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Heart of Gears
Author's note: Forgive me for the pretty poor summary. I have never been a fan of them and now it has come to the point where I have a phobia of them. This book is also featured on inkpop. Here's the site address:
One. Two. Three. Steady breathing filled the small room.
Four. Five. Six. A heart beat slowly.
Seven. Eight. Nine. Not a second had passed since that door closed.
Ten. Eleven. Twelve. Not a minute.
Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen. Not an hour.
Sixteen. Seventeen. Eighteen. Not a day.
Nineteen. Twenty. Twenty-one. No time had passed since that door closed.
Twenty-two. Twenty-three. Twenty-four.
My lips formed the numbers. Counting kept me from thinking, thinking of what had happened. When that door had slammed shut behind me, I knew for a fact that it was over. My life. My time. I hadn’t even had a chance to say goodbye to my family. Now I would never see them again.
It was all over.
I crawled to the door. It was a very long trek. Three feet was all the space I was given. I pressed my hands against the door and fumbled around blindly. My fingernails screeched as I dragged them down the cold, uniform metal. Blood trickled down my fingers, but there was no pain.
I stared listlessly at the blackness before me, framing an image of a door in my mind’s eye. This door had no handle, no lock, nothing that would allow me access to the outside world.
I ran my fingers along the cold metal until I felt the outline of the door set into the stone. I dropped my forehead against the metal. Stark, overpowering hopelessness pressed me down to the cold floor.
He said I wouldn’t feel anything. He said they had created the best prison, the strongest prison. He said they had created a place that would take everything human about us--hunger, thirst, pain, time--away from us. Everything he had said was true. I could feel the blood on my fingers, but I couldn’t feel pain. And if I couldn’t feel pain, was I still human? Not a second, not a minute, not an hour, not a day had passed since my arrival. And if time didn’t pass for me, was I still alive?
How many seconds are in forever?
The following account was found in the Prisoner’s Archives in the Hall of Time.
Cell 81, Level 2
Sentence: Suspension of Time
30 hours before Sophie Lane was taken to the Hall of Time
An explosion of noise sent me flying out of bed. I landed on a pile of cogs and swore as my legs got tangled in the sheets.
“Ow,” I muttered as a spring dug into my arm. I crawled over a dismembered clock and around a strange formation of gears. I didn’t have the vaguest idea of where that had come from. It seemed to have just appeared in the middle of my room.
Finally I reached the shelf that held the noise-makers responsible for my pounding head. I grabbed a clock whose face was suspended away from its body by a spring and smacked the top. Its screeching wail ended. I performed the same ritual on the forty seven other clocks until finally silence reigned once more.
Well, not complete silence. The soft, comforting sound of ticking filled my cramp room. I didn’t do well in the quiet.
I clambered to my feet and surveyed the bedlam surrounding me. By practically begging shopkeepers for their broken clocks, I had put together quite an impressive collection of mechanical parts. Every flat surface, from my worktable to the shelving on the walls, was covered with metal contraptions. The only unoccupied space in the small, slightly rounded room was my bed and it looked like a rover had malfunctioned and spun around on it.
“Looks good,” I said with a nod of approval.
I grabbed the sheets and flung them onto the bed. My clock necklace was missing from my bedside table. I frowned and ran my fingers through my stark blond hair. The shock of being the only blond in the Hive—as far as I knew anyway—had finally worn off. Now I was left with short, unruly waves of blond hair and the memories that came with them.
I poked my head under the bed. Of course, my choker was trapped between the wall and my tool kit. Wait, what was my tool kit doing under there?
I grabbed the choker and the kit and crawled out from underneath the bed. I tossed the kit on the bed. With a sigh, I belted the choker around my neck and straightened my wrinkled clothes. Maybe sleeping in my clothes wasn’t the best idea. I was wearing my favorite outfit—again. It was actually my only outfit. Good thing I liked it.
Satisfied that there was nothing anyone could do to make me presentable, I crossed to the oval shaped door. The clock suspended from the choker bounced against my collar bone as I walked.
“Sophie!” The call echoed through the house.
“Coming,” I grumbled. When I opened the door, I was greeted by the familiar hum of the generator down the hall. Rubbing my head, I crossed the carpetless floor—I needed to do something about that, but carpets were just too damn expensive—to the cramped staircase and made my way to the first floor.
I pushed the door open and stumbled into the brightly lit kitchen. My head throbbed as searing light pierced my eyes. I groaned quietly to myself and dropped into a chair at the table.
“There you are. I thought I heard your alarms go off,” my mother said with a soft smile.
