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Nocturne’s Reaping® : Dirge

Chapter 23

“Pray with me.” Nora whispered to Jack.

Nora and Jack prayed as they slowly approached what she believed to be the spot where they were supposed to ascend, even though it was still a ways away. By the look of it, it seemed the recruits were to cross the force field through a temporarily weakened section. Nora also noticed there were fighter jets within the area. Were they there to repel any nebula reapers that breached the vulnerability? Were the nebula reapers right there — perhaps just passing in the distance? Could that be why the recruits had been told to keep in a holding pattern for the time being? At the very least, it would seem that the opportunity to exit into space couldn’t be guaranteed at any given moment. Certainly, the recruits weren’t all going to be sent out just to be ambushed. The fact that the Administration delayed their ascent suggested that wasn’t true. Yet, Nora’s mind couldn’t help but run through all the possibilities she could conceive of. And the fact was that in this situation almost anything was possible.

Then, Nora got to thinking about the purpose of the fighter jets. Perhaps, they weren’t there just for the nebula reapers. Maybe they were there to shoot down any of the recruits who strayed off course. Even if that wasn’t their real purpose, it had the same effect — it made you think twice before trying to escape.

Finally, they were given the signal to ascend. Jack and Nora filed in behind the other recruits; a couple more filed in behind them. They lined up in the order they had left the Institute. One by one they disappeared into the hole in the force field like a person sinking underneath a pool of water. Nora thought of Group A and their final moments. Were they given a chance to come back through the force field? How long had they been kept out there? Had they realized at some point they weren’t going to be able to defeat the reapers? Had they tried to return? Had the fleeing planes crashed into the force field, and that was how they fell to the ground the way they had? Was that the reason the planes were now even smaller than the ones she had seen Group A use during their test flight? Had even the small planes from before resulted in too much debris? On the one hand, Nora was in a unique position to understand the horror of that. On the other hand, her brain wouldn’t allow her to go there.

As it turned out, it was pointless to wonder. Nora hadn’t actually seen the planes Group A had used on their final mission. The ones Elsie saw may have been set aside for either Group A or Group B. Actually, Nora didn’t know at the time to ask Elsie whether the planes she saw being moved on to the grounds before the members of Group A were sent out that last time were the same as those used during the test flight. In the end, what Nora really wanted to know now was whether the plane she and Jack were in was the same type that had been used in that disastrous mission. And were they, therefore, doomed to have the same kind of failure now? Would the Administration have even had the time to improve the planes this fast? It could be the Administration anticipated the need for smaller planes yet sent Group A out in the less effective ones anyway. Either way, it seemed impossible to know at this point whether Group B stood a better chance than Group A had.

Nora did decide that, no matter whether those in Group A had lost their lives as a direct result of the nebula reapers or while trying to flee from them, it was likely the force field had been closed off behind them. Chances were good that that was what was about to happen to her and the others in Group B, too. Nora’s stomach dropped when she realized that the force field would probably not be opened again until Group C was ready to be sent out. Then, it suddenly dawned on Nora that the planes she saw earlier, the small ones she assumed were for Group B, may be intended for Group C instead. If Group A flew out that final time in their test planes, it would mean that the plane Nora was now using was one of the ones Elsie saw being brought in to the complex, and that Nora instead saw the vehicles meant for Group C’s demise. It was like it had been with Group A — Group B had already died in the mind of the Administration. Panic began to set in once more.

“Why are we doing this again?” Nora questioned. “Wouldn’t we have a better chance against those fighter jets?”

Jack hesitated. He didn’t want to talk about the fact that the colony was on borrowed time. It would automatically call to Nora’s mind her parents and her brother. Though Jack talked with Nora’s mother, he wasn’t sure her family would be able to leave in time.

“I’ve been thinking we might get trapped out there …” Nora noted.

“I talked with your mother. I told her everything. There may be a way for them to leave.” Jack decided to say after all.

Nora partially turned. She was silent for a moment as she considered.

“I told them I’d take care of you.” he added.

“But it’s such a risk for them to try. Is it because of me? Because of this?”

“Yes and no. If I hadn’t promised to try to get you out, they might not have considered leaving. But still … there isn’t much of a choice. The truth is we’re not going to stop the nebula reapers. Eventually, the force field is going to fail. Our goal is to delay them long enough for some others to escape in a passenger plane.”

Nora fully turned around to look at Jack. She forgot she couldn’t see his face behind his helmet.

“How can they fit a plane that size through those small force field gaps?” Nora wondered.

“My guess is that with the distraction they can open a hole big enough for a larger vessel. It’s a risk, but it worked with Group A.”

Nora swallowed. Moments later, she bit her lip.

“Then, they’ve already given up on the colony … There’s no hope down there.” she said as she turned back forward. Nora lightly touched the controls. “And yet, most everything in me is screaming that we should turn back … unless, unless I can help my parents … my brother … you and I … It could just be fear, I guess. Something tells me it could just be fear I’m feeling …”

“There’s no time left for you to go with them tonight. And if they are going in the third group, it might ruin their chances if you tried to join up with them now — assuming that’s even an option. Still, I’m planning on escaping with you right now if we can. This is our only chance to have a plane. Are you up for it?”

Nora breathed.

“I guess I’ll have to be … It’s time.”

The computer monitor showed that they had reached the point in space where they were to ascend. In fact, the controls lit up to show that they needed to be adjusted. Once Nora put her hands on the controls, the screen showed instructions on what should be done next. She did what the instructions spelled out. As she did, the plane started the steep climb towards the exit into space. Nora breathed shallowly and swiftly as the plane ascended. Eventually, she realized she was near hyperventilation. She thought about closing her eyes but decided against it. She needed to be able to see. That was when she felt Jack’s hand grasp her shoulder reassuringly. Nora managed to calm down … but just a little.

Then, suddenly, a thought flashed into her mind. She remembered how the lecturer had told them how lucky they were compared with the others who were to remain on the colony. It was a lie that the recruits were lucky, but what about the others? Was he thinking about what was going to happen when the force field failed? Maybe he felt he’d rather be in a plane like the recruits than be one of the people on the ground. Would he be one of those helpless people, or would he be one of the ones who were set to escape all of this?

And could she really judge the people behind the escape plan now that her parents and brother might be among the escapees? No, it wasn’t their escaping that was wrong; it was the way those behind it were going about it. Nora did worry that her parents wouldn’t escape. Yet, if they could it would be a relief. One thing Nora felt sure about was that Jack wouldn’t lie about the possibility that her family might escape, not even to make her feel better. No, she had to believe it was possible.

“Nora, heads up.” Jack said. “We’re going through.”

There was an eerie silence when they emerged on the other side. At first, she could only hear the low roar of the thrusters. Then, Jack switched on the radio. Jack could reach some of the buttons that Nora couldn’t easily reach under the circumstances. On the radio, they could hear the others breathing. Nora then realized she could also hear her own breath rather loudly from within her mask. She concluded that her nerves were getting to her. There was one question that needed to be answered to reassure Nora: what were they supposed to do now?

“Should we turn the lights on?” Nora wondered aloud.

“No.” Jack returned.

“But I can’t see anything.” she persisted.

“I’m more worried about their seeing us at this point.” Jack noted.

He was leaning to the side and seemed to be straining to see what was going on outside the window.

“Wait! What’s that!” a voice came over the intercom suddenly. “Turn us around!”

Nora held her breath as the screaming began.

Because of the light from the other planes’ thrusters, Nora could see that the planes were scattering. The lights would spark on and off at varying times. Nora couldn’t tell whether the nebula reapers had actually come upon the recruits or whether the recruits had just lost their nerve. Nora thought about calling out to them, but she doubted they could hear her over the shouts and screams, which abounded. While everyone else seemed to be in some state of movement, Nora was frozen. Though the planes came equipped with weapons — and they had now been activated — she couldn’t see anything to fire the weapons at.

But when the firing began from elsewhere, she was able to finally see the massive forms of the nebula reapers streaking around. Only they seemed much larger, much closer than ever before. And one was coming almost directly at her and Jack’s plane! Nora shrieked as the light gray apparition slid against their vehicle with such force that it caused Nora and Jack to careen off course.

But the creature didn’t go for them; it was hot on the trail of another plane. Nora swallowed and wrung her hands.

“Maybe it thinks we’re dead.” Nora put forth.

“Those weapons don’t seem to be doing anything.” Jack observed calmly.

Nora screamed as the pursued plane and all those in it were consumed.

“No!! Jack!” Nora screamed.

