There was no use in shouting. Armin knew that; there was no one who would dare open their doors to someone’s useless “help” right before the chemicals began to do their work. Armin watched as the door closed with an ominous hiss, and as Satchel, the same deplorable grin plastered on his face, appeared in the window. Armin shut his eyes tight, holding onto his arms in a weak attempt at protection. Any moment, the burning would start… the pain… the disintegration….
Armin, breathing so heavily he sounded like a bull, pried his eyes open. The night air was cool against his skin. The air smelled sweet with… what was that smell? It was far away, but clear and deep. There was no danger… nothing like what he’d seen in videos or read about in chat rooms.
Had Hem-V taught him nothing?
Another whoosh, this time signaling that Satchel was walking outside. Right before the door closed, he stuck a piece of cardboard in the doorjamb. “Kink in the system. Just give that a wiggle, and the door’s emergency mode will kick in and make it reopen. Got it, Armin?”
Armin couldn’t answer. He was standing outside. Outside! And he was whole and healthy and–
“What the hell?”
Satchel’s eyes were sparkling. “That was my reaction, too.”
“How is–what is–” Armin waved his arms around uselessly. There were no words to describe what had just happened.
“I like when I see this in a recruit. I hate the ones who cry or act scared. A little rebellion when you realize you’ve been lied to is a good thing. That’s what my dad always used to say. ‘Don’t get scared, Satchel. Get angry.’ Advice like that’ll save your life, if you ask me.”
“Who told you all this stuff about the chemicals? About the Twickens?”
“The…” Armin couldn’t finish the sentence. The Governance. And by extension… his dad. But no, his dad was a lot of things, but he wasn’t a liar. Especially not to his only son.
“Does everyone in the Governance know it’s safe?”
“I don’t think so. Only the higher ups know everything. Your average worker, like the Officers and such, are probably just as clueless as your five-minute ago self.”
Armin breathed a sigh of relief–outside. He couldn’t get over it. He was breathing (and living) outside.
Satchel placed a hand on his shoulder, and Armin was surprised by the amount of weight that came with it.
“I’m still… uh… kinda weak, Armin. Mind if I rest just a sec’? Then we can get goin’.”
Satchel was smiling widely; it was an expression that was both terrifying and exciting. “This is only the beginning, Armin. We Twickens have a whole world the Governance would just love to get their grubby little hands on.”
Armin’s heart raced. An hour ago, he’d thought he was going to be something’s dinner; a few minutes ago, that he was going to be flambéed. And now… now he didn’t know what to expect.
“If you want to, that is. I don’t force anything. But understand, please, that I’m going to disappear if you don’t want to come. Just thought I’d offer you the chance to, you know, really live.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“If you’ll come along, I’ll show you.”
Armin hesitated. His dad would kill him… but why did his dad need to know any of this? Armin straightened, looked right into Satchel’s eyes, and nodded.
“Great.” Satchel released a long puff of breath, then continued in a tour guide-like voice. “Right this way.”
What Armin expected next was a dodge-and-roll spy sequence, full of tiptoeing and specialized sign language. What happened was Satchel limping slightly, leading the way, talking in a quiet, but animated, voice. No blinds opened to watch the two of them doing the unthinkable; no Governance officials fell upon them like spiders on flies. Everything was quiet. The only hesitation was when they passed the same spot where Satchel had been found.
It had been cleaned, and the other body was gone. Satchel paused, an unreadable mask replacing his usual carefree features.
“Can I ask what happened?”
“There’s a time and place for questions, the best of which being when I know I’ll only have to say it once.” Satchel’s jaw tightened. “Come on.”
They continued in silence for a while; Armin wondered who could have taken the other body. But the answer came to him more quickly than he’d expected–some people in the Governance knew it was safe to walk outside. They must have come to pick him up after the Drafting had ended for the day.
“Unbelievable.” Armin stopped, his shadow stretching in front of him. Satchel turned, an eyebrow raised.
“The Draft–there’s no reason for it. If we could all go outside and get the things we needed–and if there’s no chemicals–then the Drafters are useless!”
“Not useless. All part of the elegant system of keeping people inside.”
“I don’t understand. Why would they–?”
“You know, I’m not the best one to explain that. Once we get to the Park, you’ll be debriefed, ‘kay?”
“Debriefed?” Armin sped up to walk alongside Satchel. He’d also called Armin a “recruit.” What was he joining exactly, an army?
“That sounds bad, doesn’t it?” Satchel grinned painfully, clutching his side and leaning against one of the many concrete boxes that people called their homes. “We like to think of ourselves as an ‘education program,’ does that make you feel better?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Armin agreed uncertainly.
“Okay, let’s get going. We’re nearly at the wall.”
