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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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Nocturne’s Reaping® : Dirge

Chapter 16

 

Nora was a bit rattled when she left the hangar — but not so rattled as the person waiting to go next. She imagined that person went through the same waiting game she had. True, the woman looked nothing like Nora. And yet, the look in her eyes and the way she was clutching the chair with her hands sent a chill up Nora’s spine. It almost made Nora feel as though she were looking in a mirror. Nora wondered how many more people would have to go through that same ordeal during the remainder of the day.

Nora was grateful to get out of there. But when she stepped out into the light from one of the simulated suns, she could feel the heat emanating from the sky. Nora put a hand on top of her forehead to block the searing light. She then realized that there didn’t appear to be a cloud in the sky.

“Why?” Nora asked herself.

The Administration had made such a big deal about having the sky clear, so that Group A could leave. But now, Group A was gone. So, why would there not be a cloud in the sky, not even a trace of one? Nora was afraid it meant that Group B was going to be sent out so soon that the Atmospheric Regulatory Commission decided to hold off on starting another weather pattern. In fact, maybe the conflict between the Administration and the Regulatory Commission made it more likely that they would just send Group B out as soon as they could, so they wouldn’t have to deal with each other again anytime soon.

It was with a downcast face that Nora made her way back to the dorm. There was a panic inside of her, growing steadily. She felt trapped again. What was worse, it was almost the end for her. For the first time since being placed into Group B, Nora felt the full impact of being singled out to be in the group. It just didn’t seem fair somehow. But then, she thought about how wonderful it was that Jack had volunteered to be in Group B just so he could be there for her. To think he went through that training session earlier knowing he didn’t have to be there — not yet anyway. How brave he must be!

No one was in the hallway when Nora reached her floor. It would be ironic if the others were out enjoying the light from a simulated sun, not realizing what it meant. Nora went inside her room. Instantly, she crashed upon the bed and stared up at the ceiling. The anxiety of the day’s events was wearing on her. She tossed and turned. It suddenly felt stifling. And what was more, it seemed to be getting hotter and harder to breathe. Was the air conditioner broken?

All of a sudden, there was a knock at the door. Nora sat up quickly, propped up by her elbows.

“Who …?” Nora slid off the bed and slowly approached the door.

She waited near the door and listened. She could hear nothing aside from her own breathing. Nora knew it was silly; chances were that whoever it was would be coming in whether she wanted them to or not. It had occurred to her to once again hoard some food and stay holed up in this room as she had tried in the last dorm. But then, look how that turned out. They hadn’t even given her the opportunity to retrieve her stash. They had sent Nora her meager belongings without her acquired food — and without the small illusion of control it had given her. However, even then, she knew deep down that they would come for her — that the food wouldn’t stop that. Trying to stop them would just make it worse when they did show up. But what could they want now? Were they still angry over the confinement exercise? Nora bit her lip. She could pretend she wasn’t there; but then, they may have seen her come in. She hesitated then …

“Hello?” she asked.

“It’s Jack.” a voice whispered.

“Oh.”

Nora’s heart leapt. To have a sinking feeling, only to be given a reprieve — it was an exhilarating feeling. She whipped the door open, much to Jack’s surprise. Nora smiled at the sight of Jack on the other side of the door. Then, he smiled back at her.

“I have something for you.” he offered.

He held out a basket.

“Wow. Okay.”

She took it from him; then, she stepped to the side to allow him to enter. She finally shut the door behind them.

“What’s in here?” she asked him while looking at the basket.

“A birthday dinner.” he responded.

“How?”

“Food credits. I have been working at the different commissaries off and on — not only to have something to do with myself but also to see what I could find out. Oh, and they also gave me some extra food credits.”

That was one of the changes from switching dorms. Apparently, now that there were fewer of them to control, the food was being rationed as well. Of course, if they hadn’t confiscated her supplies she wouldn’t have needed much more food.

“Oh, so what do you have?”

“Lasagna, two salads, and two pieces of chocolate cake.”

“Wow!” Nora exclaimed. She forgot she didn’t have an appetite when she spotted that cake. “You must not have been using your own credits to have earned this much food this fast.”

“Fortunately, the credits transferred from the other dorm.” he answered. “I should have guessed it meant something they even bothered to have food credits back then. After all, they didn’t put them to use before.”

