Craved: Chapter Three

 

Chapter Three: Valrea

“What do you think you’re doing?”

Only by a supreme force of will did I keep myself from jolting, hitting my head on the pipes that ran above. Tianna, on her back next to me holding a wrench to the pipes we were fixing, glanced over, eyebrows raised.

“Helping Engineer Rodriguez with mechanicals repairs.”

Stanton said nothing, but I knew he was out there, waiting, lurking. But as long as he didn’t keep talking now, I’d take it.

Tianna repositioned the tool and I braced my arms. She might have been my senior by a couple of decades, but she was way stronger than me. If I let my piece of the piping slip while she tightened against it we’d be down here for another half hour trying to get this perfect angle again. And I’d never hear the end of it.

Finally, the job was done. Tianna and I slid out from underneath the unit.

Yep. He was still there, carefully not touching anything.

“Don’t forget to replace that clamp correctly this time,” Tianna reminded me, ignoring his intrusion. “Last time it was the wrong way around.”

Stanton returned her disdain. “Do you really think this is the best use of your time?”

“Certainly!” I said in my brightest voice. “I know it’s important to become as familiar as possible with every aspect of The Compound and with all of the people who live and work here.” I considered adding a flutter of lashes to my obnoxious smile, but that might’ve been pushing it. “What possible better use of my time could there be?”

Stanton’s mouth pursed, just a flicker, but enough for me to see that I’d scored a point.

“Very well. I’m sure your father will be happy to hear about your interests.”

The tiny thrill of rebellion curled up, died. I ignored the knife of ice in my belly, and this time I did throw in the flutter. “Thanks so much. Please be sure to give him my regards when you see him.”

After he stalked away Tianna quietly gathered up her tools. I gnawed my lip until I tasted sharp coppery blood. “He won’t report you,” I promise. “He only tries to needle me.”

She shook her head. “That one is a snake. Be careful.”

I followed her into the main office of Mechanicals, the section that controlled so much of what happened in The Compound. Another series of tremors last week had tripled her repair and maintenance list, and she was short-staffed enough to let me help.

“I don’t plan to get in trouble.” I swallowed, my throat suddenly tight. To be honest, I didn’t really plan anything. I wasn’t sure if there was a point.

“But it seems to follow you, anyway,” Tianna put the tools away, wiped her hand on the ever-present rag that poked out from her overalls and tapped up the next repair job on her tablet.

“Need a hand?”

But she closed the tab quickly, before I could see any of the details, her face shuttered. “Not on this one. Sorry.”

Just because it wasn’t a surprise didn’t mean it wasn’t infuriating. The one section of the Compound I wanted to get into, and the one that no one, not even my friends, could let me enter. I shrugged, shucked out of the dirty coveralls and left them where they lay while I pulled on my overcoat.

“No problem. I was getting bored. Later.”

“Val! Valrea!” I heard her call me through the hallways, but I didn’t care. I passed through the hallways without speaking to any of the few people I saw. It wasn’t hard. Most people were never entirely certain how to treat me, what to think of me.

Which was fair. I wasn’t always sure myself.

I took the stairs two at a time and came out in the bright afternoon light.

The sun-warmed grass mixed with the heavy smell of machinery washed all around me as I took a deep breath.

Stanton couldn’t hurt me, not really. And he’d be an idiot to screw with Tianna. Her division was well-trained, but no one knew Mechanicals as well as she did.

Certainly not me. I was good for fetching, carrying and holding stuff in place, but mostly I hung out there because she was one of the few people who didn’t seem to have a problem with me.

From the small hut that housed the stairway to Mechanicals, I turned away from the majority of the buildings on the compound. Barracks, dormitories, laboratory, armory. The Hall.

My path twisted between waist-high bushes of thin light green foliage dotted with burgundy blooms until they thinned out at the edge of the bluff.

Through the golden dome, I could almost see the true color of the sky. We only saw flashes of the deep blue when the iris opened for shuttles, an infrequent enough event that the younger children always pointed and gasped.

I followed the curve of the dome until it faded into the dark water before me, watched the tell-tell breaks in the waves revealing the existence of the Devourers below. No other sea life came near the island, not with them constantly patrolling the waters.

A flutter of something on the beach far below caught my attention.

That was new. From here I couldn’t make out what it was, but it looked like something had washed up from the sea.

Something new might be a tool, something I could use. I looked around quickly. No one was near, no one from the Compound willingly ventured near the sea.

