Promised Page 34

Voices rose in amused skepticism, mixed with an equally strong current of frustration.

“They’ll shoot us dead,” said Bill from the base of the steps. “Any fool knows that.”

Gaia turned to him. “How is that any different from what they do if we go in armed with our arrows and swords?”

“At least then we’ll die fighting,” Bill said.

“We’ll be dead, guaranteed, if we go in fighting,” Gaia said. “If we go in peacefully, there’s a chance, a very small chance, that they won’t kill us.”

A silence hovered over the quad, and when a new swell of discussion started, it had a different tone.

“We must decide what happens next,” Gaia said. “We’re the ones who will be going in there moments from now. We’re deciding about our own lives, and I don’t want us to die.”

“She’s right!” called a voice in the crowd. “We’d have a chance!”

“It’s insanity!” called someone else.

Gaia lifted her hand again and the crowd turned attentive, listening. She could practically hear everyone breathing, like a great, united beast.

“Listen,” she said. “The people of New Sylum have already faced that we could die. We came across the wasteland from a place where our children had no future. It was a risk to come. A terrible risk. But that kind of guts builds strength like you can’t imagine, and now we’re here with the people of Wharfton.” She took another deep breath. “We’ll go together into the Enclave, hand in hand. We’ll show them what it means to be brave. We’ll show them who we are.”

A hush passed over the crowd, and with it a kind of grim, determined hope.

“And if they slaughter us all?” called a voice from the back. It wasn’t a belligerent question. It was beyond anger.

“Then we’ll have failed,” Gaia said.

The truth hung in the silent air around them. Torches flickered and snapped, and then the mumbles began to build. Someone laughed. She heard the word suicide bandied about, but she also felt the shift. They were with her now. They saw.

Leon was shaking his head, watching her in apparent amazement.

“What?” she asked. “I’m right, aren’t I?”

“Yes,” he said. “You’re right about the part where they definitely kill us if we go in armed. I don’t know about the rest of it.”

“We have to lead them, you and I,” Gaia said.

“I had a feeling.”

She smiled, taking his hand from her perch on the box. She looked back to Peter, Will, and the other people from New Sylum. They nodded to her. Derek and the leaders from Wharfton joined her closely on the stairs. Gaia turned to Pyrho.

“I think it’s time, Pyrho.”

He nodded.

Gaia turned once more to the crowd. “We’re blowing up the wall now. Stay far away from the explosions so you don’t get hurt. And then, if you choose to come, put down your weapons and follow me.”

*   *   *

Gaia crouched low in the dirt, her weight on her toes, and scanned the top of the wall for guards. She didn’t want Pyrho to ignite the explosives until there were no people standing on the parapet directly above the south gate, so they’d planned for a preliminary explosion as a decoy farther down the wall to draw the guards in that direction.

A pop cracked from the distance to her left, in the direction of the spigot for Western Sector Two. Guards shifted along the parapet, then began to run. There was an instant when the top appeared clear.

“Now,” she said to Pyrho.

A second blast rent the night, slamming a shock wave of air into Gaia’s ears while bright white light exploded out from the south gate. Rock and wood flew thirty meters into the air and soared outward in a brilliant shower of sparks and flame. Farther down the wall, two more explosions followed in rapid succession, bursting light into the night sky. The ground shook with each one, and screams rose from inside the wall.

Gaia’s heart charged. She straightened, trying to see through the smoke and flames to the Enclave on the other side. Debris was showering around her. Where the south gate had stood was now a gaping void. A ragged heap of rubble met the raw, mangled edges of the wall. Bits of flaming wood from the door and the upper parapet kept landing everywhere, and fire burned in a shop awning.

“Do you like it?” Pyrho asked.

His happy voice was a shock in her ear.

“It was a lot bigger than I expected,” she said.

“That’s what it takes,” Pyrho said.

Gaia started slowly forward. Voices were calling inside the Enclave. Guards were no longer visible anywhere along the top of the wall. She didn’t know if they’d been blown off during the explosion or if they were ducking out of sight behind the parapets.

She reached for one of the torches. A completely new feeling of fear, guilt and vulnerability now ground into her bones. With her other hand, she reached for Leon.

She began up the road, moving slowly, stepping over blocks of debris and around twisted, burning framework. Color seeped away, leaving only black and gray in the night. Behind her came Peter, Will, Jack, and Pyrho. Dinah, Norris, and Derek came next, and then all of the other people she’d grown to love in New Sylum and Wharfton, all but Josephine and the little girls. They carried torches, but no weapons. They held hands, advancing with slow deliberation, and the only threat about them was their numbers.

Gaia made it as far as the huge gap without anyone taking a shot at her. The damage was magnified here, and a tilted, buzzing streetlight still worked, sending long shadows over the macabre scene. Gaia’s gaze caught on a wounded guard who’d been blown against one of the shops. He was covering his face with both hands. A woman was crumpled against a curb, her leg at an impossible angle, and other people were negotiating the rubble, digging for others. A man in pajamas staggered by. A shocked woman stood in a doorway, clutching a crying baby in her arms.

Gaia stumbled to a stop, wanting to help.

