main road was desolate except for a lone, passing Jeep. A soldier ran by on the sidewalk, the sound of his footsteps receding, returning the world to its quiet place.
The stillness was broken by the quick popping of gunshots. A faraway voice called out from a side hallway, “Over hereâI found an exit through the back!”
Clara ran out of the stairwell, holding up her dress so she didn't trip. Watching her now, clutching the raw-silk gown that spread out at her waist, her delicate neck decorated with a ruby pendant, I understood how much danger we were in. We were so obviously from the Palaceâour hair pinned up, our gowns in custom fabrics that were nearly impossible to find now, so many years after the plague.
A man pushed past us, his jacket slung over his arm. “Sir!” I shouted as he ran toward a dark hallway. He didn't slow down. Instead he glanced over his shoulder, his face in profile. “Can we have your jacket? We can't go out there like this. If a rebel sees us we'll be shot.”
He slowed for a moment as he considered it. Then he took off down a dim corridor and just dropped the jacket, leaving it there on the floor for us to pick up. A few women filed past after him, darting around it, until Clara and I were alone in the empty lobby.
I draped the jacket over Clara's shoulders. Then I unpinned my hair, letting it fall loose so it covered the sides of my face and top of my gown. It was only a fifteen-minute walk back to the Palace, maybe less, and we couldn't stay here and wait. We followed the rest of the crowd down the empty hall, moving forward into the dark.
THE MAIN ROAD WAS EMPTY EXCEPT FOR A FEW OTHERS WHO
were trying to get back to their apartments on the Strip. Metal barricades had been put up, blocking the west side of the street, preventing people from passing through. A Jeep rode past and we stopped, waiting for them to recognize us, but the vehicle just kept moving, the soldier's eyes locked on the southern edge of the wall.
I glanced at the sky, watching the smoke rise up in a haze, blanketing the stars. There was an orange glow coming from the north, where the fires grew in the Outlands. Two gunshots sounded in succession, then a woman's scream.
“Where is that shop?” I asked Clara, hurrying out ahead of her. I looked to the east, where the side streets opened up to stores and restaurants. “We passed it one day while we were walking, and you said everyone bought clothes there.”
“It's just another block.” She pointed to the corner ten yards ahead. I sped up, running as fast as I could in the long skirt, the tulle underpinning scratching at my legs. I didn't stop until I'd turned onto the quiet side street. The shop was just two doors in from the road. I tried the door but it didn't give.
“The rocks,” I said, pointing to the bushes that lined the main strip. They were planted beside the sidewalk, the dirt surrounded by heavy stones. “Pass me one.”
Clara found a large rock by the base of the roots and handed it to me. I aimed at the center of the glass door, launching it through the window just above the handle. The glass shattered around it, splintered and white, like crushed ice. The alarm sounded, an electric howl so loud I felt the vibrations in my chest. I unlocked the door and ran inside, toward the back, where shirts hung on a rack.
Clara unzipped the back of my gown, helping me out of it. I pulled a black blouse off the rack, then some trousers. Clara dressed quickly, grabbing another shirt from a hanger and slipping on a pair of shoes. As she knelt down to tie them, the alarm continued its horrible wail. I looked out the shattered door, scared it would draw attention, but only one person darted past. They hardly glanced at the store as they ran.
“These too,” I said, grabbing two hats from a table on our way out. We pulled them down over our eyes and immediately I felt more at ease, stepping back onto the main road.
We ran in silence, our heads down, staring at the pavement. More gunfire could be heard somewhere in the north, then an explosion that cracked and rolled like thunder, shaking everything around us. A woman ran up the main road, covering her ears with her hands. An older man was right behind her, his jacket black with dirt, his right pant leg ripped at the knee. They slowed down as they passed. The woman pointed over her shoulder. “They're coming up from the south,” she yelled. “There are hundreds of them. Boys from the camps, too.”
The man lingered at the corner for a moment, his wife's hand clutched in his. “Good luck to you both.”
A fire had started in an old warehouse. Black smoke rippled up from a broken window, the air sharp with the smell of burned plastic. I watched the bend in the road as we ran, waiting for the Palace to appear beyond it. I could hear Clara's breaths behind me and the dull sound of her shoes on the pavement. Slowly it came into view. The lights below the statues had been turned off, the silhouettes just visible against the trees. The fountains were still. Dozens of soldiers lined the north end of the mall, the Jeeps parked on the sidewalk, blocking the entrances.
I held my hands in front of me, showing them I was unarmed. We started up the long driveway, the thin trees rising up on either side of us. A soldier by the front entrance spotted us first, bringing his gun down, pointing to where we stood. I paused there, Clara next to me, watching as two other soldiers approached. “It's Genevieve,” I said. I pulled off my hat, revealing my face. “Clara and I were trapped on the other end of the road.”
One of the soldiers pulled a flashlight from his belt, running it over the black pants and blouses we'd stolen from the store. He rested it for a moment on my face, and I squinted against the lighted beam. “Our apologies, Princess,” I heard him say, repeating it as the figures ran toward us. “We didn't recognize you in those clothes.”
They escorted us on both sides, bringing us into the Palace's main floor, where the marble statues stood, the women's arms raised to the ceiling in greeting. But even after we were in the elevator, rising above the City, there was no sense of relief. I thought only of Moss, of the army coming from the colonies, wondering when and how I'd escape.
I SAT ON THE EDGE OF THE BATHTUB, THE RADIO IN MY HANDS
. I'd covered the small speaker with a towel, afraid Charles would hear it from the bedroom. He'd been on a site in the Outlands when the siege began and was taken back in a government car. A boy, no more than sixteen, had thrown a flaming bottle at a Jeep. He'd described how it broke against the undercarriage, igniting the seat, where two soldiers were. Even after Charles lay down for the night, he kept his eyes open, his face fixed in a strange expression. He stared at a spot beyond the floor, looking at something I couldn't see.
I twisted the radio on, turning it past the City stations and patches of empty static, to the first line Moss had marked in pen. A message cut the quiet, interrupted by an occasional low crackle. It was a man's voice, stringing together several unconnected thoughts that would seem like gibberish to anyone unfamiliar with the codes. I tried to remember Moss's directions exactly, the numbers he used to make sense of it. The message would repeat on a ten-minute loop, the second station providing the last portion.
I'd tried to keep my voice steady as I asked Charles to arrange a meeting with Reginald, the King's Head of Press. My father had gotten worse over the course of the day and was still bedridden. I'd said I wanted to offer a statement on his behalf. Charles hadn't seen Reginald since the morning, and most of the soldiers in the Palace believed he'd gone to the Outlands to report on what was happening. I couldn't leave the Palace tonight, as we'd discussedânot until I'd secured protection for Clara, her mother, and Charles.
Everything felt wrong. I tried not to think, just copied the words from the radio, listing seven at a time down the page, as Moss had instructed. I wrote until my wrist hurt, my fingers cramped and sore, then twisted the dial to the next line Moss had marked.
It took me nearly an hour, writing down the mumbled nonsense, then listening to it againâtwiceâto be certain I'd gotten it correct. When I was done I had two blocks of words, seven down and ten across. I set the papers beside each other, moving over every three, then every six, then every nine, recopying the words.