“Ooh, ooh, Sophie, do my hair!” my little sister begged as she jumped up and down in her chair.
“Ruthie,” my mother admonished kindly. “Let your sister eat something. She has a busy day today.”
“I do?” I asked. “Good to know.” I couldn’t help the dryness that entered my voice. My mother repressed a sigh as she dumped a protein bar onto my plate.
“Yes, you do,”she said in a clipped tone. “I have a guild meeting this morning, so I need you to run the bakery. Also, I need you to pick up three flour bags at the Docks.” I swallowed my complaint and ate my bar in silence. Ruthie had picked up on the tone in the air and stayed quiet, for few moments at least.
“Guess what!” she exclaimed as my mother settled down at the table. Before either of us had a chance to answer, she plowed on. “Yesterday Jessica brought the coolest toy to school for show-and-tell. It was this little man made out of metal and he moved around when she wound him up. There’s a whole collection of them. They’re called Windups and there’s a little girl with pigtails and she dances and she’s so pretty. Jessica showed us the catalogue.” Silence fell for a brief moment. My mother opened her mouth to reply with a typical motherly response, but Ruthie continued. “My birthday’s next week,” she told her protein bar. My mother smiled sadly at the top of Ruthie’s head. She wouldn’t say it, not when Ruthie was around, but she couldn’t afford to get Ruthie the windup. I, on the other hand, could, if I didn’t buy the antique water clock that I had been saving up for during the past year and a half.
“I heard about those. Where are they sold?” I asked, as I stood to clear my spot. My mother shot me an askance look. I ignored her. Ruthie’s head shot up and she stared at me. Her dazzling brown eyes were wide and a smile dimpled her cheeks. If I hadn’t already made up my mind, her big brown eyes would have persuaded me to get her that windup.
“There’s a store down town called Little Things for Little Kids, but Jessica says those are cheap toys and her daddy got hers directly from Gears and Cogs.” Ruthie gave a haughty sniff to show how she felt about that. “Jessica is a…brat,” she stated.
“Ruthie, don’t say things like that,” my mother said, as she placed the dishes in the sink.
“But it’s true,” Ruthie cried. Oh, the righteousness of a seven year old.
“But we don’t say things like that about other people,” my mother said. “Oh, look at the time,” she added quickly before Ruthie could speak. “You’ll be late for school.”
“But I need my hair done,” Ruthie said as she slid out of her chair and pulled her coat on. My mother handed her her bag and ushered her towards the door.
“Your hair looks fine,” she said.
“But Jessica always has her hair in braids,” Ruthie said as she went down the hall to the front door. My mother reappeared in the kitchen doorway. I could feel an argument rising in the air and folded my arms. Leaning against the counter, I affected what I hoped was a casual look.
“Why did you say that?” my mother asked in a whisper, so Ruthie, who was still chattering about Jessica, wouldn’t hear her words. “You’re building her hopes up. You know how she’ll feel if she doesn’t get that windup.” I wondered if I’d ever felt that type of disappointment. I couldn’t name a time recently. I hadn’t asked my mother for anything once I realized I could get it all for myself.
“What time do you want me at the shop?” I asked. If I didn’t want to argue with my mother—because I’d lose or I just didn’t want to—I simply ignored what she said.
My mother sighed. “From eight to noon,” she said.
“How long is your guild meeting? I have to be somewhere!” I cried. My mother’s eyes flashed.
“You have to be somewhere,” she whispered, her voice coiled with rage. “If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t be able to be anywhere other than the Factory. Eight to noon. I will be back in time for the lunch shift.” Her words froze me. It was true. If she hadn’t convinced the Factory that I was her apprentice, then I would be slaving away from six to nine every day in the horrible block of metal, making clocks and other metallic items. Don’t get me wrong, I loved doing that sort of thing, but the Factory conditions weren’t exactly pristine.
“I have to get Ruthie to school,” I muttered. I slid past my mother, close enough to smell her sweet, familiar scent.
In the hall I breathed in the scentless air and shook my mother’s smell and the memories it aroused from my head. I hadn’t been close to my mother—literally and metaphorically—in years.
I walked down the narrow hall. My head didn’t feel like its explosive death was immanent, but there was still a throbbing behind my eyes. Ruthie stood by the door, tapping her foot impatiently. She was dressed in school uniform. An absurd, ankle length dress with a miniature bustle. The skirt was a dark brown and the top, thankfully lacking in a corset, was made of a soft leather with buckles on the side and the school crest on the left breast. It had been my uniform. Fashion trends had changed in the last few years, but I had, somehow, managed to make the dress look less out of fashion.