She attempted to turn around toward him, but she did it so quickly that she forgot to compensate for her safety belt. Yet, she could see that his mask was facing her.

“I’m trying to figure out what to do.” he stated. “The problem is we can’t just stay here forever.”

Nora was confused by Jack’s demeanor. Should she be comforted or concerned by his seeming stoicism? It all depended on what it meant. Was he formulating some sort of plan? Or, was he like her — in a state of shock — incapable of deciding on a course of action. Then, another reaper bumped into them then another. Nora shook violently.

“What should I do, Jack?! Should I fire at them?!” Nora demanded, her voice shrill.

“No. Even direct hits don’t do any good.”

Nora breathed unsteadily.

“You were right! We’re just a distraction! There’s nothing we can do!!” she sobbed.

Nora could suddenly hear someone over the intercom start to cry, and she realized her mistake. She had been talking over the radio.

“I’m — I’m sorry …” Nora stammered. “Maybe you should all try stopping as we have. I mean, it’s not a complete answer, but …”

“We’re being pursued, you idiot! We can’t stop …” one yelled back at her.

“The firing may draw attention …” Nora offered.

“What?! Are you crazy? We have to defend ourselves!” another screamed.

“It doesn’t do any good!” Nora argued.

“Don’t listen to her! I’ve seen it repel them,” a man yelled out. “Just keep moving and firing. She probably just wants everyone to be a sitting duck like she is.”

“No, I …”

“Don’t bother.” Jack said. “You tried.”

Jack switched the radio off.

“I hate to say this, but we can use all that’s going on to get away … Nora … Nora.”

“Yes.” Nora uttered.

“I’m switching us on to impulse power.” Jack informed her. “I’m hoping that will keep our movement so slow and emit so little light that it won’t draw attention to us. You need to steer us toward the right.”

Nora managed to move her eyes toward the controls. She slowly reached out her shaking hands to the controls and tipped them ever so slightly to the right. She breathed and realized that she had been holding her breath. Her muscles were also so tense that she felt they might start cramping. She started rubbing one leg with a hand she freed up just to have something else to do. Unfortunately, she couldn’t help but look up again. The scene she saw in front of her looked almost identical to the one she had seen before she looked down.

“Are we even moving?” Nora asked after a moment had passed.

“Yes, we’re moving — just slowly.”

Nora leaned back into Jack.

“Then … we just wait …” Nora murmured.

“Yes.”

“We’re using the same strategy as the passenger transport — wherever it is — just trying to lie low …” she whispered. “I wonder whether my parents are out there somewhere trying to get away.”

Nora looked off to the side at the edge where the windshield met the metal sides of the plane. From that position, she was able to witness certain events unfolding. In the distance, she could see lights erupt in patches against the force field surrounding Colony 52. At first, Nora thought it was just the debris from the planes, which had either succumbed to or were trying to flee from the nebula reapers, and it was. But it was also the nebula reapers bearing down on the force field, weakening it. And it was weakening. Almost imperceptibly, the light grew dimmer and dimmer. And when the weakening occurred, the small planes would disappear from view as they delved into the atmosphere — though by then they were no longer in one piece. It must have been the same for Group A, Nora decided. Only because the force field had become weaker since then, it was happening faster for Group B. For now, most of the reapers were too large to make it through the force field and reach Colony 52. And yet, Nora somehow knew that soon that wouldn’t be the case. Soon the force field would be no more. Then, nothing would exist … not on Colony 52.

“It’s funny, you know, though not in an amusing way …” Nora’s voice was hollow. “… but I can still hear the screaming even now that the radio is turned off.” Nora muttered. “Am I dreaming? It’s getting so dark. The lights are all going out one by one … And now, they’re gone. They’re all gone. Ours could come back on though. And what about my parents and brother …? It’s cold, so cold. And dark — so very dark. How far do you think we can go before we die of suffocation — assuming you’re right, and they don’t kill us?”

“As long as it takes. I believe we can make it to the nearest planet.”

“But how much oxygen could we have left?”

“Enough I think. As soon as we’re farther away we’ll set off faster.”

Nora reached back and grasped his hand.

“Thank you for coming for me — no matter what happens.” she murmured softly.

He squeezed her hand.

“Don’t give up, Nora. Don’t give up.”

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2016

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Nocturne’s Reaping® : Dirge

Chapter 22

Nora entered the locker room. She found she was actually glad — glad to have a break from Ned at least. But then, she was confronted by glares, which were coming from those three girls she had had a run-in with earlier at the dorm. Thankfully, they weren’t in the mood to make more of it than that. Still, she didn’t need to be surrounded by such anger and disdain now of all times.

Even so, Nora would have lingered in the locker room if she had been given a choice, but she wasn’t. Instead, the recruits were all ordered from the room before Nora had even laced up her boots. Nora had managed to be one of the last ones to leave, however. She took those few moments to try to regain her composure and even managed to pray a little. This time she simply prayed for all those on Colony 52. As she approached the exit to the locker room, she somehow had a sense of peace settle over her. She sighed. She didn’t want to die, especially not this way; and yet, she was not so frantic as she had been before. She had done everything she could think to do.

As Nora stepped into the hallway, she figured the man standing awkwardly near the exit must be Ned, though it was impossible to tell with the helmet he was wearing. She walked up to him. There was no point in this tension, Nora decided. They’d be trying to survive together. And if they did make it back to the colony, they’d need to work together to land someplace else, so they could escape the Administration.

“Listen, today’s a bad day for both of us. Let’s just try to work together and survive.”

Silence. Nora was shocked when Ned started to walk away toward the rest of the group. He was giving her the silent treatment now? How was that going to work? Yes, it was good his inane chatter had ended, but still …

Nora reluctantly joined the others. After all, what choice did she have? Just as before, Ned kept looking over at her. She would look over at him from the side. She felt herself flush. Obviously, he was trying to make her uncomfortable, Nora concluded. Still, she decided not to look at him anymore lest she give him the wrong idea.

Each pair was led to a small plane of their own. It was so tiny; Nora wondered whether she and Ned could even fit in there. Nora also wished she could pick her own plane. It was probably paranoid of her, but having Mrs. Grafton, who clearly didn’t like her, choose the vehicle that Nora would either live or die in didn’t sit right with her.

Nora looked around her. Within the shadows of the doorways, men stood with guns. Nice, Nora thought. Ned put his hand on her shoulder. He motioned with a movement of his head toward the plane.

Nora looked back up at the ladder. Ned was smarter when he didn’t talk, Nora concluded. If she tried to run now, she’d be killed right away. What was more, it was foolish of her to think there was ever a way out, not really. It was all just an illusion. The recruits had, in fact, been led to believe that, so that they would keep delaying action until it was too late. But had there ever really been an opportunity for her? Not since they discovered her and Jack on the roof. Jack …

Nora, despite having come to terms with her situation, still didn’t want death — and yet, that seemed to be the only option that the Administration seemed to be offering. It was just about delaying the inevitable now. Nora grasped the ladder with her hands. She hesitated briefly. Then, she took a deep breath and started up the ladder. Nora squeezed as far forward on the one long seat as she could manage once she got inside. She was hoping that she would have to come into contact with Ned as minimally as possible. Nora was still thinking about Jack when Ned entered the plane and filed in behind her. It should have been he who was here with her, not Ned. It was hard not to blame Ned for that on some level, though she couldn’t be sure it was his fault. Fortunately for Nora, Ned seemed to be giving her some space. Though, he was still closer than Nora would have liked.

Yet, somehow, Nora could feel herself breathing easefully for the first time since she found out Ned was to be her copilot. And when the hatch came down around them, Nora concluded Ned must have been the one who pressed the button to close it. This development surprised Nora as she didn’t think he knew much of anything about the plane. Just then, the hangar door began to open. The morning it revealed featured a thick layer of dew covering the ground. The brightness from one of the simulated suns created a sort of haze. If it weren’t for these circumstances, Nora would have found it to be a nice day.

“You may start up the planes.” a female voice said over the intercom. Ned started the plane as directed. Once again, Ned seemed to know what he was doing. Maybe he’d be more help to Nora than she originally thought.

“When the light comes on, it will be your turn to head out on to the runway. Also, all pilots should be aware that we now have the capacity to override your controls upon takeoff. Each of your planes has an onboard navigational system preprogrammed to guide you to the spot where you will ascend. We will bring down safely any plane that avoids the set course, but the consequences will be severe.”

