Through Fire – Snippet 41

The Gleaners

The next three hours were the most bewildering I ever lived through. I was trying to process who I was and what I meant, in this particular context.

Look, for years, ever since I’d known myself, I’d been the fastest, the smartest, the strongest in any gathering you’d care to mention. As such, I’d been responsible for all the others, the weaker and more vulnerable people. It had been my job to keep them from getting hurt and, sometimes, from hurting themselves.

But now I was with two people, one of whom was at least my equal, and the other who didn’t seem much different. And we were going to houses in the dark, houses that I couldn’t find my way to on my own, trying to get the inhabitants to come with us.

We didn’t separate. I didn’t know what to think about that. Surely we could have gone to more houses, faster, if we’d gone individually. On the other hand, we’d have been more unprotected. Did we do right? To this day I don’t know. One thing was sure. I couldn’t go alone. We took backyard paths, and side streets. We climbed over walls and zig-zagged along garden walks. We cut across woods and parks.

I’d lost all sense of where I might be, even though one of the things engineered into me was a sense of direction. Oh, I could have told you where the Palace was, or what remained of it, at any given time. But I didn’t know where we were going, or where the individual houses were in the grand scheme of the seacity, so my sense of direction was useless and my sense of vision was not much better than normal people’s in the dark. Fine, it was better, but not as good as Len’s had been. So the night, dark and filled with acrid smoke of many fires, became sort of a dream landscape.

I stumbled along, and sometimes Mailys or Corin would reach back and pull me, or one of them would put a finger to lips indicating silence.

The first three houses we went to were gutted and empty. Whether the inhabitants had escaped or been burned inside was something none of us could answer. We moved on.

In the fourth house, we found a couple. They recognized Mailys who spoke hurriedly to them.

After much discussion, on the beach, while walking to the next house, slogging through fine dry sand, Corin said, “We should send the children and old people to sanctuary.”

“Sanctuary?” I said.

“It’s a place,” Corin said, “Brisbois it had prepared for… the for the Good Man if he should need to escape. Most people don’t know of it, but I can take the first one there and charge him with opening doors.”

“What if we let a traitor in?” Mailys asked.

Once more I had the impression that while they were both children compared to me, and while she was probably around Corin’s age, she’d lived a more difficult life, or perhaps one that involved greater vigilance. After all, enhanced or not, he’d had parents and had lived with them. She was one of the… what had LaForce called them? Motherless ones. I too was motherless, I realized, even if a part of me protested at this and said that my foster parents had done the best they could, that they’d tried to protect me, keep me safe, teach me to be human. But it wasn’t quite true. They’d taught me to protect humans, which meant I wasn’t one.

“Then we’ll have armed people we trust, ones who won’t let them out.”

Mailys sighed. “I suppose we’ll have to risk it.”

I felt very alone, as we stumbled to the next house and the next. The first had all able-bodied adults who chose to come with us. The second had two elders, who were not, no matter how enhanced, willing to risk their lives in a melee. Corin left with them, after arranging with Mailys to meet at some other house, and Mailys and I trudged on.

As our group grew, we sent some ahead to wait at the plaza in front of the Palace with instructions not to be noticed and not to cause any trouble until we were there and they knew it was time to strike. Again and again we told them the time to strike would be obvious.

We gave them no details in case we might be betrayed.

And we walked to the next house. After a while it became obvious we were not only not taking the longest, most winding route but the least likely one, going to houses further on and backtracking to houses closer to us, winding and unwinding across the seacity, in a dark broken only by the light from occasional fires.

“Of course,” Mailys said, when I told her. “We’re also avoiding all the places where we’ll come across possible hostiles.”

My sense of direction reestablished, I realized we were going to homes of all social classes, in all sorts of places, from highest — both in money and placement — to lowest, in the area from which Brisbois and I had taken off. I wondered why enhanced people would be living in the almost-slum conditions in some of the places.

Once, in the glow of a fire, it seemed to me I saw Brisbois walking with someone who, from his body type, looked a lot like Simon. If Simon were dead, I’d think they were both ghosts. As it was, I just looked away and we went deeper into the trees of a little wooded area, then up a lawn-smooth slope, and then, finally, to the door of a cottage next to a big house. The people there — husband, wife, and children — were all well and terrified. Corin joined us then and gave the wife instructions on where to take her children, while the father chose to come with us to the plaza. Along the way, Corin had taken word of where to go to some people with children whom we’d left behind.

It seemed to me we’d been walking for hours when Mailys said it was time to start winding towards the plaza. I don’t know how many houses we’d alerted. It wasn’t enough and it certainly wasn’t everyone. So we had sent others on to continue looking.

My feet hurt and my legs felt like they’d fall off as we climbed through a circuitous route, the path to plaza in front of Simon’s palace.