Chapter 41: The Conduit

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“Oh, getting off the estate was real easy,” Cai was saying to his captive audience in the bridge. He leaned back in his seat and regaled the group with how he’d earned his freedom as the Beacon sailed smoothly towards the supposed coordinates of the Conduit. After 24 hours on the ship, the man Corra had found half-naked and mostly starved on the streets of Genisi was starting to look more like a person and less like a gutter rat. Most of that day, he’d spent glued to Corra who one might think had practically adopted the man with the amount of attention she gave him. But even she, it seemed, was new to this story.

“We picked the lock on our quarters and just ran out,” he went on. “That was the simple part. It was getting off Ellegy that proved a challenge. As it turns out,” he laughed, “there aren’t many ships willing to take on escaped allies who don’t have two credits to rub together.”

Alyx leaned forward eagerly, her chin in her hands.  “So what’d you do?”

Cai grinned. “Snuck aboard. We split up and stowed away, me and the four other allies. We figured we’d have a better shot of not getting caught if we each got on different ships.”

“But where are they now?” Corra wondered, hugging her legs and watching Cai with brown shining eyes.

“I’m hoping they’re with the Conduit,” Cai explained. “That’s where we were all headed.”

Murmurs of interest broke out among the group. Even Finn, who typically was more interested in the Beacon’s drive core than whatever his crew had to say, recognized Cai had quite the colorful backstory.

“So how’d you even find out about this Conduit thing?” Finn asked offhandedly, taking a swig from his bottle of beer.

The question made Cai’s face light up. “Oh I didn’t, they found out about us. They have agents all over the Span seeking us out. One day, a woman showed up at the estate claiming she needed to inspect the plumbing for the city. In actuality, she was there to spread the word of the Conduit. See, the First Free has all these records of people who’ve bought and sold allies so one by one, they reach out to them and let them know there’s a way out.”

“God, those must be Goddora’s records,” Corra said in amazement. “What would he think if he knew his obsession with hand-writing receipts would give way to the biggest ally movement in history?” she mused with a mischievous laugh. “Asshole.”

Cai was watching her curiously. “So you were on Kadolyne then?” he asked. “I heard stories about the compound there…They said it was terrible.”

Corra shrugged. “We were being groomed to be merchandise, so in some sense we were pretty protected. Mostly it was just a lot of cleaning and cooking and upkeep. For me anyway. Not all the allies were ‘suited’ for housework so Goddora found other uses for them.” She grew a little quiet. “Those are probably the stories you heard…”

Cai frowned and nodded in understanding. “Were you there long?”

Corra drew in a deep, almost laughing breath. “Oh yeah, my whole life.” When Cai raised his brows in surprise, she went on, “Well, not my whole life I guess. I was born on Archeti, but–”

“Wait, what?” said Finn, sitting up so quickly that he caught everyone by surprise and even spilled beer down his front. “You were born on Archeti? You never told me that!”

It was odd — unsettling — that Corra shared this information so willingly to Cai. But never to him. He and Cai exchanged an awkward glance, but Corra simply tilted her head at him. “You never asked,” she said, turning back to Cai. “And I don’t remember it anyhow. My parents sold me to a trader when I was still in diapers.”

“What?!” said Alyx in disgust. “How could someone sell their own child?” Alyx grimaced at Cai and added, “Please tell me your parents didn’t sell you into slavery.”

“Nope. They just got themselves good and dead. Liver disease, the both of them, when I was ten. They were hugely in debt too, so as soon as they were gone, people came to take the house, the furniture, everything. I didn’t have anywhere else to go so I just landed on the street. But in Ellegy, they don’t take lightly to starving kids in the gutters. They take the Acclimation Initiative very seriously, since they wrote it and all. It was a matter of weeks before I was downtown getting my ear cropped.”

“So you were at that estate since you were ten?” Corra asked.

“Oh, no no, not at all,” he said. “I was shuffled around from house to house for about six years. Just wealthy families for the most part who could use a kid to scrub the floors and run errands. But I wasn’t exactly the most obedient child. Didn’t last long at any one place. And then when I was sixteen, I was sold to the Ashen Tomb.”

Corra and Finn glanced at each other. “What’s that?”

“A huge mine outside the capital city. Pretty much all the cluster’s ship-building ore comes straight out of those walls. And it’s manned almost exclusively by ally labor.”

Alyx swallowed a lump in her throat. “I don’t suppose we want to know why it’s got a name like the Ashen Tomb…”

“With all the digging, the whole chasm is filled with a grey haze constantly. Some people get goggles, but even with ‘em, it’s hard to see your hands in front of your face, let alone the ground beneath your feet. Or…not beneath your feet as the case may be. If you don’t end up a puddle at the base of the canyon, you can still be laid low by the cough. Everyone there’s got it, but some get it worse. Seen a guy choke a whole lung full of blood out right in the middle of the mess hall. And that’s the third checkpoint you’ve gotta pass. The food. Isn’t enough to go around most of the time and what there is is often rancid.” He shook his head. “Lotta bodies in the Tomb…”

“God, that’s horrible,” Corra breathed, reaching out to put a hand on his shoulder. “How’d you get out?”

“I was lucky. I was there nearly six years when I got caught in a landslide. Buried in rubble all night and when they finally managed to dig me out, my leg had been crushed under a rock too long to be fixable.” He leaned down and rolled up his pant leg to show the twisted scars marring his skin. “Never did heal right.”

“No wonder you were running funny yesterday,” Corra said, an air of teasing in her voice.

Cai rolled his pants back down and grinned at her. “I wasn’t running funny.”

Corra laughed. “You totally were.”

“Was not.”

“Were too. That hunter was gonna catch you.”

Cai opened his mouth to retort but–

“Hang on, I’m confused,” Finn interrupted, holding up his hand. He wasn’t sure he wanted to witness more of Cai and Corra’s banter. “How is getting crushed by a rock lucky?”

“Places like that don’t invest much into ally healthcare,” Corra explained simply. “You get hurt and can’t work, you get sold.”

Cai nodded. “Best thing that ever happened to me. That’s when I got bought by my last owner. Just some wealthy old socialite who needed someone to trim his hedges to impress party guests. He was an alright guy. Best owner I had anyway, not that the competition’s that tough. But he fed me and I got breaks and even the bad days were better than the best days in the Tomb.”

“So why’d you escape then?” Alyx asked and then, moments later, seemed to realize the fault in the question. “I mean–of course you escaped, I didn’t mean–”

But Cai just laughed. “It’s okay. There are plenty of allies that would be fine with it. Escaping is a terrifying notion, especially if you’re not a hundred percent on what you’re going to do after. The Conduit’s trying to provide a solution but…it’s not that easy to get there.” He then turned to Corra and smiled. “Unless you’re lucky enough to have a ship of course.”

Corra smiled back. “Almost as lucky as getting crushed by a rock.”

“Almost,” he agreed and then looked back to Alyx. “So honestly, if things had been different, it might have been better for me to stay on Ellegy. But the old man was getting sick. And while he was an okay guy, his kids were definitely not.” He grimaced. “I’ve no idea what they’d do with me once their dad kicked the bucket, but I didn’t want to stick around and find out.”

Just then, Alyx’s console screen began to flash red.

“We’re coming up on the coordinates you gave me,” said Alyx, standing up to her feet and crossing toward the large front window. Outside, the view began to change: the ship was lowering smoothly toward the ground of the desert planet. Clouds flew by the window as the barren desert ground came into view.

“I’m not seeing much out there,” said Alyx. “You sure this is right?”

Cai stood up and moved closer to the window to look himself. “Definitely. It’s out here, I’m sure of it.”

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