BEGIN PART 3
Murky rain water flooded the path, stirring around her ankles, as the girl took a careful step forward down the cobblestone street. She couldn’t remember it ever raining enough to flood like this, but then again, she’d never been to this part of the Fall’s End before. Certainly not alone. The buildings looked stark and cold, completely unfamiliar and bizarrely distorted in the moonlight.
With some internal convincing (it’ll be fine, don’t be silly, she’s just around the corner, she wouldn’t leave you –), the girl picked her way through the cold water and halted between two buildings.
In a voice she hoped sounded braver than she felt, she called, “Mom?” into the alley.
The sound of distant rumbling thunder overhead answered her.
But it wasn’t thunder, was it? she thought curiously. Thunder didn’t grow closer so quickly like that. The rumbling grew louder, and louder still, until it was roaring in her ears like a freight train at full-speed.
“Mom?” she called again, more fearful now.
All of a sudden, as if she’d been struck by lightning, she knew: she had to leave. She had to leave this place and never come back. Her mother wasn’t here. Sloshing through the dirty water, she sprinted through the streets, but the water was growing higher and higher, first circling darkly around her knees, then her waist; she tried swimming, picking up her arms, but the water was up to her nose now and flooding her mouth and throat.
She gasped and choked as the water turned blood-red, and a man’s face appeared, his veins protruding, his mouth grinning. His gnarled hands reached out, seized her neck like a ragdoll, and squeezed.
But then, like she’d been slapped in the face, Leta snapped her eyes open. Her heart was pounding, her chest heaving in desperation, as if she’d just sprinted for her life. Icy sweat doused her forehead.
It was a dream, she told herself, massaging her throat and drawing sharp breaths. Just another bad dream. And it was over.
Nightmares often twisted through her uneven sleep like this, but she was grateful no one was around to witness her embarrassing reaction as she woke up. It was just a dream, she repeated to herself, stubbornly, as she sat up and put her bare feet to the cold floor with an air of resolution: time to begin another day.
Across the small room, a sliver of wintry sunlight slanted in through the lone window. Fresh snow glittered along the nearly-frozen river outside. Shivering, she rose to her feet, splashed water on her face in the bathroom and dressed quickly, though she made a point to avoid wearing any dark green: these days, the less people who affiliated her with Carthis, the better.
Throwing her satchel over her shoulder and pulling her hair back into a loose bun, she stepped into the hallway. The usual morning rush greeted her: chatter, urgency, a sea of people hurrying from their bedroom quarters off to their posts. This was where Carthis’ volunteer staff lived. A year ago, Leta had an apartment of her own along the harbor. A small place, a bit shabby with its yellowing walls and sagging furniture, but it had been hers.
And then the riots had begun.
Not long after the fall of the Society on Vescent, dissent had started to take root. A large sect of people wanted the Vescent they had always known back. Carthis started to morph from ‘hero’ to ‘invader’ as their stay continued on and on through the years. Sure, the military provided aid and some semblance of stability in the power vacuum left by the planet’s previous ownership, but citizens were shaky with their loyalty, some were starving, and all were scared. It was little surprise to anyone then, when a small group of armed rebels had decided they wanted Carthis gone for good.
Fatal shootings filled the streets. Arsonists set fires on every block. The military had set up barrages and contained the rioting, for the most part, but walking the cobblestone streets of Fall’s End was hardly safe anymore. Five years after the Battle of Fall’s End, Vescent was nearly in as much chaos as it had been before Carthis ever arrived.
So now, at the insistence of a couple admirals and for her own safety, Leta called the Carthian base her home.
Weaving through the crowd, she crested a staircase and was unsurprised but pleased to see a familiar face. Leaning against his usual wall where they met every morning was Nikkolai.
“Morning, doc,” said the twenty-four year old, forcing a tired smile over his face, his blonde hair still springy and overgrown. In his arms were a bundle of files and paperwork, just like always: after years aboard the Dionysian, he’d finally left about two years ago now and joined Leta on Vescent as her personal aide.
At first, Leta had privately hesitated — Nikki, sweet, silly, kind, but unreliable, join her here? Didn’t he want to stick close to Javier and his home ship? But he told her he wanted to help the war effort and that he had no function on the Dionysian so she had accepted. Since, he had proven himself time and time again as her confidante. And one of the few people she completely trusted.
“Sleep okay?” he asked distractedly, falling into step beside her. He threw her a glance as he rifled through the papers in his arms. “You look a lil pale.”
“Thanks, Nikki,” Leta laughed, holding open the door for him as they marched into the main hub of the base.
Easily sidestepping a particularly impatient officer, Nikkolai said, “So. Morning updates for ya. That reporter’s been hounding for an interview again. He left a bunch of messages early this morning. Kind of desperate. Little pathetic,” as he dug into his folders.
“Again? Gods, he’s persistent.”
“Maybe he just likes you.” Nikkolai grinned, but it was short lived. “Still, he won’t even tell me what he wants to interview you about so if I were you, I’d keep giving him the run-around,” he went on, business-like again. “Oh! And that order you put in for a new CT scanner? I’m pretty sure it’ll come through next month. Got a confirmation late last night.”