And there it was — the answer to the question that had been milling around in Nora’s mind. She had been waiting to see whether there was any indication that the Administration could control them once they took off. Of course, that didn’t mean they could control them after they got into space or out of a certain range; there was really no way to know that at this point. Nora also couldn’t be sure that what they were telling her now was the truth. All she could hope for was that it would turn out to be a lie later on.

Nora watched planes head out one after another. Then, her light came on.

“All right. Let’s get out of here.” Nora commented. “At least that’s one positive thing we can do.”

Nora began to ready the plane by pushing the correct buttons on the console. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a commotion going on to her right.

“I wonder … what?” Nora started.

She looked over to her other side and discovered Ned was leaning forward and removing some metallic piece from under the console.

“What are you doing, Ned?!” Nora demanded, fearing he was removing something critical to the operation of the plane.

“Take us forward.” Ned replied, only it wasn’t Ned’s voice she heard.

Nora looked ahead; she was utterly stunned. Was she imagining things? She started the plane forward. Then, she managed a near flawless takeoff. Nora breathed.

“Is it you?” Nora then asked the man behind her. “Jack, is it you?”

“Yes.”

Nora laughed with joy; her tension eased.

“How — how?” she stammered.

“I hid in the locker room. Ned is unconscious there. I recognized him from before. Plus, he was complaining about you. I knocked him out from behind. Chances are they may have just found him.”

“Before that…” Nora started.

“I sneaked in via a supply truck. Seems there aren’t too many people trying to get in, so they didn’t really examine the trucks thoroughly. Not to mention, the grounds are short-staffed. The guards seemed to be off doing something else. It’s possible they’re elsewhere because of Group B’s departure, though it’s also possible there’s another reason.”

“Well, what should I do? I mean, that was the pilot override you removed, wasn’t it?”

“Yes. I managed to get some useful information while I was here before.”

“Then, where should we go?”

Nora turned her face around just slightly. Then, she realized she was only able to see his helmet.

“Take us up to space.”

“What?! But they are there! And if the override is gone, then we can escape from the Administration. Do you think they’d try to bring us down? They might anyway because you’re here with me.”

“Yes, but it’s a chance we’ll have to take. I’ve given it a lot of thought; it’s the only way we can survive long-term.”

“But how could that be?”

“There are things I figured out that make it true.”

“What — what about your family?” Nora asked Jack.

“They died a long time ago. Not long after that day I met you, a disease went through the tunnels. By the time I found them again, it seems they had already been exposed. They told me to leave again when they became symptomatic. When I went back a week later, I was told they were dead.”

Nora turned back around and considered.

“I’m sorry …” she muttered, though it seemed inadequate. “And my family?”

She had almost been too afraid to ask.

“I took care of that.” Jack paused. “Nora, we don’t have time to waste. If you try to get off course, we’ll miss our chance. We need to do this.”

“All — all right. With you here with me, I probably can do it.”

Nora pulled back on the controls, and they began to climb toward the darkness.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2016

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Nocturne’s Reaping® : Dirge

Chapter 21

Nora was given a new outfit for the day. It was black in color and tighter than the one she already had. On the label, it read that the outfit was flame retardant. Nora laughed angrily to herself. What good would that do? If the plane caught on fire in space, there wouldn’t be anything they could do to stop it. She stared at the uniform for the longest time. At that moment, she couldn’t help but think about all the things she would never have a chance to do. The Administration didn’t give them much reason to hope otherwise. The recruits were told to clean their rooms. Why then? It was obvious — they were readying the rooms for their replacements. They didn’t expect Group B to return. Then again, why should they? Group A didn’t come back … alive.

“This is it — the end!” a voice called out.

At first Nora wondered whether she had really heard it. It was almost as though she could hear her own thoughts spoken aloud. Then, she realized there was a noise in the hall — a commotion of voices. Nora raised an eyebrow. Maybe it was the fact that she wanted to get away from the uniform, but she decided to go see what was going on.

“I want out! I want out of here!!” a hysterical girl was running down the hall.

A couple of other girls ran after her.

“Julie! Calm down!”

“No, I’m going to die!”

“Shh … stop.”

They held her down.

“I’ve got to get out of here! No, I have to! Let me go!”

Nora stood in the doorway. She stared at the scene blankly, too emotionally empty to react. Others had gathered as well. All the faces seem deadened.

“Remember what happened to that one guy?” one offered. “He’s dead now. You don’t want to cross these people.”

“What guy?!” Nora heard herself exclaim suddenly. “Was it the guy I was with — the one they took away?”

The three girls turned a shocked look onto Nora as though they were offended by her interruption. You’d think they’d be grateful to her for distracting the overwrought girl. But as time passed and no one bothered to answer her question, Nora grew frustrated.

“You heard what I asked!” Nora shouted.

“How should I know who he was?” one spat. “We don’t get into everyone’s business. We keep our attention on ourselves.”

“Then, you don’t even know that it’s true.” Nora accused.

“Julie saw it!”

“Yeah.” Julie stammered between sobs. “He was shot down near the gate. When he tried to escape from them, they shot him.”

The words seemed to change Julie’s mood from frantic to resigned. As for Nora, she felt a lump grow in her stomach. It was as though she had been punched in the gut. She could feel herself begin to falter. Could it be Jack? Could he be dead? She told herself that they didn’t know the identity of the man. But who else could it be? Nora wasn’t aware of anyone else who was missing. Nora thought to ask them for more details, but the three girls, including the one who had just regained her composure, were in no mood to talk to her anymore. Nora could sense it would take a long time for her to get on those girls’ good sides, which was probably the only way they’d be willing to help her out now. And there just wasn’t time for that. Not to mention, Nora was beyond having the energy to deal with people at this point. If these girls couldn’t understand that and stop playing these emotional games, then Nora would just have to let it go. It couldn’t be helped.

Nora, therefore, concluded she would probably never find out whether the dead man was Jack or not — she’d most likely be dead by the time she had a chance. And yet, even though she wouldn’t live long enough to fully grieve his loss, she felt a crushing sadness in potentially outliving him. She hadn’t really thought there was anything he could have done to save her. She had just thought that he could save himself, her parents, and her brother. Now, that hope was gone, and only the emptiness remained.

Then, the loud speaker delivered a warning to everyone that there wasn’t much time left. Nora would have to go change into her uniform right away. She headed back into her room. But then, she suddenly felt rather foolish as she considered putting the outfit on. Why go along with their plans to kill her? Then again, what was the alternative? To wait there for them to come for her with no means of protecting herself was pointless. She’d die anyway. The question was would they make an example of her before she died in order to strike fear in the others. Perhaps, she’d just get shot as Jack … Nora clenched the fabric with her hands. Then again, the Administration had to have realized that some recruits might find it preferable to take their chances here. The Administration would want to remove that as a possibility in the minds of the recruits. They’d have to make death here seem worse than death out there in space.

And what was it that one instructor had said? Nora would have control and have a say in what happened to her. He implied that by living in the moment she could stay alive and just keep staying alive. Nora knew instinctively that was a lie — and yet, it was a lie that would get most of them in those planes despite what happened to Group A. But what could get Nora in the plane now? Fear of reprisal? No. The fact was she wanted to stay alive as long as she could. Despite everything, Nora seemed incapable of completely giving up. If she remained in her room, she’d be pretty much choosing to die. Plus, she wanted to finally get out from behind these prison walls.

“If for only a moment …” she mumbled to herself.

It was strange. Everyone seemed to enter the corridor en masse that day. Nora looked around her and observed that the others seemed rather skittish, as though they were waiting for something to happen — something that would give them the opportunity to flee — but nothing happened. Nora figured this anxious anticipation allowed them all to think that they weren’t just going along with each step — steps that brought them closer and closer to death. No, instead they were waiting for that one last opportunity — an opportunity that would never come. And they all seemed to realize the inevitable eventually. At different times, that look of hopeless horror crossed their faces one after another. Nora already had that moment when she concluded Jack was most likely dead. Now, she was a numb observer going through the motions.

Still, even in this detached mood, she was surprised when a man she had never seen before sat beside her in the auditorium.

“Hi.” he said.

The awkward man slid his hands upon his legs.

“My name’s Ned …”

Nora avoided eye contact with him.

“What are you mad or something?” he asked her.

Nora looked over at him with irritation. The least she figured she was entitled to was being left alone with her thoughts.

“I thought you might be. No one wants to partner with me, not after only having a crash course. Bad choice of words, I guess.” He paused. “You know, after trying to get out of Group B. Big help that was.” he whispered this last part.

Nora looked at him with recognition as it dawned on her that he was the one Jack had switched with in order to get into Group B. She had never asked Jack whose name he was using. Nora wondered how the Administration had found out. Had someone turned this guy in, or had he opened his big mouth to the wrong person?