And after only a few more minutes of walking, they came to the final row of houses, snuck behind them, and met with the ten foot stretch of concrete that surrounded the compound. Armin craned his neck to see the top. He’d always known about it: there were maps that he’d studied during lessons, glimpses from the tram window. But it had always just been a part of the landscape, a simple fact. But, then again, the chemicals had once been that, too.
But now, the wall was taller than he remembered. In his mind it had simply been a boundary: here’s where the compound ends, here’s where it begins. No more imposing than drawing a line in the dirt. But now, there was something prison-like in the way it obscured the stars and sent dark shadows over him and Satchel.
“Well, we can stare, or we can climb.”
Armin spun around. Satchel was lifting up a loose piece of concrete, near where the ground and wall met. He reached in, pulling out a rope and grappling hook.
“I’m gonna go first, just ‘cuz I’m gonna be slower than usual and I’ll need a lookout, ‘kay?”
Armin didn’t respond; he’d only seen tools like that in the regimens. He watched with awe as Satchel threw it over the wall (it took a couple of tries; he kept cursing, rubbing his abdomen). But he eventually got it, and began the incredibly long (and judging by how often he groaned and swore, painful) climb up the wall. When he got to the top, he clutched his side, and half-shouted to Armin.
“I’m bleeding again. Didn’t happen to bring a first aid kit, did you?”
“Okay, whatever. I’ll be fine. It’s not bad.”
“Sure? Do I look like a Medical Officer? No, I’m not sure, but I’m hoping, so hurry up.”
Hurrying up wasn’t exactly Armin’s strong suit. He’d climbed walls before–digitally. There was a difference between waving your hands in front of a sensor and actually commanding your own body weight to move at a ninety degree angle. It took several tries for him to even get momentum going, but Satchel never once acted bored or frustrated. In fact, he did his best to disguise the pain that Armin knew he must be feeling.
“You’re actually doin’, good, Armin. Way better than most. Don’t worry about how long you’re taking.”
“How-how long did I-I take?” Armin panted, his shirt soaked with sweat, when he finally met Satchel at the top.
“About a half hour, but who’s counting?” Satchel gave a half grin, then checked the grappling hook to make sure it was still secure. He pushed the rope over the other ledge, then said, “Going down’s way easier. Not afraid of heights, are you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I guess we’ll find out, huh?” He passed Armin the rope. “Just hold onto this, and face the wall, then sort of… walk down it, ‘kay?”
“Aren’t you going to go first?”
“Are you kiddin’? This is your first time, so trust me, you’ll feel better knowing someone’s up here steadying the rope a bit.”
Armin didn’t argue, but did exactly what Satchel had said. After all, he’d gone this far, why not see where this little adventure led him? Going down was much easier–and he must not have been afraid of heights, because the entire sensation was a little exhilarating.
“Great job, Armin! Hold on, I’m coming!”
Satchel did, with a kind of grace that could only come with having propelled up and down that wall many times. He landed with a clumsy plop, though, still grabbing at his side. Armin couldn’t see any blood, though he was sure Satchel was doing his best to keep it hidden.
“Welcome, Armin Fisher,” Satchel said, regaining his tour guide demeanor, “to the Wonderful World of Twickens.”
Armin squinted in confusion, but with a nudge from Satchel, he turned around… and gasped.
There were trees, and bushes, and flowers… all just outside the compound. He was standing on grass, not concrete. That smell that had fascinated him… it was coming from here. From a wood that breathed in and out with the wind, each individual blade, petal, and leaf releasing a bit of itself with every gentle breeze.
And it went on for miles. So far that Armin couldn’t see the end of it. Master your life, control your world–what he saw stretched in front of him was more than any person could ever hope to overpower. Suddenly, the interweb seemed very small indeed.
“I thought the chemical warfare destroyed all of this.”
“Once, but that was long ago. There’s someone who can explain all of this better, though. Wanna come meet him?”
Armin turned; Satchel’s voice was farther away than it had been a few minutes ago. He was beginning to walk into the wood, motioning for Armin to follow.
He didn’t need to be asked twice.
Branches hit his face; leaves got tangled in his hair; birds and bugs chirped and buzzed around him–talk about a sensory overload. His mom had always worried that Hem-V would be too much for him but this… this….
This was something his mother would’ve loved.
“I wish my Mom could see this.”
“Where is she? I didn’t see her–”
“Oh. Oh, I’m sorry.”
“It was two years ago.”
“Doesn’t make it any easier.” Satchel opened his mouth, seemed to think better of it, then said, “I ran away from home after my Dad died. I have no idea what Mom’s up to. Haven’t seen her in forever.”
“Maybe I’ll do the same. Not like Dad cares.”
“He said he was worried about you.”
“Worried the same way a chess player is when a pawn gets taken.”
“Oh.” Satchel didn’t seem to know what to say, so he walked ahead, with a bravado that didn’t seem entirely genuine. “Well, parents or no parents, this is the life, let me tell you. Just wait ‘til you get to the Park.”
