CHAPTER 2: The Sickness

     For a few minutes, we remain quiet, each focused on our own thoughts. The ramification of Mr. Blue and Mr. Black joining forces to overthrow the current government system is almost too much to process. 

     The smaller councils of each level create laws, which rise through the ranks to be discussed, then approved or denied by the High Houses, consisting of one representative from each of the founding families. From there, the laws that are approved pass on to Mr. Blue, who checks them against our current laws. He then convenes with Mr. White, his halion counterpart, and Mr. Black, the legalized mob, to determine how best to implement the new laws. 

     Since Leton, the first city-stack, was founded, our government has always worked this way.  

     To cut off a part of this process is to throw the whole system into upheaval. To what purpose? What is gained by changing the process? Fewer restrictions? New laws being passed faster? Without knowing what changes the new Mr. Blue and Mr. Black want to implement, it’s impossible to guess their next step. 

     And why strike the Arrington House first? Why not one of the lower houses, undermining the foundation? Or Lonette House? Cut off the head and the rest will fall. Why strike the middle?

     Felix springs to his feet, striding for the door. “We have to warn our families.”

     “And tell them what?” Connor’s calm voice pulls his twin up short. 

     Felix spins back around, his expression incredulous. “Weren’t you just listening?”

     Restless energy rolls through me, and I stand to pace. “It’s all rumor and supposition. We can’t accuse anyone without proof.”

     “Like hell we can’t!” Felix flings an arm out toward Declan. “Declan’s entire family was just murdered! That’s proof!”

     “All that means is that some mysterious illness struck down their house.” Connor pulls his glasses off to rub the bridge of his nose. “They’ll quarantine the remaining members while they investigate. If Mr. Blue really is behind this, that would be the perfect opportunity for him to finish off Dec and his brother. They’d just say the sickness took them.”

     Dread fills my stomach. “That could be exactly what they’re waiting for. We were all gathered at Mr. Blue’s party. If they traced the supposed illness back to there, it would stand to reason that the other families were also infected. They could put all the Houses on lock-down under the guise of public safety. And when others fell to the illness, it would just be a sad misfortune.”

     Declan nods slowly, his eyes distant with thought. “They’d have to kill other people from the party to make it believable.”

     “Who’s to say they haven’t?” Connor pulls out his palm-port, then scowls at the school-issued device. “We need better tech, something not being tracked.”

     “I can get that for you.” Skittles rubs her hands together. “For a finder’s fee, of course.”

     With a tired sigh, Declan’s head falls back to rest against the back of the couch.  “If I pull any more out of my personal account, it’s going to look suspicious.”

     My pace slows. “I have an account separate from my family. It’s where I put all my winnings from my races so Father wouldn’t notice. But I have to go to the bank in person to withdraw the funds. It requires voice verification and retinal scan.”

     Skittles nods with approval. “Nicely paranoid.”

     “I wanted to make sure my father couldn’t access it.” I reach up and tug on one of my curls. “The bank is only open during Day-Light, and our movements are tracked at school. How do I access the funds?”

     “Tomorrow is Sunday, or rather, later today is still Sunday.” Felix bounces on the balls of his feet. “We can sneak back out then.”

     Connor shakes his head. “It’s too dangerous for all of us to go.”

     Felix’s shoulders pull back. “Well, she can’t go by herself!”

     “I’ll take Nikola.” At my quiet words, Felix spins toward me, anger pinching his brows together, and I raise a hand to forestall the refusal. “He makes the most sense. He’s my acting-Secretary. If we’re seen together, people will question it less.”

     “Traversing the sky-level is more difficult during Day-Light,” Skittles points out. “You’ll need to move fast, during shift change. And, of course, you’ll need to pay for passage through my building.”

     I can practically see the credits scrolling through her head. “How much?”

     She waves a hand. “A drop in the hat.”

     I turn to face her, hands on my hips. “How about an actual number?”

     She leans forward, a crafty look in her eyes. “One thousand.”

     “Just to use the elevator?” I shake my head. “Two hundred.”

     “My very special, limited access elevator.” She stands to put us on the same level. “Eight-hundred, and I’ll throw in the schedule for shift change.”

     There aren’t a lot of options for exit points once I’m in the holo-sky, and eight-hundred isn’t a lot in the scheme of things, but Skittles would think less of me if I gave in too easily. “Five hundred and it includes the schedule and access both directions.” When the corners of her mouth twitch, I add, “For me and anyone I bring.”