“So, Mrs. Grafton said you should take me on as your partner. Actually, she was the one who pointed you out to me. Anyway, she said you were guilty unlike the others. I just hope you know what you’re doing.”

He laughed. Nora blinked.

“What? What do you mean by partner?”

“We’re going to be in the same plane.” he stated as though it were obvious.

“You don’t mean those tiny planes they’ve been bringing in? You mean the bigger ones Group A had during their test run, don’t you?”

“Who knows.”

Nora looked forward. She felt sick. Earlier that day, when she happened to see some even tinier planes being brought into the complex, she had assumed it meant that she’d have one of her own. Now apparently, it wasn’t enough for her to be most likely sent to her death; she’d probably be crammed into a miniscule plane with this man as well. Back when he was still here, the possibility of being with Jack had made her feel better regardless of how small the plane turned out to be — but this guy? That same feeling she had had in the coffin at the lake came back to her. If that experience was supposed to make her brave, it failed. If it was meant to paralyze her with fear, it was working. Nora wrung her hands.

“Why?” Nora uttered, referring to having to partner with Ned.

“I guess if one of us can’t manage the controls the other one can maneuver the ship …” Ned said, answering the wrong question.

“Yes … but you don’t know what you’re doing.” she argued, as though convincing him would do her any good.

“Hey, it’s not my idea either. I’ve heard you’re no prize. Maybe I should be the one to act superior with you. But seriously, after the position your boyfriend’s plan put me in I figure your helping me is the least you could do. I’d probably be an ace right now if I had had the training.”

An awkward silence ensued. Occasionally, she could feel him staring over at her. Fortunately for Nora, the meeting began soon afterward. She never thought she’d be glad to see Mrs. Grafton take the stage, especially since Mrs. Grafton had plotted to pair her with Ned.

The meeting was actually rather short. There was a certain rushed quality to it. It mostly consisted of a role call. Within it, the names of the partners were listed. Nora’s name was coupled with Ned’s. Surprisingly, one person wasn’t given a partner. Nora grew annoyed. Why couldn’t she be alone? She would rather be alone.

“Oh, that’s right,” Nora thought, “the whole thing is a punishment.”

But then, why send out Ned at all? Nora glared at Mrs. Grafton briefly. Mrs. Grafton did seem to occasionally look up in Nora’s direction. Maybe it was just Nora’s imagination, but Mrs. Grafton seemed to be smirking. Eventually, Nora grew tired of her fruitless efforts to intimidate the woman and looked down instead. After all, what difference did it make?

“You’ll be given the pilot suits and the helmets in the locker rooms near the control tower. You will be escorted there now.”

Male and female guards came forward, and the recruits began to file out of the auditorium. It wasn’t as though the recruits needed the escort. The recruits all knew where the locker rooms were; they had been there that first day to change into their first uniforms. But that obviously wasn’t the point. They were prisoners, and they weren’t going to be let out of the Administration’s sight. Maybe there was another reason for Ned being assigned to her. Maybe Nora’s piloting instructor had told Mrs. Grafton that Nora might crash on purpose as that one crew from Group A likely had. And maybe that was why they weren’t going to be allowed a test run today — it was seen as too great of a temptation. Then again, it wasn’t as though they could stop them from doing whatever they wanted once they took off. Or, could they? Nora was sure she would find that out soon enough.

Suddenly, she could feel that Ned guy staring at her again. He was walking in the boy’s line next to her. Nora gave him a side glance. He looked away. Nora couldn’t handle the awkwardness of this partnership. If Nora weren’t on the verge of tears, she might laugh at how unbearably absurd this situation was getting.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2016

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Nocturne’s Reaping® : Dirge

Chapter 20

There was one more thing Jack had to do before trying to breach the security at the Installation. He remembered Nora asking him to get word to her parents. Going there alone was a risk, however. Jack was concerned that Nora’s parents would think he was up to something — that maybe he had done something to Nora. Ideally, he would want to bring Nora to them, so that she could talk with them herself. But he and Nora might need to hide out for a while — if he was able to get Nora out of there safely. And he just knew if he didn’t seek them out before retrieving Nora, she would feel compelled to go to them in order to reassure them. That could be a disaster. At least right now they weren’t looking for Nora, and, therefore, probably weren’t looking for her family either. If Nora did escape, that would surely change. There was another advantage Jack could think of to going to see Nora’s parents before heading to the Installation: it would give those in charge of the Installation time to be alerted to the goings on in town and possibly send some of their security guards to see what was happening in the underground. Yes, it was decided; he would do this thing for her.

Nora had given Jack her parents’ address. It was in the middle-class area of town. Jack did his best to clean himself up in the street. Yet, he didn’t want to return to his old dwelling. Not only might his stuff have been disposed of, but it would also be a place they might look for him.

Jack waited while a man let himself into the building. He then slipped in behind him. Once he got to Nora’s door, he rang the doorbell. There seemed to be silence inside. Had they moved? Had they been taken by the Administration? No, they were probably just out. Jack turned to leave. He decided he would wait near the elevator for them. Suddenly, the door slowly opened. There was a woman standing there, staring blankly at him. He could see that there was darkness behind her.

“Yes?” she asked.

“Hi.” Jack said. “I know your daughter Nora … from school.”

It wasn’t a complete lie. They were in a sort of school together. Jack planned to explain the circumstances, but he didn’t want to freak out the person he assumed to be Nora’s mother in the meantime. Besides, he didn’t want to get into the whole situation while standing in the hallway. A light suddenly appeared from behind her.

“Won’t you come in?” Nora’s mother offered.

The light allowed Jack to see that she had been crying. Something about the woman’s demeanor unnerved him. Even so, Jack stepped inside despite his hesitation. Nora’s mother then proceeded to shut the door behind them. Jack almost felt as though he knew Nora’s mother. Some of her mannerisms reminded him of Nora. He was sure Nora would hug her if she were there. Of course, if Nora were there chances were her mother wouldn’t be crying.

“So, you know Nora from school?” Nora’s mother asked.

“In a matter of speaking …” Jack started.

Nora’s mother’s forehead crinkled. Jack then noticed she was standing directly in front of the door. He realized she was attempting to block him in.

“What do you mean by that?” she asked, her voice shaking. “Do you know where my daughter is?”

This wasn’t going well. Jack had wrongly assumed that Nora’s mother had thought he was harmless, and that’s why she let him in. Instead, it was clear now she wanted to confront him. Jack wished he had followed his first inclination, which was that Nora’s family had every reason to distrust him. Either way, Jack decided that the truth, as incredible as it was, was his best option. There was a strong possibility she wouldn’t believe it, but he hoped she’d realize that what he was about to tell her was really what had happened.

“I met up with Nora in the neighborhood you used to live in. We were taken to the same place. It is an installation outside of town. They are training us to pilot planes in order to take on the nebula reapers.”

“You expect me to believe that?!” Nora’s mother demanded.

“She wanted me to tell you. She has had you on her mind. She’s been afraid to tell them she isn’t one of the underground. She’s worried that something will happen to you and the rest of your family. Anyway, she is in Group B. Group A didn’t make it. You may have noticed the debris, which broke off in the atmosphere.”

A flash of recognition crossed her face.

“And Nora?”

“She’s still alive. I’m going to try to keep it that way. I’m going to go back for her. It won’t be easy, but I’m determined.”

Nora’s mother considered. She seemed to be conflicted. Finally, she said, “And what do I do?”

“Find a way to keep your husband and son alive. Nora is going to want to be reassured that you are safe. That’s why I’m here. Of course, she’s going to want to see you soon if she can. But if that isn’t possible, she needs to know you’re going to be all right. Otherwise, I’m not sure I can convince her to stay away until its safe.”

Jack hesitated.

“The fact is you may need to leave this colony on your own if you can.” he decided to add.

Jack thought Nora’s mother was going to ask him how she was supposed to do that. He was surprised to find out that she knew what he was talking about.

“My husband heard from someone that there was a program.” Nora’s mother spoke lowly. “There is a rumor that a test ship with a small group of passengers actually escaped. Under the circumstances, I didn’t want to hear about it. Now, you’re saying it’s true?”

Jack raised an eyebrow. He had heard that some powerful people were being evacuated, but he thought that move was just precautionary in case something else unforeseen were to happen. Why not — especially if they were willing to pay in interplanetary currency for the privilege? Interplanetary currency had become a rarity on the colony, but some still existed. Now, it occurred to him that there probably was no other plan. They weren’t even going to try to stop the reapers from coming. There wasn’t much time left, and most everyone on Colony 52 was going to die. That was the secret they didn’t want anyone else to know.