“There you are,” she said, sounding just like my mother. “Jessica always arrives early. I want to beat her today.” I opened the door and together we walked outside.
The street outside our home was packed with people. The putting of engines filled the air. Thick smoke spewed from the Factory clogged the air. Across from me a twenty-foot monstrosity of battered and uneven metal loomed. The Edge Wall was crudely made, but effective in stopping people from Edge jumping. The Edge could be more accurately described as a long, cylindrical hole running from the top of the Hive all the way to the bottom. The Hive was named after something that had existed before its creation. I had no idea what that something was, but apparently it had a very similar shape and purpose to that of the Hive.
I pulled myself out of my thoughts and looked down at Ruthie.
“Who is this Jessica and why is she so special?” I asked, taking Ruthie’s hand and leading her into the crowd. Ruthie always talked about the girl, but until now I had never asked about her. Jessica just seemed like your average popular girl who everyone wanted to be like for whatever reason.
“Her father works at Gears and Cogs, the biggest store in Sector Three,” Ruthie said, referring to the third level in Level Four. As if I didn’t know what Gears and Cogs was. The Factory supplied Gears and Cogs before any other store. Squeezed between the floor and ceiling of Sector Three, Gears and Cogs dominated two blocks of Edge-side real estate. It was the largest building on Level Four, quite possibly the largest building in the Hive, but since the laws of the Hive forbade changing levels, I had no idea what the other levels were like.
“So?” I asked.
“So! So!” Ruthie cried, dodging around a motorized wheelbarrow. Toby Winthrop smiled as he pushed the wheelbarrow along the cobbled road. I had known Toby since I was a little girl and he had pressed candy into my chubby hand. Back in the day when there was candy in Level Four. Now all the candy was horded by the high levels.
“Yeah, so what?” I said, “How does that make her special?”
“She gets all the nicest toys and her daddy buys her pretty dresses and her hair is always perfect…and she’s pretty,” Ruthie added grudgingly.
“I still don’t understand how she’s so special,” I said with a grunt as I lifted Ruthie onto the back of Aunt Meggy’s wagon. The bread deliverer shot a gap-toothed smile at us as she jerked the wheel to avoid two boys running across the street. I hopped up beside Ruthie and continued before she could speak. “Is she nice?”
“Well, no,” Ruthie admitted.
“Do you like her?” I asked.
“No,” Ruthie said.
“Then why do you want to be like her?” I asked, running my fingers through Ruthie’s chestnut brown hair.
“I…don’t know,” Ruthie finally said. I sat in silence for a while as the wagon bounced down the uneven road and pulled Ruthie’s hair into two braids. “Was there someone like Jessica in your class?"
“Yes,” I said. “She bragged a lot and tried to make the rest of us feel bad. But a lot of the girls still wanted to be her friend.” I tied off the braids with thin leather straps I found on the wagon bed.
“Were you friends with her?” Ruthie asked.
“No, I wasn’t,” I said. “I had my own friends.” I had had the best friends a girl could ask for. 'Had' being the operative word.
Ruthie looked up at me, her brown eyes shinning. “It’s a very pretty windup,” she said in her sweetest voice. I laughed and jumped off the wagon. With a wave to Aunt Meggy, I lifted Ruthie down and walked her to the steps of the school. The words Level Four, Sector Three School for the Young shone dully in tarnished gold paint on a plaque.
I had gone to that school until I was ten, when I was no longer considered “young” and was therefore eligible for a job. For six and half years I had worked as an apprentice for my mother. Most of my old friends had also found a way out of working in the Factory. I used to know two who worked in there, but one of them had gotten crushed when a machine short-circuited and dropped a box of gears on her. Apprenticeships saved kids from the Factory, but a baker or a clock maker or a whoever could only have one apprentice, which meant if he had more than one kid the other one had to work at the Factory.
Like Ruthie and I. There was an unspoken agreement between my mother and I that Ruthie would work as an apprentice to my mother and I would go to the Factory when Ruthie graduated.
“Remember what we talked about,” I said as I forced those thoughts to the back of my mind. “Also,” I said as I straightened Ruthie’s dress, “you are so much prettier, smarter, and kinder than that girl. Remember that.”
“I will,” she said and hugged me.
“See you after school,” I said. She ran to the school and was joined by three other girls. Together they walked up the steps, laughing and talking. Ruthie looked back once and waved. I waved back, but soon she was out of sight, swallowed by the rush of kids.
I turned and made my way through the crowd in the direction of Baker Row where my mother’s shop was located. The crowd pressed around me. Small, motorized vehicles buzzed down the center of the road. I darted across when the traffic lulled and slipped down an ally.