The cliffs looked sheer, but there were plenty of handholds if you knew where to look. On the way down, I ran through my litany.

If you’re reading this, then I have failed again. I’m sorry for us both.

I didn’t have to hold the pages in my hands anymore. I’d read the words so often they’d burned into my mind, the slanting script as familiar as my own.

Never take this book elsewhere. We’ll always find it here.

I’d found the note rolled behind a loose tile in my room, thin pages crowded with lines and lines of handwriting. Handwriting I recognized. Handwriting that shouldn’t, couldn’t have been there.

The brisk ocean breezes swirled around me as I climbed down, but my shivers and shakes had little to do with the temperature. Soon enough, the fire would burn my veins. After that? I didn’t know. The symptoms had never been consistent enough for me to be sure.

I don’t know what they’ll do to you. Make a note here, for the one of us that comes after. We’ll learn, a little at a time. It’s all we have.

She was right. My own punishments were unique. Reading about our previous experiences, I couldn’t decide which were worse. It didn’t matter.

All that mattered was trying to end it. And for that, I needed something different. Something new.

With luck, the sea had given me just that.

The cliff face warmed my back as I turned to find a man, laying on the sand, water-darkened hair plastered to his scalp. One outstretched arm was flung over his head, still gripping a long knife. His exposed back was a mess of cuts. The tattered strips of his vest were what had caught my attention.

No one escaped the sea. I’d watched enough executions to know that. So, he had to be something new, something different. Something that could break the rules.

But it wouldn’t matter if I let him die.

My thoughts of dragging him to shelter died quickly as I got closer. There was no way I could lift him. I dug my hands into the sand under his shoulder and heaved.

Dammit. I couldn’t even roll him over to see how bad the damage was.

Just as importantly I needed to get him out of view.

I strained again, grunting with effort as I tried to budge him, then froze at his low groan.

What if I was just making his injuries worse? I fell back, frustrated.

“Look, friend, I can’t move you. Someone else finds you, they’re going to finish killing you. I need you to wake up.”

Which sounded like a petulant six-year-old, but begging was the only thing I had going for me.

Maybe I could pull him by the arm. But first, I needed to get that knife away. The last thing I needed was for him to flail about and slice either of us open.

Not wanting to go anywhere near that edge, I fought to pull his fingers up from the handle.

“Seriously guy, let go already.” I tugged at the knife again, trying to wrestle it out of his hand. He was unconscious and injured, how hard could this be?

With a grunt he rolled over, half-closed golden eyes unfocused, but all of my attention was on the knife that he now held steady towards my throat.

“Hey, take it easy. I’m trying to get you to shelter. Put down the knife.”

He didn’t.

“Fine, whatever. Keep the damn thing. But if you’re awake enough to threaten me, are you awake enough to stand?”

He tilted his head to the side, then shook it. His hair fell back from his ears, revealing slight tips. I’d never seen that before, but I hadn’t had much chance to see many people close up.

Over the ocean, the glow of the sun behind the dome shone visibly lower. I’d never made the climb up the cliff in the dark, and I didn’t want to start.

“Look, if you don’t want to be found you need to follow me.” I hissed urgently. “If you don’t care then do whatever the hell you want, go back and tangle with the Devourers again. That looks like it went well.”

I gritted my teeth as I turned my back on him and that knife and walked towards the overhang of the cliff.

I ducked beneath it at the deepest point of shadow, my hands in front of me. No matter how often I came here, I still felt the way, half-certain I was going to walk into a rock wall.

But I didn’t, and just as it always did the old tunnel worn away by the constant ebb and flow of the tides opened before me. I refused to look back until I reached the open cavern.

Shafts of light from the far side of the cliff shone through the rock. I’d wondered if they were burrows, trails from some long-gone animal.

It didn’t matter, I’d never seen anything else living here. The passage to the cave was too narrow and shallow for anything dangerous to come in from the sea, and I’d never seen a land animal in the compound.

The tiny openings allowed plenty of light to navigate the cavern, even in the late afternoon. I crossed to the other side and curled up on a broad flat ledge, waiting to see if the man would follow.

A quick glance at the golden pinpricks overhead let me know how much time I could wait. Hopefully, he hadn’t collapsed in the tunnel. The rising tide that would fill the passageway in a few hours would make it easier to float him to the entrance of the cavern, but I didn’t want to be trapped in here all night with no one but a stranger and the sea monsters for company.

***

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