“Maybe my husband can find someone at work with connections to help her.” Nora’s mother whispered to herself.

“But don’t they already know she’s missing?” Jack put forth.

“Yes, but maybe they don’t know she’s there.”

Jack swallowed.

“You’ll have to make that decision, but I agree with Nora now. I no longer think it would have helped if she had spoken up about who she is.” Jack informed her. “The people involved in this scheme have too much to hide to just let her go. I doubt anyone but those at the top could retrieve her now.”

“But how can I trust you — someone I don’t know — with something so precious to me?” Nora’s mother’s voice shook. “I guess I don’t have a choice — do I?”

“No, just get out of here if you can — and don’t reveal what I’ve told you to those people. If you have trouble leaving for yourselves, do it for Nora. You know that she’ll struggle with leaving here with me unless I can honestly tell her that you’re going to try to go. Like I said, your safety has been on her mind all along. You’ll have to leave me to take care of Nora.”

“You have to save our daughter.” she told him. “You told me that she’d have difficulty leaving here without us. We feel the same way about her.”

“I understand.” Jack assured her.

“God bless you.” she said, reaching out her hand to touch the sleeve of his shirt. “Tell Nora we love her, and we miss her.”

Finally, Nora’s mother stepped aside and allowed Jack to leave.

Jack nodded then looked straight ahead before heading out the door. He made his way back to the street. He was moving so fast that he was breathing heavily. He was glad that he had gone to Nora’s apartment, yet terrified it had taken too much time to convince Nora’s mom. Still, he had to try to get Nora’s family to leave the colony if they were able. What he didn’t want to tell Nora’s mom — what occurred to him during the conversation — was that if he didn’t get to Nora in time she’d be used to distract the nebula reapers long enough to save the lives of the people on the next ship going out.

“They didn’t need to know that. And her being able to help save them is what Nora would want.” Jack mumbled to himself as he trudged along the dark, dismal streets. “If she has to die, she’d want it to be for a reason. But I’m not about to just let that happen.”

Jack felt even more desperate to get to Nora as soon as possible. If the Administration was up to what he thought it was, the people in charge there would be pushing to send Group B out as soon as possible. It all made sense now. Group A’s mission was never to stop the nebula reapers. They had been sent out to gather information and facilitate one test run of the escape plan. Now, the Administration could be more confident about the success of future escape attempts for the powerful of Colony 52. How else could the Administration have had the clout to change the pattern of the atmospheric regulator? And if he was right that there was no plan to save the colony, it meant that the force field they were using to keep the majority of the nebula reapers out really was only temporary.

It all made sense. They had had to activate a second shield around the planet to keep the nebula reapers out after the first force field, which had contained the nebula reapers, had been destroyed. Colony 52 was dependent on supplies from other colonies. Therefore, Colony 52 was most likely cut off from those supplies at this point. Even if they could get supply ships through the force field, who would volunteer to pilot those ships now?

No, this planet was dead. It just didn’t know it yet. Jack was frustrated with himself for not putting it together sooner. All the stress and chaos had interfered with his ability to think things through. Jack then forced himself to shake off that feeling.

“It isn’t helpful,” he told himself.

He had to focus on the mission at hand. Would it be possible to sneak Nora on that plane with her parents? He knew he didn’t want to be here when the force field failed or the supplies ran out. Yet, there didn’t seem to be much hope for him. Even so, perhaps Nora could be saved. But for that to happen, he’d have to get to her in time.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2016

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Nocturne’s Reaping® : Dirge

Chapter 19

Jack didn’t want to upset Nora by telling her what his life used to be like. It wasn’t her fault that for some people life on Colony 52 was always dire. He knew it would upset her, so what was the point in bringing it up? Did it bother him that she hadn’t thought much about the reasons why some people were living under the streets? Nora had been reared in the area, so it seemed normal to her on some level. Jack figured she just assumed it was a choice they had made. Besides, it wasn’t as though she had made it that way, nor was there anything she could do to change it. Truthfully, while he was horribly concerned about her, he admired the way Nora hadn’t insisted everyone else deserved to be at the Institute more than she did.

But it wasn’t the first time he had been impressed by Nora. The day when he first saw her had moved him greatly. There was this girl reaching out to him, not out of pity but out of some sort of connection they seemed to have between them. It had been a very bad day for Jack. He had just learned that the small scrap of property that he, his parents, and his many brothers and sisters had occupied was being taken away from them. On a regular basis there was upheaval in the power structure below the pavement. Still, for over two years they’d had a period of stability, which had left them with a false sense of security. Then, circumstances changed again. The new leader apparently wanted more space for himself, so everyone else was pushed farther and farther down into the depths. Jack’s life at that time was barely tolerable. He couldn’t imagine being pushed farther away from the sky. It felt almost like being buried.

Therefore, Jack ran away from his family out of frustration. In his young mind, he could avoid the move by hiding from his parents. Maybe it would cause his parents to finally stand up and complain. It was childish; he realized that later. It wasn’t as though his parents were to blame. There was nothing they could do other than just survive. After awhile, Jack found he had had enough sulking. He climbed off the grimy pipe he was sitting on and headed back to the site of his family’s former hovel.

Only instead of two angry parents there waiting for him, there were only rumpled cardboard and the remains of their personal possessions. Jack’s brow furrowed, and he gasped. To his left, he could see more groups of people coming with belongings in his direction. Jack knew at that moment he had no choice but to descend into the bowels of the sewer system in search of his family. The route to his family’s location ended up being indirect; there were winding paths in the bowels of the underground, which brought him toward the surface more than once. It was during this wandering that he ran into Nora for the first time.

No, he couldn’t fault Nora for not knowing. Truth be told, even Jack wasn’t aware of how the whole ordeal began. Why had the government allowed some people to live like that? Perhaps, awhile ago the choice of some desperate people had been to seek shelter in the depths. Then, somewhere along the way, the shelter started to become viewed either as a problem the rest of the colony didn’t want to deal with or something those underground actually wanted. Either way, at some point, those people and their offspring were forced to stay there. So, instead of a sanctuary, it became a prison. And those underground went from being seen as willing to adapt to a problem, which the entire colony had, to being seen as the problem.

The social atmosphere, henceforth, began to change, and what little space was actually present down below was soon eaten up. Those few times the underground populace caught sight of a “land dweller” they could tell the attitude toward them had changed — had become hostile. It was almost as though these underground human beings weren’t human beings at all. It was almost as though they were like an overpopulation of rats — filthy, disease-carrying rats, which were taking up space and resources.

Perhaps, they had become a reminder that things weren’t going so well on Colony 52. The colony had started out as an outpost between two other systems, a place to refuel when the fuel capacities of star cruisers had been lower. The fuel capacity grew over time until it became quite efficient. This development was wonderful for the rest of the colonies but disastrous for Colony 52. The outside visitors almost stopped coming altogether.

Then, many years later, the nebula reapers made an appearance as they wafted through the cosmos. Fortunately, the energy field designed to prevent meteoric collisions with the colony trapped the nebula reapers before they could prey upon the residents of Colony 52. But they were there just a breath away — looming — stuck in a device, which was never meant to last forever.

It didn’t help that few were willing to deal with Colony 52 at all at that point. Only necessity could drive people to face the looming threat of the nebula reapers, and now Colony 52 was no longer a necessary stop. The only way the government could get anyone to transport people and things even on a limited scale to and from Colony 52 was by enforcing existing ironclad shipping contracts. The results, however, were largely a failure. Most of the star cruisers took a large portion of Colony 52’s interplanetary currency and failed to deliver any supplies. The government of Colony 52 did get its revenge on these ships, however. And it used its pre-existing relationship with the Security Force to do so. It had the Security Force track down the rogue ships. The crews of the rogue ships were then sent to prison colonies.

The government did organize a transport program of its own. They used the threat of the Security Force to keep the crews loyal, so that they would return to Colony 52 with the purchased cargo. The government, therefore, managed to trade for meager amounts of supplies from that point on. Yet, it was obviously an insufficient undertaking. Unfortunately, the citizenry didn’t want to expand a program that would use so much of the scant resources the colony had left without providing an adequate return on the investment. And the populace seemed even more against relocation of select individuals. If they weren’t all allowed to leave, no resident should be permitted to go. So, everything was left at a standstill in terms of a useful plan; but the resentment — that was still growing.