“What’s the Park?”
“You’ll find out in about an hour, but trust me, it’s somethin’ alright.”
They came to the edge of the wood. There was an ancient road–all asphalt and ghosts of yellow lines. Satchel disappeared behind a clump of bushes. When he returned, he was holding onto a machine that Armin had only ever seen on archeology websites.
“First of all, it’s not a ‘that,’ it’s a she. And her name is Priscilla.”
“That’s a motorbike.”
“Well spotted,” Satchel said. “You’re better read than a lot of the recruits. Normally, I have to explain. Now, you gonna get on, or are you gonna hurt Prissy’s feelings?”
“Sure, I’ll get on… Prissy.”
“Whoa, whoa.” Satchel stepped in front of him, holding up a hand and wearing a would-be stern expression. “I’m the only one who gets to call her Prissy. Priscilla to you, mate.”
“Right,” Armin said, barely stifling a laugh. “What was I thinking.” He leaned down to the motorbike, his reflection distorted in the curved metal. “May I take a seat, Miss Priscilla?”
“I’m bringin’ home a gentleman! What a find!” Satchel laughed, tossing Armin a helmet, and taking a seat himself. Within seconds, they were situated, Armin holding awkwardly to Satchel’s waist.
“Don’t get any ideas, cowboy,” Satchel joked, and he revved the motor.
It made a sound like a lion waking from a nightmare. Armin understood for the first time what it meant to hear something “rev to life.” The tram didn’t make a sound like this, nor did his computer. This wasn’t a sound made to move through the system efficiently; no, this was a sound that said “I am here.”
“Ready to go?”
“Then hold on!”
And the motorbike roared onto the road. Armin had never ridden something so fast and so smooth; it easily avoided the cracks and crevices that time had made. The wind made Armin’s eyes water and the movement made the back of his spine prickle. Was this normal? Should his body be reacting like this?
He hoped the answer was yes, because he loved the sensation.
Satchel kept glancing behind him, smiling at Armin’s expression (which was somewhere between awe and uncertainty). With both of Satchel’s hands preoccupied, Armin could now see the small, steady flow of blood staining his shirt. He hoped they’d get to–the Park?–soon, and that Satchel could get better help there.
“Can you see it?” Satchel shouted after a while. “Up ahead? It’s kinda dark, but if you squint, you can totally make it out.”
“What?” Armin had no way of hearing him over the roaring gusts surrounding them.
“Look up ahead!”
Armin tried; it was difficult to keep his eyes open. After a few seconds, he began to see something on the horizon. It was a dark imprint in the night sky, like an embossing. He’d never seen something that looked like it before; it looked a little like a giant abstract art piece, all odd angles and curves.
“That’s where I live!” Satchel shouted, his voice shaking with the motorbike.
“How?” Armin didn’t think it looked like a building, at least no building that he’d ever seen.
Satchel laughed outright; his only response: “Just wait til we get closer.”
As the motorbike advanced on the Park, it began to take shape. It wasn’t just one giant metal monster, but a lot of them. There was one that resembled a giant circle, another that looked like a huge snake, and yet another that seemed to be a slide. There were little buildings scattered throughout the area (Armin could just barely make these out), and dull light (like a fire) shone from the center.
The motorbike came to a stop right outside a main gate that read: “Cluster County Amusement Park.” An aisle, lined with buildings advertising things Armin couldn’t understand, welcomed them. Armin read each sign as they entered: TICKETS, COTTON CANDY, HALL OF MIRRORS, GUESS YOUR WEIGHT, FRIED VEGETABLES, SHOOTING GALLERY.
“What is this place?”
“This was the kind of place people used to go to before the Great Fissure,” Satchel explained, and, with a pang of worry, Armin noticed he was swaying a little when he walked.
“You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, Armin. That was just more than I should’ve been doin’ is all. A bit strenuous for someone who just got stabbed, ya know? Just need to lie down. I’m fine, really.”
“You’d better be, Satchel Benedick Monroe!”
A voice–a girl’s voice–shouted from the shadows of one of a building that had PALM READINGS written in peeled, glittering letters.
“Ouch–middle and last name. Why don’t’cha just throw acid in my face?”
The girl’s voice laughed. “I would if I thought it’d make that ugly mug of yours look better.”
Satchel smiled a little at Armin, but the second he turned to the voice, his face was nothing but haughty. “Reduced to physical insults, Delaney? Surely your well of insults hasn’t run dry yet.”
“You wish,” Delaney replied, exiting the shadows and standing directly in front of the two of them.
Armin’s mouth went dry: he was staring at a beautiful girl, one with full, curly brown hair, a slender figure….
And huge blue eyes.
To be continued.
Copyright Sarah Davidson 2021