     “Deal.” She thrusts out her hand, and I shake, her palm cool and strong against mine. When she releases me, she grins. “I would have done it for two.”

     And I would have paid a thousand, but I keep that to myself. No need to antagonize the Night Pirate. “How soon can you have our equipment?”

     “Tomorrow, easy.” She rubs her fingers together, as if already spending her credits. “Just need to know how much you all want.”

     We settle down to discuss it and eventually agree that we don’t all need new folding-ports or palm-ports. The school isn’t that big. We settle for two palm-ports and one folding-port under the assumption mine still works just fine. Declan will get the other folding-port and one of the palm-ports so we can stay in communication. Then we go over the times for shift change and arrange when we’ll reconvene tomorrow. With Declan’s restrictions, he won’t make our arrival, but he should be able to escape the house and meet up with us before our departure.

     Once everything is settled, Skittles skips out of the room to give us some alone time.

     Felix spins to face Declan. “When will you be able to return to APA?”

  His expression turns bleak. “As soon as Dominick is stable enough to make a public appearance.”

     My heart goes out to him. No matter what his relationship is with his brother, it can’t be easy watching him suffer. “Does the physician offer much hope?”

     “The fact he hasn’t succumbed so far is promising.” He rubs the back of his neck. “But he’s always been frail, so I’m not sure.”

     Connor checks the time and sighs with regret. “We need to go.” He steps up to his friend, pulling him into a hug. “Take care of yourself.”

     They pat each other’s backs and separate.

     Felix takes his brother’s place, a scowl twisting his lips. “I’m so angry at you right now.”

     “I know.” Declan tugs him closer, their foreheads bumping together. “We’ll talk, okay? As soon as we have an open line of communication.”

    “I’ll believe it when it happens. Communication’s apparently not your strong point.” Felix remains stiff, his arms hanging at his sides, refusing to accept the embrace. “I thought we had each other’s backs.”

     Declan winces. “I deserve that.” 

     Tentatively, he cups Felix’s cheek, but the other man turns away, stomping to the door to join his brother.

     My chest aches for the lost expression on Declan’s face as he stares at the back of Felix’s head. I step up to him, my voice soft. “I’m sorry.”

     “Not your fault. I should have told him sooner.” He clears his throat and turns to me, eyes filled with sadness. “I just didn’t want to lose what we have sooner than I had to.”

     “Selfish.” My fingers brush the back of his hand. “It’s why I can’t go. I’m selfish, too. I’d rather stay here and find a way to be with them.”

     He shakes his head, his expression hopeless. “You’ll be beat down. Destroyed and reformed in your father’s image, just like what happened with Dominick.”

     “Not if I have a strong team keeping me on track.” I rise onto my tiptoes to press my lips against his sallow cheek. “We’re stronger together, Dec.”

     He tugs on one of my red curls, trying to force humor into the moment. “No kiss for good luck?”

     I force a smile because he needs it. “How about a kiss of welcome when you return to APA?”

     “She’s gotten really good,” Felix tosses out, still not looking at Declan. “So, you should hurry up and get back. I have a story to tell you about her and Connor.”

     “Bro,” Connor protests.

     “What?” Felix shoves him in the arm. “What happens between you guys is between you. What you do in front of me is another thing.”

     “You were pretending to be asleep?” Connor shoves him back. “Perv.”

     While the two bicker, Declan leans in close, his mouth next to my ear. “How is he doing?”

     I don’t have to ask which he Declan means. “He’s agitated and quick to anger, but we’re working on it. I think Nikola will help.”

     “Have they...” Declan trails off with a pained sigh, unable to finish the sentence. “Never mind. I don’t want to know.”

     “He’s willing to fight with Felix.” I frown up at Declan. “How did you know he’d be able to open the escape hatch?”

     “Secretaries talk.” He smooths a hand over my hair. “After I heard he’d been brought in as your acting-Secretary, I asked around about him. He has a reputation for black market dealings. He had an entire web of informants at Tri-Worth. I figured he would know if anyone did.”

     My brows lift. “So, it was a guess?”

     “A highly educated guess.” His expression turns troubled. “Be careful around him. He’s dangerous. That other one, Garrett, there are bad rumors about him, too.”

     A chill enters my voice. “Garrett’s been dealt with.”

     His lips part to ask more, but Connor waves for our attention. “We really have to go or we’ll be caught when the first shift starts.”

     With a jerky nod, Declan’s hand slips to my back, and we join the twins at the door. 