While the nebula reapers were out of the direct line of vision of the land dwellers, the people of the underground communities were visible — if you bothered to look for them. They became the symbol of the problems facing the planet, an embodiment of the helplessness they all felt. The “undergrounders” were taking up resources that were needed to contain the nebula reapers. They were accused of overpopulating a planet, which could scarcely afford to waste any more of its precious resources on them.

The tension caused weird theories to emerge. One such theory was that the nebula reapers would have moved on with minimal loss of life if they hadn’t been contained. Unfortunately, now, because of the cage, the nebula reapers were motivated to destroy them all. Jack always found that one to be an odd thought growing up. After all, how could anyone possibly know that? Yet, most of the feelings people had about the ever-present threat were bizarre and destructive. The way he was perceived — the way he was blamed — weighed on Jack when he was small. He remembered asking his mother why. Had the undergrounders caused death to come? His mother, a wise woman, would smile and say death had existed a lot longer than Jack and the others had. Jack had wished he had her perspective, but he looked at the world through the personal eyes of a child. It hurt; that was all he knew then. But Nora managed to change his viewpoint on himself that day. There was a little piece of determination that grew from that encounter. He realized he was fully a person. He knew that before; he was told it many times to be honest. But the environment he’d lived in and the way he’d been treated because of it had taken its toll. After meeting Nora, he had begun to really feel it was true.

Jack was able to find his family after much searching. For their family, starting over in a worse position was difficult. There was little room. The noise was the hardest thing to take. Every time people talked, the sound would echo. But it was the situation that was the problem, Jack’s mother would remind him, not any one person. She kept that positive attitude even when an illness spread through the lower depths. Eventually, it would cost Jack his entire family. Jack often wondered why he alone survived. He had this haunting thought that his family had been intentionally exposed to the pathogen while he had been separated from them.

Not long after that, with the emptying of certain areas of the city, there was a relaxing of the guard around the tunnel dwellers. At first, those underground only emerged at night … then they ascended in the day. Eventually, they began to claim a little territory of their own in the older part of town. Yet, it was only when a large number of the land dwellers began to move away to other parts of the city that the tension eased. Unfortunately, Jack didn’t see Nora after that one time, and he figured she’d left with the others. He knew he’d always be grateful to her even if he never saw her again. Then, one day, he did see her, and he felt that same way he had that first time. Unfortunately, that was the same day that this horrendous, odd, and inexplicable situation began.

This situation wasn’t entirely a shock to Jack, yet it had never happened before. Jack felt partially responsible in regard to Nora for encouraging her to stand her ground on that roof. Maybe they could have gotten off the roof together. It would have been a risk; she could have fallen. But now, if he had that moment back, he would have taken the chance. If they had made it, they might have both been better off. Given the way things had turned out, it seemed obvious that he should have gone for it. If only he could go back to that moment and change things … if only … But there was no point in his dwelling on that. Nora was still alive; that was what Jack had to focus on. And he had no intention of letting her down.

Jack knew it would be difficult to get a meeting with one of the mayors. He, therefore, decided it would be best to try to meet with the one from his district. That way, he wouldn’t have to waste time proving who he was and why he was there. Jack skulked along the streets. He wished he could get a taxi to take him there in order to save time, but he couldn’t take that kind of a risk. He also couldn’t risk being seen running through the streets as though someone were chasing him. Jack tried to remind himself that it was night, and it seemed unlikely Nora would be sent out at night. Then again, could Jack really assume anything? What if location were the most important consideration? If the only known window of time were at night, would they postpone? Jack quickened his pace.

When he finally made it to the mayor’s section of the underground, he was forced to wait. It probably didn’t help that he was out of breath, wet, and disheveled. For a moment, Jack worried that the mayor’s attendants were going to lead the mayor out the back to avoid him. Fortunately, this mayor was not easily intimidated and wasn’t about to gain the reputation of being that way. As soon as his last meeting was over, he sent directly for Jack.

“Have a seat, young man.” the mayor directed. “Well, they say your name is Jack Callahan. Now that I see you up close, I believe I’ve seen you around here. Although, I believe that was years ago.”

“My family and I were relocated.” Jack replied.

It took some effort for Jack to avoid having bitterness in his voice. He knew that wouldn’t help.

“Yes, it’s unfortunate that space is a commodity. Of course, it helps that we’ve made strides in moving toward the surface. I stay around here to look after the others.”

More than likely he was afraid of being arrested. After all, no one from the surface was supposed to receive direction from an undergrounder. It was considered enough of a risk to the government of the colony that citizen undergrounders were moving to the surface and trying to blend in. If the government suspected someone in the underground leadership was actually behind the relocation, that person wouldn’t be free for long.

“Yeah … well, do you keep track of those people?” Jack asked him. “The ones who went to the surface?”

The mayor raised an eyebrow. Jack could tell by the man’s expression that he was aware that something was going on.

“I’ve come from the place they were taken.” Jack told him. “They’re being used against the nebula reapers. Some have already died.”

The mayor shifted uncomfortably. For a moment, Jack grew concerned that the mayor was in on it. Jack began to look around for a means of escape in case that turned out to be true. Even so, Jack couldn’t imagine being able to get back into that compound to help Nora without some kind of assistance.

“Is that so?” the mayor inquired. He leaned back in his chair.

“You may have seen all the debris that fell before. The government probably explained it some other way, but if you don’t believe me it shouldn’t be hard for you to check it all out …” Jack started.

“It’s not that.” the mayor insisted. “We’ve actually been aware something was happening for a while. So, you say you know where the people went?”

“Yes.” Jack told himself not to count on this man. Jack knew the mayors to sit on their hands while other people suffered — assuming they didn’t cause the suffering to begin with. But Jack had to try to find help for the others. Nora would expect him to try. However, saving Nora would mainly be up to him. He doubted he would be able to compel these men into action too quickly — if at all. No, the most Jack could hope for was to get them stirred up. Whoever was in charge of procuring people for the Administration might be distracted by the unease and make motions to quell it. That kind of distraction was exactly what Jack needed. If it could draw some of the guards from the Institute away, that would help him with his plan.

“There is an installation south of here. They were taken there. They’re training them to pilot planes to fight the nebula reapers. The last group of recruits all died.”

There was a look of indifference that crossed the mayor’s face. Maybe the mayor had the same viewpoint on the people from the underground that the Administration did; maybe he also viewed them as expendable.

“How do you know they were from here?” the mayor finally spoke up.

“Where else?” Jack responded with disdain. “Listen, I think we both know it’s true. And at the rate they’re going, they’ll probably have cleared out everyone here soon enough.”

That got him. Jack could see the mayor flinch.

“Well, I’ve got some people I need to talk to about this situation … if you’ll excuse me.” the mayor dismissed Jack.

Jack and the mayor stood. Then, the mayor called for some of his men. Jack stepped backward and slipped out the door. He went back into the dark spaces as the mayor’s men scurried in.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2016

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Nocturne’s Reaping® : Dirge

Chapter 18

Nora was shaking by the time she returned to her room. And when the door was shut behind her, she wept upon the bed. Jack was gone. Moments after she let him go this last time, she half expected time to just stop — the book to end — the screen to go dark … But she was still there, and time was moving imperceptibly forward, trapping her in a nightmare. Waiting to die … waiting to die badly.

Nora curled up on her bed. The only action she could think to take now was to pray for the others: her parents, her brother, and Jack. Maybe somehow it wasn’t too late for them.

Nora could feel herself slipping away; though, if she had been honest with herself it had been happening by degrees for a long while now. Internally, she was vacillating between panic and numbness. She tried not to think about it, for when she did the panic would set in. She was afraid it would overcome her if she let it out. But she couldn’t get enough distance from all of this. She couldn’t feel as though she was her own person; she couldn’t get past the feeling of helplessness — it was crippling her. She rocked back and forth … back and forth.

 

***

Things were accelerating faster the closer it got to the end. In the early morning hours, the recruits were summoned back to the auditorium and were kept there for hours straight. Eventually, the instructors began repeating the same information, drilling it into their heads. At least this repetition meant that Nora could tune them out. It was harder to tune out the pilot training, which occurred in shifts later.

“What was that?” the instructor demanded. “You?!”

He slammed his fist next to Nora’s head. Nora looked at him in a daze. It was true that her mind had wandered off, and that she had had to overcorrect in order to avoid the ground. Still, it wasn’t intentional … it was just.

“Are you trying to kill us?!”