I didn’t enjoy being in the large crowds that clogged the main streets. I felt trapped, like there was nowhere to run.
A metallic clicking echoed down the alley. I turned around and gasped. I stumbled backwards, tripped over my own feet, and landed with a thump on a large box. The rover swiveled its bulbous camera towards me in an almost quizzical fashion. It was suspended off the ground by six legs with wheels at their ends. Its body was long and lean. Two flashlights were attached to either side of its round face and the camera perched just beneath them.
The rover buzzed slightly as it turned back to its inspection of the alley. Its camera locked onto a sewer grate by the side of the alley and it beeped madly. After recording the sewer grate’s location, it buzzed away down the alley.
I swallowed hard and tried to steady my trembling hands. Those things gave me the creeps, and for a good reason. I shivered once before hurrying down the alley and across the street. The clock around my neck showed that I had fifteen minutes to get to the bakery. Marie, my mother’s friend who worked the shop between five and eight, didn’t like working longer than she had to.
I attempted to cross the street, but was forced to jump back onto the sidewalk as a delivery boy on his two-wheeler zipped past. Sparing a second to curse him and his ancestors, I continued towards the Row.
I walked down the sidewalk, my hands stuffed into my vest pockets. I kept my head low as I walked and muted out the occasional whisper directed at my hair.
“Excuse me,” I grunted in shock as I was splinched between to massive skirts. The owners of the two skirts twittered in annoyance and quickly distanced themselves from me, and my low class.
Another corner and I was standing on Dock Road. The Edge Wall on the far side of the street dwarfed the hustling and bustling crowd that pulsed through the streets. I stayed close the warehouse walls as I made my way down the road. The only place in Sector Three where there was a break in the Edge Wall was my destination.
I crossed the street, ducking and weaving through traffic much to the annoyance of cart drivers. I made it across without Fred Higgins running me over with his ore-laden cart. He waved to me as he navigated his cart down the street. I returned the gesture but not with so much vigor. He seemed to think that having been in the same class at school made us buds.
At last I reached the gated break in the Wall. Two separate gates stood before me: one for entering traffic and one for exiting. Being the oh-so-clever person I was, I went to the entering gate.
The gate guards had perfected the art of keeping traffic moving a long time ago, so I didn’t wait that along until it was my turn to go through.
“ID,” the guard demanded. Black visor covered his face, giving him a downright creepy look. The bottom of his helmet ended in a broad square. There was vent set into it that allowed him to breath, and sound like he was dying from asphyxiation every time he drew breath or spoke.
I pulled the chain that ID hung on over my hand and handed it to him. He ran my info through his three four.
“You’re visitor information checks out,” he rasped. I put the chain around my neck and tucked the ID into my shirt. The gate already stood open—part of their plan to speed the process along—and I walked through.
Beyond the gate the Docks opened up over the Edge. A shiver ran down my spine as I glanced to my right. A completely useless railing was the only thing that stood between me and a short drop to a definite death—another reason why I would never be a docker. The first being it was a boring job that required way too much lifting for my tiny and not muscled body.
A long, piercing whistle turned my attention to a group of boys. I groaned under my breath.
“Hey, Sophie,” one of the boys drawled, “wanna come join us?” The boy who had spoken—Dodge, who I had spent the better part of my school days trying to avoid—sneered down at me from his place on a crate on one of the docks.
I looked up at where the boys sat and pretended to think over the offer. Join four work-allergic boys who spent their days lounging on crates and whistling at their skirted counterparts, or go serve people at a bakery. If I had my way, I wouldn’t choose either, but the day I had my way would be the day I would be lounging about on a mound of credits in some posh house.
“Nope, not really.” The path to my new destination lay beyond the boys, forcing me to close the distance between us. Dodge jumped down and landed in front of me in a squeak of leather.
“Come on, wouldn’t you want to spend a day with the Dockers?” He spoke as if that would be the most amazing thing that ever happened to me. It really, truly wasn’t.
“Why don’t you do as your name says and dock something—” I pointed to steam ships behind them. “—or you could piss off and, while you’re at, think of a better name for your gang.” Ever one for a dramatic exit, I stomped off, leaving the boys gaping after me. I scooted through the crowd. As I went, I searched the signs above me that would point me towards the flour vessel. At last I spotted it a few docking spaces down.
I was happy to find that upon my arrival there was nobody else waiting stock up on flour. The owner of the grain vessel stood on the dock, directing his crew in the unloading of his goods.
“Excuse me?” He turned and looked down at me.
“Why, hello again, little Miss Lane. Here for some flour for your mother’s shop?”
