The girl cowers, her head low. I watch out of the corner of my eye, but say nothing. I do not know her name, but I recognize her from the years we have spent in the same faction, gathering food and surviving. She has never been particularly strong, and her fear is not well hidden. I feel a pang of pity for her and ignore it. Though I do not want to watch her suffer, I am not willing to take her place.
I think fast to see if there is any way I can help her without endangering myself. My mind is blank though, my stomach churning. It makes me sick; but if she were stronger, she would not be in this situation.
The Carrion in the white uniform kneels beside her, a brutal smile stitched to his face. It looks like it is carved there. The man is not handsome, nor attractive in any other way. That might just be because of his uniform, but either way he is still ugly. At any rate, when you have power you don't need looks.
"Don't look like that, now," he crows quietly. I can barely hear him, and I wish I do not hear him at all. Wishes never come true in the Flats, not unless you're a Carrion. "I won't hurt you if you come with me. C'mon, girlie, it'll be fun."
She shakes her head, and I fight to regain control of my uneasy stomach. All I can think of is how glad I am that I am not like her. I cannot watch any more, and so I return my attention back to the potatoes in the ground.
I hear a struggle, and I look up to see the Carrion dragging the girl by her wrist away from the fields. She looks defeated, her shoulders slumped and her head low. I sigh, thankful that it was not me today.
I look up at the sky, wiping my brow. It is familiar. The color of faded rust stretches from horizon to horizon, and I only know that the sun is up because it is bright, and Laborers are working. This is all I have ever known, but sometimes I imagine that the sky is blue. It is a silly thought, and usually dismissed right away. How could the sky be blue?
I hear a low rumble in the distance and see a massive wall of black encroaching. My heart leaps. Rain.
Instantly, sirens begin to wail. A few miles away, I see the steel shields curl up around the city, forming an indestructible dome of solid, glinting gray. Our own shields begin to curl up around the fields. I cover my ears against the terrible screech of metal on metal.
My attention returns to the ground, where a Carrion soldier grips my arm, shouting at me. I must get inside or I will starve out here. Pulling free of his grasp, my skin crawling where he touched me, I run for the large wall of rock that is the entrance to the Flats Compound.
I am the last one inside the large cave, and I am just in time. The shield seals the entrance to the cave and suddenly, all I hear is a thunderous pounding on the dome. The rain is here.
Here in the Flats, rain is toxic. I do not know why, but I suspect that it is the fault of people like the City Dwellers of the past. From the time that I was a small child, stories drift around about how people have stayed in the rain and all that was found of them were bones. Everything else had melted away. The only things safe from the destructive downpour are the shields and caverns like this.
The Laborers and Carrion all live underground. When it rains, we are confined here for days at a time, until it is safe to reemerge above ground.
Spreading out of the cavern are many tunnels, leading to other roomy caverns like this, where each faction dwells. Three tunnels off my right lead to the Carrion Dwellings. They have less room because there are more Laborers than Carrion soldiers. None of the Laborers really take notice of this, but I do. And so do the Carrion. If ever we came together and decided to rebel, our victory was guaranteed. The Carrion hate us for an advantage we don't know we have.
To my left, the Laborers depart for their Faction Halls. There are six factions, and so there are six wide tunnels that lead to separate caverns, where apartments are built into the walls and lined up in rows on the cool, smooth floor.
The lights are turned on, and a few people are momentarily disorientated, pausing to let their eyes adjust to the sudden brightness. My eyes, however, adjust so quickly that I don't even notice, and so I keep moving towards Faction Hall Three, though I do not intend to stay long.
Our time inside the Compound is precious. Laborers are generally free of the Carrion, and we are allowed to relax and tend to ourselves. There are not as many guards around, and even less for the Factions of Women. It is acknowledged that men are capable of thinking and have muscular builds; women just cook and clean and nurse children for their first three years before the kids are moved to a new faction.
Families are not permitted to be in the same Faction, where they can grow to love one another and bond. After three years of being raised by their mother, they are placed elsewhere to grow up as orphans in a new Faction. They are then raised by the community, so as not to grow close to anyone else. Inter-factioin relationships are forbidden, and so do not exist among the Laborers.
I do not know my mother, and my father is likely a Carrion monster. On more than one occasion, I have vomited upon thinking about it. It is for this reason I refuse to succumb to the Carrion men when they try to win my attention. I will not let any child of mine grow up with a life like this.
When I reach the apartment I share with three other women, I go straight to the drawer under my bed, where I store every one of my possessions. All the apartments are plain, with three rooms. We sleep in one room, the biggest and at the back of the building. There is another room for eating and cooking, in the middle. The last room is where we sit and mend our clothes, or wash ourselves as well as we can with a stone basin filled with warm water. We only get one, between the four of us, and so we have to be quick so that whoever is last still has some warm water too. As the youngest, and the smallest, I am usually last.
I do not have to look hard for what I seek in my drawer. The only thing in it is one other change of clothes, and some tools for mending them. I pull out the pair of leggings and the plain shirt that can no longer be called white. I stole these the first time I sneaked into Faction Hall Two. I had cut my hair short, and disguised myself as a man. The only room-mate I really talk with asked me what I was going to do.
"I'm going to fight with the men," I told her.
"Johanna, why do you insist on breaking the rules? You'll be killed if any one finds out." Her eyes were desperate, pleading me not to go.
"Myra," I said sharply. "I want to learn to fight so that when the time comes, I can protect myself. The Carrion are ruthless and brutal, but I do not have to be another weak-minded victim. They will not have their way with me." She looked like she wanted to say more, but I stopped her. "Either turn me in, or leave it alone." Her brown eyes dropped to the floor; she knew there was no use in arguing with me, and did not try to stop me again.
Since then, my hair has grown to my shoulders, and I am easily recognized as a girl. But it doesn't matter any more, because the men I fight with know who I am, and they have accepted me. The only reason I change any more is because it is difficult to fight in a skirt, though not impossible.
This all started last summer, and it was only in the beginning of winter when they discovered my true identity. It was a boy close to my age who figured it out. He is now the closest thing I have to a friend. I admire his strength, and in the course of a year, he has taught me how to fight. I recall his wide, crooked smile as I finish changing.
I find a string and tie my hair up. To my knowledge, I am one of only a few women in the Compound who has silver hair. I stick out here in Faction Three, as most of the women from the Flats have thick, dark, curly hair. I do not mind it so much any more, though I used to wish that I had dark hair too.
Looking back on yesterday, if those soldiers had really seen me stealing berries, they would not have forgotten it so easily.
I am taking long strides down the dark tunnel. The Carrion do not know of their existence, and few Laborers know it too, but there are secret tunnels leading every where. The one I am currently taking leads to Faction Two, where mostly men live.
Though it is dark, I know exactly where I am going. In a few minutes, I see a dim light looming ahead. When I am closer, I hear the feral grunts and thuds as skin connects with skin in powerful thrusts. They have already started.