Nora looked straight ahead. Now that was ironic! Of the two of them, it seemed she was the one destined to die. But how dare she put his precious life at risk! Forget what they were doing to her — what they were all doing to her. Nora mustered what little energy she had left to glare at him.

“I’ll try again.” she suddenly relented.

“So, what, you can finish the deed?” he demanded. “You’re not the only one who’s done this. If you’re going to try to kill yourself, do it on your own time.”

Nora wondered what he meant by that. Did the pilot know something about that plane crash, or did he just suspect? Nora shook a little inside. Somehow, it made a difference to her. It was one thing to suspect something, quite another to know it. Nora looked down. It was so sad to think of the state of mind of those people if it turned out to be true.

“I don’t want to die.” Nora asserted.

“You could have fooled me …” the pilot trailed off.

In the mirror to her right, she could see him nervously rub his legs with his hands.

“Listen, we still have time left in our session, and I’m supposed to prepare you … You know, this plan is your best chance for survival. If you train well, you could live …”

“Don’t.” Nora said lowly while looking downward.

“Don’t what?”

Nora turned and looked at him directly.

“Don’t try to appease your conscience.” she told him.

It was Nora’s own small way to rebel. For the most part, she still felt helpless to make any real changes to the way things were. Even as she uttered those words, she could tell her voice sounded tired, almost defeated. There was so little of her left it seemed. Then, an awkward silence ensued between the two of them as they stared at each other. Nora blinked first.

“I’ll try again.” she repeated resignedly.

“Good. Do that.”

 

***

 

 

Nora walked back alone to the dorm. That would be the last training session until … The latter part of the pilot-training session, after she found her focus again, actually went fairly well. It went so well, in fact, that Nora could tell that the pilot had indeed let himself off the hook in regard to his responsibility to her and the other recruits. He had done all he could in his mind. What happened to her now was up to her.

“Yeah right.” Nora thought.

It was all within her control; that was how they rationalized it. So what that it wasn’t true; they found a way to live with themselves. And they’d be alive to wake the next morning in their own beds.

The wind cut through Nora that day, and the sky, lit only by the Institute’s bright lights, was overcast. Maybe the clouds meant that today wasn’t going to be the day. Then again, maybe they were just planning to get the rain out of the way, so that they could send them off soon. It didn’t matter, Nora told herself. It was inevitable anyway. Today, tomorrow, next week — time was ticking down, and it wouldn’t get any better. She was going to die. Nora braced herself against the wind and continued on.

Hours later, it was a bright, sunny morning. Nora awoke to the light penetrating her eyelids. She wasn’t surprised when the loud speaker crackled awake from just outside her room. This was the day.

 

***

 

 

Jack knew he had to escape. It was the only way to rescue Nora. Now, he could afford to take the risks he hadn’t felt comfortable taking that fateful day he and Nora were abducted. He could now risk his life without risking hers in order to save her. Still, he wondered whether he would be given the opportunity to escape his current captors. Jack knew his indecisiveness in regard to when to try to break free could cripple him if he let it. His instinct was to try to leave as soon as possible. After all, any moment could be his last. They could turn around right then and shoot him in the head. On the other hand, if he tried to break loose and failed it would most likely be over at that point anyway.

Eventually, they pulled alongside a large building on the outskirts of the city. It was a plain, three-story building. It was sort of worn-down, and it resembled a box. Jack looked around him as they led him inside. He spied what appeared to be a sewer grate in the middle of a nearby side street; it stuck in his mind. Getting underground seemed like the best plan, but how would he manage it?

Fortunately for Jack, they wanted answers from him. What was even better was the fact that the interrogator hadn’t arrived yet. Therefore, Jack was left — still cuffed — in a room alone. One of the things Jack had learned as a child was how to break free from handcuffs. Jack waited a little while just in case someone was watching him. He couldn’t afford to wait too long, or he’d miss his chance. Jack figured they wouldn’t need an interrogator if they were just going to casually ask him questions. And after they decided they’d gotten as much from him as they could … well, he probably wouldn’t have long to live after that.

Jack began looking around for something to pick the lock of the handcuffs with. His eyes spied a nail, which was sticking out of one of the legs of the table. Jack turned himself around. He grasped the nail with his fingers and began to wiggle it. Luckily, the wood was old, so the nail began to give way. The thin nail was a good size for what Jack was attempting. It was as though it was meant to be. Perhaps, Nora was praying for him. Under the circumstances, that might be the only thing that could make the difference. Jack finally freed himself from the tight-fitting cuffs around his wrists. Since there was no way out of the room aside from the one door, that door would have to be his avenue of escape.

When Jack tried the knob, it wouldn’t turn. There was obviously a lock on the knob. Jack figured that lock should be pretty easy for him to overcome. He hoped that lock was all there was preventing his escape. Jack hadn’t heard anything such as a latch being shut on the other side of the door. Yet, if there were, escape would be nearly impossible. The noise it would require to free the door would certainly draw the attention of any guards. Jack set to work on the lock. It seemed to be taking quite a bit of time, but in actuality it wasn’t taking long at all. Then, suddenly, the knob seemed to give way.

Jack turned the knob slowly until it would move no more. He then pushed on the door with equal care. There was a slight catch. He held his breath. Seconds later, it gave. Jack slid it open carefully. He could hear voices to his left, but fortunately no one was in sight. Jack’s first thought was heading toward the building’s entrance. But there was another possibility. If he made it to the basement or a garage, there might be access to the sewers. The fact that there was no one in the hall probably meant that the obvious exits were being guarded from the outside. Maybe it was a long shot that there would be access to the underground from the depths of this building. However, Jack figured it was his best chance not to be caught. If he had to, he’d try the front entrance. He knew he’d do whatever he had to do. But, in the meantime, he chose to turn toward the right and look for some stairs heading downward. Fortunately, on the other side of an old rusty door, he found them.

The stairwell was very dimly lit, but Jack could still tell that it was rickety. Jack forced himself to carefully shut the door; then, he went to the stairs. He tested the wood with his foot; it seemed stable enough. Even so, he figured he’d have to be careful proceeding. Otherwise, he would be risking the possibility of having the whole structure come down. Not only would that most likely injure him severely, it would also create a lot of noise. Fortunately, he doubted the squeak, which emanated when he merely placed his foot on a step, would be loud enough to draw the attention of anyone who might be on the main floor. And if there were someone down below, chances were that person would be aware of Jack’s presence soon enough — if he or she weren’t aware already.

Jack could hear water dripping as he made his way down the stairs; an odor of must filled the air. The walls began to transition from wood to stone as Jack progressed. At the bottom of the stairs, Jack noticed there was a landing then another door. As he approached the door, he could tell that it was latched. Fortunately, it only took a little bit of effort for him to force that door open; it was barely holding itself together. In fact, it took so little force to budge it that Jack had to grab the door frame with his hand to stop it from swinging all the way open. The room on the other side was dark. It took a moment for Jack’s eyes to adjust to what little light he could get to stream into the room from the staircase.

Jack didn’t have a flashlight or any other light source, and at this point there was no way to get one. He searched the wall inside the room with his hand and found no light switch. Finally, he decided to just go in. He felt the floor with his foot — scraping it along the bottom, searching for some sort of grate or manhole cover as he made his way forward.

Jack held his breath briefly. Then, with his next step he could hear it — the faint clang of his foot landing upon a metal disk. He bent down and recognized the familiar form of a sewer grate — a shape he’d known all his life. Jack was quick to begin work trying to loosen the rarely-moved plate. Eventually, the familiar smell from the bowels of the streets wafted upward. It had been awhile since he’d been down there. As Jack braced himself for the journey underground, he heard the sounds of a commotion above him.

Jack believed that once he was able to get down into the sewers that no one would be able to find him.

“So, there’s nothing else to do really,” he said.

He took a breath. Then, he started to climb down. Once his feet hit the wet ground, he took off running in the direction he believed he should go. Still, Jack hadn’t counted on the guards sending dogs after him. Fortunately, he had a head start, and the water, which streamed through the tunnels, was able to confuse the scent. Originally, Jack had thought to exit at the grate he’d seen on the street; but since they had discovered his escape so quickly, he figured it would be too much of a risk. He just didn’t have the time and distance to start climbing right away. He had to lose them first. Fortunately, Jack was able to stay far enough ahead of his pursuers that they never saw him. Instead, the dogs’ barks were only a persistent echo down the many passages. Finally, Jack heard the sounds of the city above him. The sounds weren’t very loud, so he concluded he wasn’t right under a crowd of people. That was a good thing. Jack concluded this was as good a place as any to climb up. After all, the longer Jack was down in the sewers, with the only light the dim one streaming through the grates from the streetlights above, the more likely he was to take a wrong turn down a dead end and be caught by the dogs.