“Uh, yes sir.” It was always unnerving when a man who must have over a hundred customers a day remembered me. Then again it wasn’t that surprising, all things considered.
“Don’t worry about the ID info; I’ve got it right here.”
“Thanks,” I said, running a hand through my hair. The man glanced down at it three four and ran a finger over the screen. For the life of me I couldn’t remember his name—if I had ever known it in the first place. He ran a hand over his clean-shaven face. He was young in the grand scheme of things, though older than I by at least six years—and handsome in one of those uncomfortably obvious ways that brought a blush to my cheeks.
“How much do you need?” he asked.
“Three bags.” He nodded.
“That’ll be thirty seven credits.” I handed over my credit card, which hung on the chain next to my ID. The man ran it through his three four and handed it back.
“I probably shouldn’t be telling you this…” he said, glancing at me. I frowned slightly, but he continued before I could speak. “But you’re one of my best customers.” That was hard to believe…a slight flush rose in my cheeks. He glanced around. “Level Seven is runnin’ short on synthetic flour.”
“What do you mean?” I asked hesitantly.
“I mean, they’re havin’ trouble producing more flour.”
“How come?” He shrugged.
“Don’t ask me; I’m just the trader. I thought you ought to know since you’re mother’s livelihood depends on it.”
“Well, uh, thank you,” I said. I had no idea what I was supposed to do with this information, but it was nice of him to tell me. One of his crew appeared at that moment with three bags of flour.
“You gonna be able to manage those?” the man asked. The crew member had already dumped them on the dock and departed.
“Yeah,” I mumbled. I hoisted two of the bags under one arm and the third under my other.
“Yeah, thanks again.” I walked off at a staggering pace. Now, onward to the bakery, making a conscious effort to avoid ‘the Dockers’. Much to my relief, the Dockers had left their usual post. I realized then that it would have been impossible to avoid them considering how close their lounge spot had been to the exit gate.
“Hey, Sophie!” The shout echoed over the heads of the crowd and I looked around. Major Ulrich’s daughter appeared between two carts.
“Tiffany?” I couldn’t help the question that entered my voice. We had almost been friends back in school, but the group I fell in with hadn’t been one she wanted to be part of.
“Hi.” She had finally reached my side and seemed a little out of breath. I frowned at her as she smoothed the front of her dress.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I was picking some stuff up for my mom,” she explained, holding up her small package. “Do you need any help with that?” She pointed to the bags perched precariously on my hips. I ran my eyes over her slim form swathed in a tight, fashionable dress.
“I think I’ve got it.” She laughed.
“Sophie, I can carry a bag of flour,” she said. She took one of the bags from me before I could protest. “Where are you off to?”
“My mother’s bakery,” I said.
“That’s on the way to my house.” Tiffany smiled and set off. We reached the exit gate. Exiting was a much simpler process than entering; the gate was left open and two guards were stationed on the far side to prevent anyone from entering through this gate.
“How have you been, Sophie?” Idle conversation, the stuff of nightmares.
“Fine,” I muttered as I readjusted the bags. Tiffany laughed. I wrinkled my nose. She had been just as happy back in school.
“How’s your mother?”
“Um, fine.” She rolled her eyes in my directions, but I continued to look straight ahead.
“Sophie.” There was a hesitating note that made me look at her. “We can be friends, even though, you know…” Her voice drifted off. Even though, what? One of my ex-best friends had called you an ugly hag and tossed protein soup all over your brand new white dress? Another had dated you for three days to get the key to your father’s house—not that you knew that—and then dumped you in front of the entire school, and not very nicely? One of your best friends had mocked me in front of the entire school—and then my ex-best friend, the soup thrower no less, had thumped her over the head with a tray? Or your family could my family’s house and bakery? Tiffany looked at her feet as if she knew my thoughts.
“We could be friends.” My fallback retort of ‘sorry, I already have friends’ didn’t apply this time since I didn’t have any.
“Look, Tiffany, you’re a nice girl, but we run in different circles.” Tiffany continued to watch her feet move.
“Why should that change anything?”
“Your friends spit on the ground I walk on and your mother thinks I’m trash—her words, not mine.” Tiffany sighed quietly.
“Just, think about, okay?” She dumped the bag on the ground. The ‘hey!’ was already half way out of mouth when I realized we were standing outside the bakery. “See you around, Sophie.”
“Ah, bye, Tiffany." She had already turned and disappeared into the crowd. I stared at the spot she had been standing, unable to wrap my mind around what had just happened. Tiffany Ulrich wanted to friends. We had shared a few laughs before our friend groups took us in separate directions. And now, almost seven years since the last time I had had a polite conversation with her, she wanted to be friends.