She placed the basket on top of her bed. She then went to the nearby desk and grabbed the chair there. Next, she dragged it over toward the bed; she left it facing the end of the bed. Finally, she sat on the edge of the bed while Jack sat on the chair. She handed him the first course; the two salads came with two plastic forks. They both began to eat steadily. Between bites, they talked about anything and everything other than their current situation. Next, was the lasagna. Nora found she was a bit less hungry now. Even so, she savored every bite. Actually, it was pretty well made. Nora had her complaints about the Administration, but the food wasn’t one of them. She tried not to reflect on the fact that the Administration had probably invested in food quality to pacify the recruits. Still, it caused her stomach to turn slightly anyway. Nora set her plate down on her lap.

Nora decided to take a break from eating. She concluded that moment was a good opportunity to let Jack know a little of what she was feeling. She looked down briefly.

“I’m glad you’re with me … though I wish we weren’t here, of course. Still, I don’t know how I could have handled all of this trauma without your support.”

She looked him in the eye then. He looked back at her steadily, seemingly moved by what she had said. Then, he nodded.

“I know what you mean.” he let her know.

She touched his hand briefly.

When it came time for the cake, Nora reluctantly admitted she’d have to save that for later. She left it in its plastic wrap and walked it over to her desk. Then, Nora looked out the window. She remembered when she first caught sight of the nebula reapers and the dreadful engulfing of the air taxi. But looking outside at that moment, Nora could only see darkness and stillness. It was strange. She wondered whether she would rather be at her home and relive that night again. Or, would she prefer to have this seemingly calm, peaceful night instead? Really, what did it matter? It was all the same. Ever since the nebula reapers entered their lives, this stillness was just an illusion.

Nora lingered there a moment as though subconsciously waiting for something to happen. Or, it could have been the slight rumbling noise in the distance, which seemed to be getting louder that, therefore, drew her attention. Could it be? Might it be a storm coming? Was there, in fact, more time for her and Group B? Maybe Group A was doing all right after all. Nora turned to Jack to tell him but was only able to get out his name. Then, it started — large pieces of debris came whirling down from the sky like meteors, crashing and thundering on to the ground. One after another, they descended. Jack came swiftly and pulled Nora away from the window. Even so, it seemed like she had been there forever. As they huddled near the side of her bed, she sobbed uncontrollably repeating “Group A” over and over. It turned out there was at least one reason the planes were so small — when they were sent plummeting back toward the ground they would do far less damage upon impact.

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2016

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Nocturne’s Reaping® : Dirge

Chapter 15

Nora headed into the building. Once inside, she signed in at the receptionist’s desk. Not surprisingly, the woman didn’t seem to pay much attention to her. But today, Nora didn’t much care. She sat down at a nearby bench. While there, she could feel her heart pounding and adrenaline rushing through her veins. Try as she might, Nora couldn’t steady her nerves. She began tapping her foot upon the floor. It was getting very close to the time of her appointment. She watched the clock’s big hand draw closer and closer to the appointed moment.

Then, suddenly, it was upon her — only nothing happened. Nora looked about the room. The receptionist was busy typing away. The woman looked up briefly when she sensed Nora was staring at her. At first, Nora thought they would share a common understanding of the situation Nora found herself in. However, the woman then quickly looked back down as though nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

Still, Nora didn’t think too much of it. After all, it was only a few seconds past … then a minute … then two … then six … then ten. Finally, when twenty minutes had passed, Nora drew into a standing position and walked over to the receptionist’s desk again. She stood there waiting for the woman to acknowledge her. She even cleared her throat. She could tell that the woman knew she was there; the look on the woman’s face said so. It caused Nora to grow incredibly uncomfortable waiting there like that for a response; she still wasn’t used to being treated as though she was merely a pest. Just as Nora was considering returning to her seat, the woman finally looked up at her. Nora looked at the clock. It had taken nearly five minutes for the receptionist to look at her.

“Umm … I was supposed to have an appointment about twenty-five minutes ago.” Nora put forth, trying to sound as positive as possible.

The receptionist just stared at Nora unblinkingly. Nora’s eyebrows furrowed slightly.

“Maybe I have the wrong time?” Nora suggested calmly.

“Well, let’s see. What’s your name again?”

“Nora Montgomery.”

As the receptionist slowly sifted through the appointment book, Nora had a glimmer of hope that she might get some answers. Maybe it was a mistake after all. Maybe her appointment was, in fact, tomorrow instead.

