Steel Lily(6)
Author:Megan Curd


    We should have squeezed into that nook when Legs gave us extra time. But why had he come? He was safe over in the other house. What was he playing at?

    “Hey, stop that! Stop, I tell you! No! Officer Patton, Sir! We’ve got a runner!” The voice from the man named Jennings hollered.

    The tumble of junk and then a loud oomph! filled the air. Expletives—from whom, I wasn’t sure—followed.

    “This little twat bit me!” yelled Jennings.

    I sucked in the manic laughter that filled me. That’d show them, dirty Polatzi. Legs wouldn’t go down without a fight.

    Alice shook me. “Avery, run! This is your chance to get out. Legs is gonna keep them busy. I’ll hide. It’ll be fine.”

    Her urgency brought back my guilt. Pain and remorse filled my chest, and I felt tears welling in my eyes. “I didn’t mean for this happen. I came right here after the market. It was still light; I thought there was time. I wanted to see you on your birthday—”

    Alice cut me off. “I know. Just go. Get out of the housing district and—”

    The droning roar of a hovercraft shook the house and cut off Alice. She and I crept to the kitchen window and peeked through the wooden boards. Lights from the hovercraft flooded the alley with merciless blaze. A dozen black jackets gleamed in the limited light. Each one was tailored, marking the rank of the person by a specially designed cog with engravings. Their molded masks were made of leather and steel, honed in the center like the beak of some perverse bird of prey. A visceral shudder ripped through me at the sight of them.

    “No! No! You can’t do this!” Legs’s voice ricocheted off the old houses.

    His feet dug into the mud as he searched for traction and he twisted his body away from the Polatzi soldier who dragged him toward the hovercraft.

    Legs yelled over the din of the hovercraft that floated barely above the ground. “All my goods are government approved! I live in government-provided housing! I’ve done nothing wrong!”

    But the Polatzi didn’t negotiate. The leader of the bunch turned on Legs and punched him squarely in the stomach, causing Legs to fall to the ground. The man jeered at him as he gasped for air like a fish out of water.

    “That’s for biting me, punk. That’s assault of a Polatzi. Easy one year of military service. Welcome to the ranks, soldier.”

    My hate for this life—the way the Polatzi took what they wanted and provided no reasons—stirred within me, begging for me to act. I couldn’t let this happen. Not to Legs. He couldn’t become one of them.

    Before I could think, I was out of the kitchen and running to the front door. Alice was fast on my heels. “Avery, stop. You can’t help him.”

    “I’ve got to try!”

    “Do you want us all arrested?”

    I didn’t listen to her. My fingers scrabbled at the locks when I felt Alice’s fingernails bite into my shoulders. “Seriously, Avery. What are you going to do?”

    “I’m going to save him!”

    “You and what army? Come on, you’re no good to him right now.”

    Alice was stronger than I gave her credit for. She wrenched me away from the door and wrapped her arms around me. We tumbled to the ground and my face connected with the cold floor, sending a shiver of pain down my left jawline. “I know you want to help him,” she said in a whisper, “But running out there like a wild woman won’t do anyone any good. Think of the Dome. If you get thrown in jail, where will our power come from?”

    “There are other Elementalists.” My voice sounded wooden, defeated.

    “None as good as you, and you know it. Stop it right now. Legs is gone.”

    I relaxed, and Alice released her grip. We snuck to the window and watched in horror as the Polatzi cuffed Legs, bound his ankles, and threw a black hood over his head. They shoved him into the hovercraft and followed behind. Without so much as a second glance, they disappeared into the night, leaving behind a sinister silence.

    “They’re going to start looking for me, you know,” I said tonelessly.

    Alice sucked in a shocked breath. “Why do you say that?”

    My mouth felt like it was filled with cotton, and it hurt when I tried to swallow back my fear. “I’m the best element manipulator, and I haven’t checked in tonight. They’re probably already searching Wutherford for me. I skipped Histories of America to come over.”

    Alice sighed in the darkness. “It’s not the first time you weren’t home on time. We can come up with an excuse. We always do. Maybe you shouldn’t stand out quite so much,” she squeezed my hand. “I know that goes against your personality, to fly below the radar, but…”

    She trailed off, leaving me to finish the sentence. “But we’re the closest thing to family we have. I can’t draw more attention to us.”

    “Exactly. I can’t imagine losing you, Avery. You’re like a sister to me,” Alice said quietly. Now that the hovercrafts were gone, the world was as silent as the inside of a tomb. “Get out of here. Stay to the edge of the dome. The Polatzi have their toy for the night,” she added bitterly. “Stupid Legs. What’s going to happen to his sister?”

    I shook my head as I thought of his little sister. Now she was as alone as we were, and it was our fault.

    Alice grabbed my bag from beside the couch and tossed it to me without a word. We didn’t need to say anything.

    There wasn’t anything to say.

    We’d just cost Legs a year of military service, if he was lucky. If he wasn’t…well, I shuddered to think of what they would do to him.

    I opened the door to the basement cautiously. The stairs were a mess. I sighed. “I’ll get those fixed this weekend when classes are out.”

    “Don’t worry about it. Just go.”

    “I’ll see you tomorrow?”

    Alice’s sigh was one of defeat. She tried to stay upbeat, more for my cause than her own I sometimes suspected, but I could tell this place was sucking the joy out of her. It took everyone’s joy. I looked back in time to catch her pull a smile together, but I knew it was a façade. No one wanted to live like this. “Yeah, I’ll see you tomorrow. Do you want me to meet you at Wutherford? I could come up with an excuse.”

    “No, don’t risk it after tonight. I’ll come here.”

    Alice smiled. “Because that’s so much safer.”

    “They need me for steam, remember?”

    “God bless radiation exposure making you go all night-light and what not.”

    I pushed her shoulder, then hopped over the missing stair. “Yeah, well, this night light needs to get back to Wutherford. Lay low tomorrow, promise?”

    “Promise.”

    She shut the door and left me in near darkness. I fished my oxygen mask back out and stood there for a moment to allow my eyes to adjust to the automatic night vision of the contraption. The muffled click of Alice locking the door reached me, and I headed out.

    Keeping to the edge of the Dome, I looked through the rippled glass to the abandoned world beyond. Buildings and cars were swathed in an eerie green glow by the goggles. Suitcases littered the ground, like their owners would be right back for them. A tattered teddy bear missing one eye laid face up, staring into the nothingness.

    And yet it felt as though the bear was staring at me. Accusing me. Expecting me to fix the mess that humanity was in, one steam donation at a time.

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