I shook my head in confusion and picked up the bag she had dropped. I straightened and slipped past the line that trailed out the door.
“Hey,” a man said, grabbing my arm, “there’s a line.” I staggered backwards and almost dropped the bags. The woman behind him smacked his arm with her parasol.
“You should be able to recognize Mistress Lane’s eldest daughter,” the seamstress who lived across the street from my family—and whose name I couldn’t have recalled even if I cared—said. “She has hair like lamplight.”
The man muttered an apology and let me go. The seamstress winked and I forced a grateful smile before hurrying inside.
“Hi, Marie,” I said as I crossed behind the counter.
“Cutting it a bit close today, are we?” Marie asked, as she handed Freckle Sam his sugared roll. Freckle Sam’s face split into a huge smile and he bit into the sugar roll right there.
“I had to pick up the flour,” I said, and pushed past Marie’s wide girth. Marie waddled away—not even kidding, the woman was huge—and I was left to man the counter. I dumped the flour behind it and looked at my first customer.
“What would you like?” I tried to sound cheery, but I had gotten only four hours of sleep last night since I had a deadline to meet. I needed to redesign thirteen clocks and get them to Tem Hodges by this afternoon. So far I had two clocks ready. Also, I had never enjoyed serving people.
The woman on the opposite side of the counter was tall with a hooked nose and a mass of black hair. Her slanted eyes looked down at my wrinkled clothes with disdain. I couldn’t help the slight sneer that curled my lips. At least I wasn’t dressed in a sack.
“I would like a half a dozen powdered rolls and four cinnamon buns,” the woman said with a haughty, cutting edge to her voice. I slipped a pair of thin, transparent gloves on and turned to the glass display case. I filled a box with the four cinnamon buns and was lifting a powdered roll into the box when the woman snapped at me.
“I want sugar rolls.” What? I shot a look at her.
“You said you wanted half a dozen powdered rolls and four cinnamon buns. You didn’t say anything about sugar rolls,” I explained with mock patience. The woman stiffened.
“I would like half a dozen sugar rolls,” she said, as if I was a silly child.
“Makes no difference to me,” I muttered and plopped the rolls into the box. I shoved the box across the counter at her.
“Seven credits, please,” I said.
“You can’t be serious,” she squawked.
“Do I look like I’m kidding?” I asked, glaring at her in case my subtle annoyance eluded her.
“Seven credits. That is outrageous. The shop across the street doesn’t charge that much for ten rolls.”
“Does the shop across the street sell the finest sweet cakes on this row? Didn’t think so. Seven credits,” I said through gritted teeth. Lack of sleep made me a little snippy.
She tossed the credits on the counter and left with not so much as a ‘thank you’.
“Come again soon,” I said in a lilting tone and a blatantly fake smile plastered to my face.
The breakfast rush had come and gone. I sat on the counter, bouncing a rubber ball off the wall. I checked the clock around my neck. Another half an hour of torture and I would be off. Good thing too considering the amount of work I had to do.
“You know, material theft is punishable by up to six months in the Hall of Time,” a soft, male voice said from behind me.
I snatched the ball out of the air, slid off the counter, and spun around in one, almost, smooth motion. There was a slight stumble at the end, but that had to do with who I was looking at. My eyes widened then narrowed. I clenched the rubber ball in my fist. Matt Dalcone smiled down at me.
“I love the hair,” he said, reaching across the counter and running a lock of it through his fingers. “It contrasts well with your eyes.” He gave a short laugh. I felt a steady pink glow rise in my cheeks.
“What are doing here?” I hissed. Heat rose in my cheeks again, but this time from anger, not…embarrassment. Even leaning across the counter, he was a header taller than I.
“I need to get into your cache,” he said, ignoring my words. I quickly snapped my mouth shut. My cache. He came back after everything that had happened between us for a couple of discarded items and trinkets that I had…collected…over the years.
“Wh-what?” I finally choked out.
“You know, the place you hid all your illegally acquired goods that you could have hidden…anywhere.” His obnoxious smile was in place and only made me angrier.
“How can you come back after four years and ask for that?” I demanded.
“I know you won’t say ‘no’.” He was completely unfazed by my anger, yet another one of his annoying qualities.
“Then that’s just one more thing that’s changed.” There was nowhere for me to dramatically march off to and so I had to stand my ground.
“Don’t call me that.” I could have sworn I heard him grind his teeth together.
“Sohpie,” he said with dramatic slowness, “what do you want for it?”
“I don’t want anything from you,” I snapped. Matt turned his head away to hide his glare. He never glared at me, just at the wall next to me.
