In a world where your status is described by your number, two people, one subordinate Odd, and one ruling Even, are thrown together and set off on a journey to safety, and in finding it, they end up discovering a danger that challenges everything they thought they knew.
Three men crept stealthily through the darkness. Their hands were gloved, but their faces were bare, shining palely in the dim moonlight. They were all armed, two carried machetes across their backs, the handles protruding over their right shoulders, while the third carried a metal bar, clutched tight in his hand.
They moved quietly, picking carefully between discarded scraps of metal and black plastic bags, their contents strewn around them. The man in front, the one with the metal bar, held up a fist suddenly, stopping in the shadows. He tucked the bar under one arm and ran his hand through his hair, taking a deep breath.
“Alright,” he muttered, “let’s do this and get out of here.” He pulled the bar out from under his arm and tightened his grip on it. The two men behind him unsheathed the machetes, pulling them over their shoulders with practised ease. They smiled, teeth gleaming in the faint light, and then hurried forward.
Their feet splashed into puddles left by the earlier rain, but they didn’t care now. They swept into the room like a tornado and within moments, four of the occupants were unconscious on the floor and the other two were pressed against the wall with two-foot long blades pressed against their throats.
The man with the bar turned slowly towards them and they shrank back visibly, almost trying to step through the wall.
“I’d quite like to know,” he said softly, “where my men are.”
“You won’t find them,” one of their prisoners, a woman in her early thirties, said defensively.
“I will, trust me.” He turned away from her and stopped in front of the other prisoner – a middle aged man – and smiled. “I was hoping you’d be here, Mr. Hill.”
“Taylor, listen. You won’t find your men. They’ve been moved to a secure location already. It’s Even ground. You wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“I can try,” Taylor said harshly. “They trusted me-“
“Strange how people who trust you seem to end up in trouble,” the woman interrupted. Taylor turned and calmly backhanded her across the face.
Her head snapped back, colliding sharply with the wall, but one of Taylor’s companions, a thickset man named Martin, held her up so she didn’t fall to the floor.
“Anyway, where were we?” Taylor asked pleasantly, turning back as if nothing had happened.
Mr. Hill regarded him for a second, and then shook his head regretfully.
“It’s a shame, really,” he said quietly.
In two quick steps, he slid sideways, snatched the machete from Martin’s slack grip, and swept it across his own throat.
“No!” Taylor caught him as he fell and shook him furiously. “Where are they? Tell me!”
Hot red blood gushed over his gloved hands and he let Hill fall. Almost automatically, he glanced at the back of Hill’s right hand. A number two was etched there in black ink. Taylor glanced at his own right hand. Beneath the glove, he could almost feel the seven tattooed into his skin. At times like this, it felt like it was burning – an eternal symbol of his humiliation. Odd. The odd one out. Always on the outskirts, never quite good enough.
“Right. Let’s get out of here,” he said. He swept his hand up and struck the woman on the temple with the bar. She collapsed instantly onto the floor. Martin picked up his machete and followed shamefacedly as they left, led by a silently fuming Taylor.
Half an hour later, they crept across the boundary line, crawling under the barbed wire that divided the city, and felt themselves relax. They were back on their home territory.
“I’m going to check in with Zach, and then I’ll catch you up,” Taylor told the other two. They nodded silently. When he was in this sort of mood, it was safer to agree with everything he said.
Taylor left them at the corner outside the small house that served as their temporary headquarters for that week, and went inside alone.
There was a guard in the hallway and he stopped Taylor as he stepped inside, but a quick glance at his face was enough to assure him that Taylor was allowed access. Everyone knew Taylor.
He climbed the stairs quickly, his feet echoing on the wood.
He was a good looking man in his early twenties, slender and muscular, with dark hair cropped close against his skull. A small silver scar stretched a couple of inches into his hair, just above his right eye. He wore a permanently hard expression, a look not softened by his brilliant blue eyes.
“Tay.” He turned quickly, swinging the bar up across his chest. He held it there for a few seconds before relaxing.
“Zach,” he replied easily. He smiled as the other man came over and put an arm around him, thumping him hard on the back.
“How’d it go? Did you find them?” Suddenly, Taylor wasn’t smiling. He shook his head.
“No. Hill killed himself rather than tell us.” Zach’s face tightened with anger and worry.
“We need to find them soon,” he growled.
“We will,” Taylor assured him, but his face was grim. “It’ll take a bit longer, that’s all.”
“I hope you’re right, Tay. You know what’ll happen if we don’t.”
“Yes.” The two men stood in silence for a few moments, and then Taylor sighed.
“I’ve got to go and find the others,” he said.
“Right. I’ll see you soon.” Zach reached out and touched his shoulder and then strode off down the corridor. He vanished through a door at the far end without looking back.
Taylor turned on his heel and hurried down the stairs. The guard was still standing by the front door and he held up a hand.
“You’ll have to wait for a minute. Patrol’s out there. You’d better get back quickly. They’ve already arrested twelve people out there.”
“Thanks.” Taylor stepped closer to the door and peered out of the side window. Four men were walking slowly down the street. Their bulky black clothing identified them instantly as members of the Night Guard. They would be low ranking Evens – probably Twos - unscrupulous and cold. Taylor had had a run in with a unit the year before. He still had the scars.
The four men walked out of sight and Taylor cautiously opened the door, and set off in the opposite direction. He moved silently, the metal bar still held tight in his hand. It only took him about ten minutes to reach the house he shared with five others, his unit.
They welcomed him back with relief. Along with Martin, there was the other man who had accompanied him into Area Four, a nineteen-year-old called Scott. Then there was Jeff, a thirty five year old. He was the calming influence in the group; he kept them from getting too carried away.
Then there were the two girls, Jemma and Mattie. Jemma was a Seven, like Taylor, but Mattie was a Nine, and so higher level than any of the others. She had once had a job as a teacher. She’d had a husband, three children, until one of the Tens had decided that there were too many Odds and organised a few accidental shootings at Odd schools around the country. She had lost everything in one day. So she had joined the Numbers and never looked back.
It was Mattie who flung her arms around Taylor as he came in the door, planting a kiss on his cheek.
“We were so worried about you,” she exclaimed. Taylor pulled wearily out of her grip and stepped around her. He exchanged a nod with Jeff, who was stood against the wall, and then walked with leaden steps up the stairs.
He fell onto his bed and reached under the mattress. His fingers found a small corner of paper and he pulled it out. It was a folded photograph. He held it in his hand for a moment, turning it over in his fingers, and then unfolded it quickly and smoothed it out on the mattress.
Running his fingers gently over it, he looked over the familiar picture, a small smile lifting the corner of his mouth. Zia. Their arms around each other, both of them laughing at the camera. His eyes strayed, as they always did, to his right hand on the photograph. There was no tattoo there. Zia’s hand was out of sight, but there was no eight tattooed there. It reminded him of a happy time, before they had been ripped apart. He growled his frustration and quickly folded the picture up, stuffing it roughly under the mattress again.
He clenched his fists on the thin duvet and buried his face in the pillow. He hadn’t felt so frustrated for a long time. How could he be so useless at finding his own men? It was his fault that they were in danger in the first place, a slight miscalculation on his part and suddenly, half his force had been captured and the rest were running for their lives. At least he had got the others away…
Fists still clenched tight, he drifted uneasily into sleep.