Jack leapt and grabbed hold of a thin ladder, which led to the surface. He then made quick use of it. As he lifted the sewer cover’s lid, he found he was at the end of a dark alley. He slipped through the opening and quickly replaced the cover. He then stalked off into the streets. He was glad to find there was a slight sprinkling of rain in the air. Not only would it help hide the smell of the sewers on him, it also meant that Nora would probably not be sent out this night. The Administration liked clear skies. But Jack knew he was on borrowed time. Nora was slipping through his fingers. Jack might live, but he couldn’t imagine letting Nora die. He didn’t know how he could live with that.

While most of the underground tunnels were familiar to him, this part of the surface was not. Yet, heading in almost any direction would get him to the outskirts of town, which encircled the city and where he and most of the other recruits had lived. That area would be the best place to escape detection. There was also something else he felt compelled to do: warn the people who were left in the underground that they were being hunted. Perhaps, one of the leaders might even care enough about those who were already taken to plan some sort of a raid on the Institute. Jack had his doubts, but he had to try. Even so, he wasn’t planning on spending much time trying to convince anyone; Nora was his priority now.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2016

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Nocturne’s Reaping® : Dirge

Chapter 17

 

Nora was sitting beside Jack on the floor next to her bed. She was in no mood for anything after the tragic end of Group A. She felt guilty — guilty she hadn’t thought much about them, guilty she hadn’t prayed for them. Part of Nora wanted to believe that there was still hope for at least some of the members of Group A, but she couldn’t even force herself to voice the words. Instead, as she heard people scatter through the halls in a panic she just stared straight ahead. Her eyes were sort of unfocused; her mind went numb.

She could feel Jack place his arms around her and pull her into him. She just breathed. And then, after what seemed like a long time, Nora could see light coming through the window. It was almost as bright as day, and it was enough to penetrate the fog of her mind. The grounds of the complex were coming alive. She pulled herself up just slightly then noticed that Jack was still there — still with her. He made a movement to get up, so she lifted herself up to let him. Then, in a daze, Nora went to take a shower and change. Even though it was clearly evening, for all intents and purposes a new day had begun.

When she emerged from the bathroom, she found Jack was still there waiting for her. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, his hands entwined in front of his knees. He stood when he saw her.

“There was an announcement while you were in there.” Jack informed her.

“I know … I heard something … I didn’t know what …” Nora trailed off.

They both instinctively waited until they heard the hallway clear before attempting to leave. That way, there would be fewer questions as to why they were together. Then, they ventured out. Nora took one step into the hall. She then waited while Jack shut the door behind them.

Nora felt his hand upon her back, guiding her down the hallway. If Nora had had the energy to care, she might have asked where they were going. Though it was clear that they were all supposed to gather somewhere, Nora had no idea where that somewhere was. Jack seemed to have an idea where to go, so she just trusted his judgment. When he led her to the auditorium in the dormitory, she realized it was pretty obvious. Now that she thought about it, where else would they go? The fact that they made the right decision was confirmed when they entered the room, for they saw other members of Group B sitting in the chairs there. Some were gathered in groups wildly talking and gesturing; others sat by themselves staring into space; the rest were seemingly busy either reading or writing something.

Nora looked at Jack. He motioned toward a seat, which was a couple of rows back. It was close to the door and on their left side as they entered. Nora looked about the room. The circular design of the room was like the one they had been in the day Group B had been announced. Time passed as Nora wrung her hands and more people trickled in. Finally, the instructors arrived. Almost immediately upon arriving, they got down to business. After a head count, the presentation began. Nora wondered what they could possibly say at a time like this.

“All right, Group B, let’s have some quiet.” Mrs. Grafton demanded in a commanding voice. “Before we begin to discuss matters, there is one matter of importance that needs to be dealt with. It has come to my attention that there is someone here now who shouldn’t be.”

There was silence.

“Obviously, we can’t allow this person to find out information he shouldn’t know … After all, that is why you are here, and the others were left behind. We didn’t want rumors, gossip, or anything else shared among the groups. This discretion is extremely important to the Administration.” Mrs. Grafton said with emphasis. “Well, come now, you must know who he is.”

The other recruits, whom Nora could see within her direct line of sight, seemed confused. At least part of Nora was agitated, but she hadn’t quite figured out what the woman meant. That was until she heard: “Mr. Jack Callahan, is there a Mr. Jack Callahan here?” Mrs. Grafton read from a piece of paper.

Nora froze. She hadn’t heard Jack’s last name before, but she had noted the day Group B had been announced that there weren’t supposed to be any men in Group B named Jack.

“Come now. We have it on good authority that you’re here. Fine. I have the name you’ve been using somewhere.”

Nora didn’t want to look at Jack lest it might give him away immediately, but she was pretty sure she knew what this new development meant — Jack was about to be taken away from her. She clenched her hands.

“If there’s an opportunity to escape, take it.” she whispered without looking at him. “Don’t let them execute you. Go warn my family if you can — just so my parents and my brother have the option to leave — just in case that’s what’s best for them. That’s what you can do for me now.”

Nora quickly, but with shaking hands, scribbled her home address on his hand with a pen that had been left on a nearby chair. Then, she saw someone pointing Jack out to Mrs. Grafton. At that moment, Nora swiftly turned toward Jack and kissed him fervently.

“Nora Montgomery. I should have known.” Mrs. Grafton groaned.

“I’m sorry.” Nora started to tell Jack. “If they kill you …”

Jack leaned over her then and began to whisper.

“Hey, don’t be like that. Even if it goes down that way, you didn’t cause my death. I’m dead anyway. I mean, do you really think they’d just let a person like me go — even if the reapers were destroyed? No, they have too much to hide.”

Those were words that might have caused a panic if anyone other than Nora could have heard them. Most likely, Jack directed them only at Nora on purpose. She doubted he wanted to risk Nora being punished for his small speech. Yet, by the tone of his voice, Nora could tell that Jack ached to announce these words aloud. It was the truth. And Nora felt sure of one thing; he didn’t refrain from broadcasting it out of concern for the Administration.

“I’ll get on that plane with you — don’t worry.” he reassured her.

She looked at him questioningly.

“But how will you get past them?” she asked softly.

“Leave that to me. And I’ll get that information we need.” he added.

Just then, some men came forward and pulled Jack from the room.

 

***

 

 

Jack wasn’t sure what was about to befall him as he was led away in handcuffs from Group B’s dormitory and toward where the unassigned recruits had been living. The whole occurrence seemed strange to him. Why would they care this much that he elected to go earlier than the others? It wasn’t as though the order the recruits were being sent out in was going to make a difference. It seemed completely random to Jack. Certainly, the man he replaced didn’t seem to have any skills; Jack would have been surprised to hear that he did. And yet, the questions they were asking as he was forced into their jeep suggested they thought he was up to something. At first, he just assumed they were control freaks; it wasn’t as though their behavior thus far had led him to believe otherwise. Then, they mentioned that the man whom he had replaced had accused Jack of threatening him. They thought it was proof of Jack’s scheming. As they waited to hear what he knew, Jack realized that they were the ones who were up to something — something beyond what the recruits had already been told. Jack suddenly wished he had been sneaking around the complex diligently looking for answers. Now, he was racking his brain trying to figure out what they thought he knew. Maybe it would be the answer — the solution — to everything that was going on. But then, there was the problem that Nora wasn’t with him anymore. Jack was seized with adrenaline. He’d have to get back to her soon.

Jack wasn’t surprised when the jeep started up; after all, he assumed they were driving him back to his old dorm to switch him with the other man. Concern grew as they then headed toward the front gate. Jack was being removed from the complex, but why? Were they going to execute him? It wouldn’t necessarily surprise him given everything else they were capable of. Of course, they could have just shot him on the spot and made an example of him if that were all there was to it. No, it was more. Most likely, they wanted answers from him that he wasn’t giving them. It didn’t matter that he didn’t have the answers they wanted. They had to be sure what he knew, and what he may have told someone else.

As the vehicle he was in stopped before going through the gate, a conveyance vehicle passed through from the other side of the fence. Jack angled himself, so that he was able to look up at the conveyance vehicle’s windows.

Just as he had thought, the faces of regular people shown down on him. These were the ones who would fill the void left by the deaths of Group A, no doubt. There was anxiety in their eyes, but they still didn’t appear defeated — not yet.

“That won’t last long.” Jack muttered to himself.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2016

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