“Ruthie’s birthday’s coming up. What are you going to get her?”
“A Gears and Cogs windup girl,” I said at last. My voice was almost inaudible. Matt’s eyes returned to my face.
“You can’t afford that,” he said simply. I opened my mouth to object, but he kept right on talking. “Tell you what, I’ll get you the windup doll and you’ll let me go through your cache.” I gritted my teeth. I wanted so badly to say know, to refuse his charity, but I couldn’t, for Ruthie’s sake.
“Fine,” I whispered. Matt’s face split in a grin.
“Great, meet me at my place at eight thirty. You know where it is.” I expected him to leave, but he didn’t. He stood on the opposite side of the counter, staring at me. There was a debate going on behind his annoyingly warm brown eyes; I could tell from the pinch of his brows and his tightened lips.
“What?” I asked.
“Lola told me to tell you that…she misses you.” Matt hesitated before rushing on. “She wants to see you again. She’s says what’s past is past. She’s sorry—we all are—but she misses you and she wants you to come back.” Matt took a breath to steady himself. I raised my eyebrows.
“She told you to tell me that?” I asked. Matt gave a sharp nod.
“She just wanted you to know,” he muttered and turned to go.
“Tell her—” The words had escaped me before I could stop them. Matt turned slowly, expectantly. What was I suppose to say? ‘Tell her I miss her so much it feels like my heart are being ripped out of my chest every moment I’m away from her and pounded flat by an overlarge hammer’? “Tell her that I said hello.” Matt nodded and left. I let out a deep sigh and leaned against the counter.
“Sophie?” My head snapped up. My mother stood in the doorway. Her brown eyes surveyed me with an unreadable expression. “Sophie,” she repeated, less uncertainly this time. “Was that Matt Dalcone?” I debated whether or not to lie.
“Yeah, it was,” I admitted.
“I thought you weren’t friends after what happened,” she said as she crossed behind the counter to stand next to me.
“We aren’t friends,” I mumbled, fingering a lock of hair.
“What did he want?” She sounded genuinely worried and a little angry, but not at me. She didn’t blame me for it. I didn’t know why; it was my fault.
“He just wanted something he had left behind,” I said.
“After four years?”
I shrugged. “Maybe he just realized he needs it. Anyway, I better get going,” I said, slipping past her.
“Sophie.” I left before she could continue. I didn’t want her to tell me again that it wasn’t my fault because it was my fault. Everything that had happened was my fault.
It was my fault she had one less child.
The Following is a Transcript of the Video and Audio Recording in Interrogation Cell 1-1
Cell 81, Level 2
Sentence: Suspension of Time
Prisoner 143-921 was a tall girl, about five-six, but her slim build made her appear smaller. Her hair was white with a yellow sheen, unheard of in the Hive. The rest of her appearance was unremarkable: brown eyes, pale skin, pale lips, small nose. The clothing she wore when she came to the Hall of Time was also unexceptional, except for the homemade clock necklace. It was a very well-crafted specimen. She would have done well in the Factory, but instead she worked as an apprentice for her mother, a baker, though her skill as a baker was questionable. Prisoner 143-921 lived on Level Four: Sector Three until the Hive’s guards detained her.
Prisoner 143-921 sat in a straight back chair during her interrogation session. She was dressed in the grey jump suit, the uniform of a prisoner in the Hall of Time. She wore the top half of the jumper unzipped and tied around her waist, revealing the simple white tank top beneath. Her hands were cuffed in front of her.
For a while, the prisoner sat alone in the small interrogation cell. She slouched in the straight back chair with her arms folded. Her barefoot tapped impatiently on the floor. Her brows were furrowed as she frowned at the empty chair on the other side of the metal table.
At last the door swung open. In stepped a tall man dressed all in black. The Sentinel crossed to the empty chair and sat down. The prisoner remained slouched as she followed him with her eyes. The Sentinel carried a portable three-four, which he put down on the table. The shimmering screen showed the document that the prisoner had been instructed to write upon her arrival at the Hall.
As the Sentinel scrutinized the prisoner, the three-four’s screen slowly faded to black. After a few more moments of silence, the Sentinel spoke.
“Do you know why you’re here?” he asked. The prisoner didn’t answer the question. “You are being formally charged with conspiracy to commit treason, terrorism, and sedition. The penalty for which is suspension of time.” Still, the prisoner remained silent. “You have also committed a number of minor crimes in your life.” The prisoner shrugged as if she were conceding a point. The Sentinel ran his finger along the edge of the three-four.