     Silence fills our small group as we walk back to the elevator. I keep an eye out for Skittles, but the Night Pirate doesn’t pop out of any of the offices to see us off. It makes me wonder what she uses this building for, and how a Night Pirate can afford it. Level 12 isn’t cheap, and it only gets more expensive the closer a business is to Central Plaza. 

     All big commerce flows outward from the city center. It’s where ships land and houses the largest docks for portal travel to other locations within the level. To erect a building just outside of the plaza and gain the permits to build it all the way up to the holo-sky would have cost a fortune, both in credits and favors with city officials.

     When I approached Skittles to be my sponsor in the disc-bike races, I hadn’t realized I dealt with someone who held so much power.

     At the elevator, we step on and Declan rides with us to the top. Our parting holds a bittersweet air. If all goes well, I’ll see Declan again tomorrow, but Connor and Felix don’t know when they’ll meet their friend again.

     Declan’s gaze lingers on Felix, a wealth of unsaid words between them, but Felix remains stubborn to the very end. 

     When we reach the exit into the holo-sky, Felix leaves the lift first, his back to the elevator as he faces forward. Connor pats Declan on the shoulder in commiseration, and we step out into the small room together. 

     I lift a hand as the door closes. “Tell your brother to hurry up and recover.”

     Declan nods, the smile on his lips only half faked.

     “Sure you want to leave things like this, bro?” Connor murmurs.

     In response, Felix lifts a hand, waving his middle finger over his shoulder, and some of the tension eases from Declan’s body in the second before the doors close completely.

     Blackness swamps us, and I reach for the night-goggles around my neck, pulling them up to suction around my eyes. Dark-green washes into view, revealing the edges of the tiny room, and I glance over at the others. Light sparks around the rim of their goggles as they fit them into place.

     Not looking forward to the trek back across the holo-sky, I rub my sweaty palms against my thighs. “Ready?”

     “I can’t wait to crawl into bed.” Felix rolls his head, neck crackling as his vertebrae pop. “Prepare yourself to be the big spoon, Sprinkles.”

     “Myrrine’s not letting you into our room at this time of night,” I whisper.

     He shrugs. “Then we’ll bunk down in Nikola’s room. He has a spare bed.”

     “Where does that leave me?” Connor demands.

     Felix snorts. “Spooning with Nikola, obviously.”

     A laugh escapes me at the idea of Nikola and Connor spooning, and Felix snickers. 

     Connor just gives us a resigned sigh and grasps the door, pushing it open. “Come on, children, time doesn’t stop moving so neither can we.”

     The trip back across the sky panels is no less terrifying for doing it a second time, and I keep my eyes focused on Connor’s strong back in front of me to avoid looking over the bridge’s railing to the city too far below us.

     At Lights-Out, it lays in darkness, but soon that will change. The sky-panels will shift, first to the dim faux-dawn of Quarter-Light, mirrored by the streetlights as they brighten with the new day. Then the sky will shift to Half-Light for two hours before Day-Light takes hold. It’s supposed to simulate the rising sun for those who can’t see a real sunrise.

     Does the area we traverse brighten by increments, too? Or are there dampeners built into the octagon sky-panels that protect the workers from the glare? Do they have day-goggles the same as we wear night-goggles?

     My mind circles around that thought, and soon I find my feet back on solid ground. Or, at least, a ground I can’t see through. When I think about it, no ground is really solid outside of Ground Zero. Each level lives on top of the one below it, soaring high into the sky in a marvel of engineering achieved through the joint efforts of humans and halions, the aliens we share the planet with. 

     Level 13, where APA resides, squats on top of the holo-sky of Level 12, and so on all the way to the bottom. My stomach clenches at the realization, and I avoid glancing back at the sky-panels as I remind myself that the stacked cities have existed for almost nine-hundred years without the buildings crashing through the levels.

     Felix’s hand touches my shoulder. “You doing okay, Sprinkles?”

     Throat too tight to speak, I nod. 

     “If you need to focus on your light wheel or something, just let me know.” Worry fills his voice. “I got your back. I’m right here.”

     His obvious concern knocks me out of my thought spiral. He doesn’t fully understand my panic attacks, but he watched Nikola coach me through one, and he’s trying to do the same. Warmth fills me, and I reach back to grab his hand. 

     Our fingers lace together, and I take a deep breath. It’s like I told Declan. As long as I have their support, I can bear any weight.

Copyright © 2019 by Lyn Forester

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© 2016 by Lyn Forester