“About time,” said Leta. “What’s going on at the clinic?”
Nikkolai visibly flinched, but he pressed on dutifully. “Well. That old guy with the bad fever yesterday? He woke up completely fine. I think this flu is finally passing through. Ms. Opail went home this morning, so we’ll have her bed ready in case anyone new needs it. Oh and Mr. Laika’s surgery went off totally smoothly.”
Leta slowed to a stop in the middle of the hallway and tilted her head at him. “That’s all great news,” she pointed out and he nodded. She narrowed her eyes. “So what was that flinch about?”
Now, Nikki grimaced. “Well. There’s something else.”
His face fell, and Leta sensed a sudden shift in her mood. Her eyebrows rose. Danger loomed.
“What is it?”
“Well … ” Nikkolai sighed, nodding toward a quieter alcove. He frowned deeply. “God, I hate giving you bad news. And listen, Leta, it’s still up in the air I think. Nothing’s been totally decided yet, but — ” His eyes widened with apology. “Carthian leadership has been talking about finally converting our clinic into a military med station. They want to take it. For real this time.”
Carthian commanders streamed past in a hurried crowd. Leta hardly saw them. Her mind filled with the sight of her clinic, her most ambitious project and the one that she, privately, was most proud of. Only a small brick building on the far end of Fall’s End, it had grown to be so much more. Under a team of volunteers, it’d become a free clinic for the injured or sick, and something of a homeless shelter and food pantry for people who had been displaced by the war and riots, but refused (or mistrusted) military aid. These days, it was crowded with lost people.
The military had wanted to seize it for months. Under their control, it would be filled with armed guards and Carthian doctors. Their reasoning was extensive: they could provide more funding, they could provide more treatments and equipment and resources, more food, and it would be cleaner.
But Leta knew there was more to it than that. Her clinic was situated in a region Carthis had little control over. It had become a safe haven for those less pleased with the current leadership and though no one had ever outright said it, everyone knew that it had become a breeding ground for rebellion. It was no wonder Carthis wanted their own people there to oversee it.
After a horrified, shocked pause, Leta said, seething, “Wait here. No — better yet — Nikki, go to the clinic, make sure the Carthians haven’t done anything yet. I’ll meet you later.”
Turning sharply, she joined the stream of people. Behind her Nikkolai called, in sudden excitement, “Yell at ‘em real good, doc!”
Minutes later, ignoring curious glances as she stalked down a private hallway toward a row of offices, Leta slammed her palms into a set of broad silver doors.
Inside, surrounded by bookshelves, Admiral Gates sat behind his oak desk. Leta barely registered his sunken appearance before she growled, “I need to talk to you. Right now. My clinic isn’t up for negotiation –”
But Gates already had an audience. Seated in front of his desk was some man in uniform, surveying Leta with disgust.
“Excuse me?” the man scoffed. “Who are you? You need an appointment to — ”
“Get out, Cadia,” Gates added absently to the man, who looked abashed. “Adler, come in.”
Leta side-stepped from the doorway as it closed with a snap, leaving her with Gates alone. She wasted no time in approaching his desk. “This is completely ridiculous. You’re taking away a free medical clinic from citizens? In a city that’s suffering post-war? How can you live with — “
“Adler.” Gates did not look angry. His gaze was steady. “Sit down.”
“I’d rather stand,” she snapped. “What’re you going to do with the people who live there right now? The second you take it over, they’ll leave and have to survive on the street.”
“Please,” said Gates calmly, holding up a gnarled hand. “Sit.”
Leta hesitated, clenching her fists at her sides. Then she stepped sideways and dropped into an armchair. When she opened her mouth, Gates said, “We’re not taking anything away from you, Leta. As far as I’m concerned, the clinic will remain under your tutelage. We’ll simply provide funding and more staff.”
“And guards and cameras and more eyes to spy on these people. Not to mention that damned thing.” She gestured dramatically to the great Carthian symbol painted on the wall. “You are taking it from me, and all the people who feel safe there.”
“Safety is all we care about,” Gates went on. “We’ll expand security. Which is a good thing. It’ll be safer. We’ll pull in a full staff, bring in all the beds you need, we can expand the building, treat dozens more. Leta, it’s downright irresponsible for you to refuse our resources.”
“You don’t understand,” said Leta, almost laughing. “People feel safe there because there aren’t Carthian soldiers with rifles at the door!”
For a moment she thought perhaps she’d finally gone too far. Gates had thrown her out of his office before; it wasn’t unprecedented.
But to her surprise, the man across the desk gave her a rather twisted smirk. Then he leaned sideways, pulled a drawer out from his desk and thudded down a tall, narrow decanter of copper liquid. Bourbon. Two crystal glasses followed. He poured an inch into each glass and slid one toward Leta, who sat there blankly.
“I know,” he admitted at last, releasing a long sigh as he sipped his drink. It was only eight in the morning, Leta thought, but then again, Gates looked like he’d been up all night. “I know, Leta, and I’m not blind. I know it’s not just the rebels. I know how the people feel.”
“Then listen,” said Leta eagerly.