“How old is your sister?” The prisoner sat up at the mention of her sister. Her brown eyes flashed. “Seven? Almost eight. It’s her birthday next week. You got her this, right?” The Sentinel placed a windup on the table. It was a little girl with pigtails.
“It’s very nice—and expensive,” he continued, winding up the doll. It began to dance, spinning on its toes and raising its arms out. The girl stared at the windup. Her face softened, but her body remained tight with tension.
“Your friend got it for you to give to her. Matt Dalcone. You gave Matt something much more important.” Silence fell over the small room. The prisoner’s eyes never left the windup.
“Sophie Lane, you have one chance and only one chance to ensure your freedom—to see your sister again. You must tell me where Matt Dalcone is. If you fail to do so, you will spend eternity in the Hall of Time.” The windup slowed to a stop. The metal girl poised on her toes, ready for the next dance. “Do you understand what I have told you?” he asked.
“Yes.” Her eyes flickered up to the Sentinel’s.
“Are you going to cooperate?” The prisoner’s lips tightened and she looked back at the windup doll. Her jaw clenched and her forehead crinkled. Fear ruled her features, but it was slowly replaced by determination.
“No.” The word sounded like it was being dragged from her, but she said it. The Sentinel shook his head slightly before getting up and walking out the door. His muffled voice sounded from the hallway.
“Take her to the preparation chamber.” The prisoner lifted up the windup and rested it gently in the palm of her hand. She sat quietly at the table, staring at the little toy. Two guards appeared in the doorway, the bright light of the interrogation room reflecting off their visors. The guards crossed the room. One grabbed her arm and hauled her out of the seat. She walked in silence between them and out the door.
The Following is a Transcript of the Video and Audio Recording in Processing Cell 1-1
The two guards escorted Prisoner 143-921 into a small room. A pair of lights was set up so that their blinding glare pointed at a chair, which stood in the center of the room. Straps dangled from the arms of the chair. The guards shoved the prisoner into the chair. They didn’t need to though; she wasn’t struggling. The guards removed the manacles. Though she sat placidly in the chair as they strapped her arms down, her eyes shone with determination.
After they had strapped her arms down, the guards slid to either side of the doors and waited. The prisoner blinked against the harsh light. At last heavy footsteps echoed down the hall. The girl sat up straighter. The straps dug into her arms.
A man stepped into the room, flanked by the two lights. His face was not visible to the prisoner. The girl shifted slightly. The man held a gun shaped contraption with a long needle sticking out of the barrel. The prisoner’s eyebrows rose ever so slightly.
The man stepped forward out of the ring of light. The prisoner looked up, up at his face. He was bald with blunt features. He had deep set eyes and thin lips. The prisoner kept her mouth firmly shut as if opening it would cause all her secrets to spill forth.
“Prisoner 143-921,” he greeted her. His lips spread in a smile, revealing hard white teeth. The prisoner’s eyes flickered away from the man. She stared straight ahead, eyes on the man’s mid drift. Dennon Falk, for that was the preparer on duty, walked behind the girl’s chair. He began fussing over a tattoo gun. The sharp needle slid into place with a sharp click. The prisoner flinched at the sound. A light coating of sweat covered her forehead. Dennon walked back around the chair, tattoo gun in hand. The prisoner swallowed.
“Hold her,” Dennon ordered. One of the guards stepped forward and pressed his forearm against the prisoners shoulders. The other gripped her left arm. The prisoner flinched away from the needle as it descended on the forearm of her left arm. With an expert’s hand, Dennon drew the tattoo across the girl’s forearm:
The girl’s face twisted in pain and she jerked against the guards’ grip as the heavy black ink spread across her arm. At last Dennon took to the needle away. Irritated red skin surrounded the freshly tattooed skin. The guards stepped back, releasing her.
“And now for the hair.” Dennon smirked and disappeared behind the chair again. The girl’s face went slack with fear and resignation. Dennon picked up the shears. He scraped one against the other, causing sparks to fly. The prisoner scrunched her eyes shut.
He crossed to the back of the chair and mercilessly began hacking her white-yellow hair off. Each lock fell in limp spirals. Several landed on the girl’s arm. As the hairs brushed her arm, she released a soft, choking sound. Dennon smiled. The girl jerked against the bounds to dislodge the hair. They fell onto the cold metal floor.
Once the hair was short enough, Dennon produced a razor and shaved her head so only stubble remained. A single tear slid down the girl’s cheek. Her breathing came in long, rattling gasps.
At last Dennon stepped back to review his handwork. He nodded to the guards. “Take her away.” The guards stepped forward and undid the straps. They lifted the girl out of her chair and dragged her out. Dennon remained to sweep up the lone locks of hair.