“You have to come,” Leon said quietly.

He was right. “Tell Myrna we need her,” Gaia called back. “Tell her to hurry.”

Leon pulled her forward toward the main road. They’d gone only a few more paces when a disheveled guard stepped before them, and Gaia recognized Sgt. Burke, the commander who’d arrested her three days before.

“Hold there!” he called.

Another guard joined Sgt. Burke and lifted his rifle.

“Wait, please!” Gaia said, throwing up her hands. “We’re not armed.”

A clattering came from farther up the street, and a new team of guards ran to surround them. Rapid orders were shouted. More rifles were cocked and aimed at Gaia and Leon.

“You just blew up the wall!” came a shrieking voice from the darkness.

A shot exploded on Gaia’s right. Screams followed. She ducked and people dropped to the ground around her.

“Don’t shoot! We don’t have any weapons!” Leon shouted.

“We’re not here to hurt anybody!” Gaia said.

“That’s the midwife!”

Gaia lifted her hands, slowly rising again.

“We’re not your enemies,” she said. “We just want our basic rights.”

“I’ll give you your rights,” said Sgt. Burke, stepping near. He slapped a hard hand against Gaia’s face. “That’s my brother you just blew up there! You killed him!”

Leon grabbed Gaia, jerking her behind him, and ten other guards pointed their rifles at his throat.

“Leon!” Gaia screamed. “No!”

“Leave her alone,” Leon said.

“That’s the Protectorat’s son,” said one of the shopkeepers from the edge of the commotion.

Another one of the guards stepped forward, and Gaia recognized Marquez. “It’s Leon,” Marquez said. He faced Sgt. Burke. “It’s Leon Grey. You remember him.”

“That’s right. It’s me,” Leon said. “And we’re here to talk to my father. All of us.”

Sgt. Burke looked confused, and then his face contorted with emotion. “You’re murdering terrorists, all of you!”

When Marquez put a hand on Sgt. Burke’s shoulder, he shoved him off, but he also lowered the butt of his rifle to the pavement with a heavy crunch.

More and more people from outside the wall were quietly, steadily coming in the gap that used to be the south gate, men and women, old and young. They stepped awkwardly around the destruction, picking their footing. Gaia could see they were afraid, but they were also proud, and determined. More Enclave people were coming out of their houses now, too.

“We could use a hand over here,” called a woman beside a big pile of debris.

The guards didn’t respond. Most still had their rifles aimed at Gaia and Leon. Somewhere the baby was crying again, or maybe he had never stopped. Agonized groans surfaced from the rubble.

Gaia turned to Will and Derek. “Help them.”

Will did not hesitate, and within moments, many hands helped to pull broken stones off the trapped man.

Gaia’s cheek smarted from where she’d been hit, and her heart beat with dread, but she spoke calmly, and she reached for Leon’s hand again. “We’re going to the Bastion,” she said to Sgt. Burke. “Do you understand?”

Sgt. Burke lifted his rifle again. “We’ll take you there ourselves.” He swung his rifle wide towards the Enclave people. “Stay back, the rest of you.”

None of the Enclave people moved. The guards hustled Gaia and Leon forward, shoving others with them, until there were clearly more people than the guards could surround, and a massive stream of people from outside the wall followed of their own free will. She held tightly to Leon’s good hand, mute, and as they came up the now familiar main road, closer and closer to the square, she began to shake inside.

“You’re all right,” Leon said, his voice low near her ear. “Remember. They need to negotiate with you.”

“How many of the bombs you set are still left?” she asked.

“There’s only one left now.”

“The worst one?”

“There’s time. Plenty of time. I can still defuse it. Don’t worry.”

Floodlights illuminated the Square of the Bastion, casting it in a pearly, unnatural glow. Armed guards lined the square, more than Gaia had ever seen, and as Leon and Gaia arrived, they were seized and dragged away from the others rebels. Gaia’s friends began to shout, crowding the guards to try to keep Gaia and Leon with them, but the guards butted them back. Gaia craned her neck back and saw her people being herded to the center of the square, toward the obelisk, where a row of barricades had been set up to corral them under the watch of the guards.

Gaia tried to stay close to Leon, but at the door of the prison, guards overpowered him and swept him in ahead of her.

“Leon!” she called.

His voice came back to her. “Don’t hurt her!”

The next instant, he was gone, deeper inside the prison. Gaia looked around frantically for Marquez, but he was gone. Sgt. Burke gripped Gaia’s hair hard at the base of her neck, jerking her. “I want you to pay. Hanging’s not nearly bad enough for you.”

She winced in pain. “I need to talk to the Protectorat.”

Sgt. Burke punched her in the gut, and with an “oof,” she collapsed forward.

“That’s for Ian,” he said. “I’d slit your throat myself if they’d let me. How many other people did you kill today? Tell me that.”

He shoved her forward, and other guards caught her tight. She collapsed her weight downward and dug her heels into the floor, pushing back to try to get free, but the guards heaved her off her feet and hauled her, resisting, down the halls and steep staircases, until they came around a familiar corner and she saw the dark, heavy door of V cell.

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