“Oh, yes, here you are.” the woman started. “Yes, you have the right time.”

The woman abruptly shut the book in front of Nora. Then, she turned from her and proceeded to return to her typing. Nora found she was shocked despite the fact that this type of treatment was nothing new. Why had they scheduled her for this time if they were just going to make her wait? Was this appointment just some sort of game they were playing? Had Mrs. Grafton told them about her trouble with the confinement exercise, and this delay was some sort of payback?

“Ugh …” Nora groaned.

The women looked up at her with irritation. Nora grew angrier.

“May I leave, or will my appointment be soon?” Nora retorted.

A self-righteous look crossed the woman’s face.

“Group A is going out right now.” she told Nora with disdain in her voice.

Nora felt the blood drain from her face. She felt herself grow numb. She swallowed and tried to steady herself. She had known it was coming, but still … Nora tried to remember the sounds she had been able to hear from the nearby hangar. She had thought it was just the normal noises from a small airport. Now, it all took on a decidedly ominous turn. She tried, in particular, to remember hearing the voices of Group A, but none had filtered into her mind.

“The weather just cleared enough. Certainly, you’ll agree that’s more important than your appointment being behind schedule.”

Nora breathed out and considered. Then, she turned a doubtful look onto the woman. Was Nora really supposed to be ashamed of her reaction? How could she have known?

Suddenly, the side door opened, and a tall man dressed in aviator gear stepped into the room.

“Nora Montgomery?”

“Yes.”

“I’m ready for you now.” he stated blankly.

Nora followed the man back into the hangar. Once there, she noticed the room was fairly dark and seemed mostly empty. The pilot looked over and seemed to note her expression.

“They’ll be moving more planes in here. They are being housed at a separate on-site facility.” he informed her.

The man acted as though that observation was supposed to please Nora, but it didn’t. It just reinforced the fact that no one in the Administration felt that Group A was coming back. Though, Nora supposed it was still a possibility that both Group A and Group B could make a joint assault. But if that were the case, then why not wait to send out Group A until Group B was ready? It would seem that they would have all gone out at once if that were true. Suddenly, the instructor stopped in front of a plane somewhat bigger than the one Nora had seen at the field the day of the crash.

“This is the training plane. It has plenty of room for two people. I asked them why they needed it so big …” He laughed to himself.

What did that mean? Nora gave him an odd look, but he wasn’t looking at her.

“You’ll be in front, and I’ll guide you from the back.”

Nora again pondered why the recruits’ planes were not so big as this one. She really wanted to ask the instructor but didn’t have the nerve to get her voice out.

That was when Nora spotted it, in a dark corner on the other side of the hangar. She had perhaps been too preoccupied to make note of it before. It was a plane, seemingly much, much larger than what was probably useful under these circumstances. Maybe there was some other reason for the vessel — something completely separate from fighting the nebula reapers. Could it be part of a different strategy? Maybe the escape plan Jack had mentioned? If so, why hadn’t it gone out with Group A? Were they really just gathering information from Group A’s efforts? Nora didn’t want to believe that. She hoped perhaps there was more than one large plane. This one did look brand-new, so maybe it was a replacement. Then again, from this distance it was hard to tell.

“I’m waiting for you, Miss Montgomery.” the instructor suddenly announced.

Nora looked up at him.

“Please get in the front seat.”

And there it was — back to business. Nora was surprised that he even deigned to use her last name, given she was just a cog in the machine to him. Then again, maybe he couldn’t remember her first name.

“Sure.” Nora began to climb the small ladder onto the plane. When she got into the front seat, she secured the seatbelt around her. The man got into the seat behind her. How much better it must be for him, Nora thought. For one, he knew what he was doing. By the calmness of his demeanor, Nora also suspected he wasn’t planning on sharing the same fate that she was.

“Well, the first thing you will need to do is secure the oxygen tube. It will attach to a pilot’s helmet that you’ll be receiving later on.”

Nora looked right then left. On the left, she found the tube. She pulled at it, and it tumbled off the hook and fell on to her lap.

As she reached down to pick it up, she noticed her hand was shaking.

“It’s important to make sure it’s worn at all times. You will fall unconscious if it isn’t on.”

“What if the oxygen doesn’t come out?” Nora asked, her voice quavering.

She placed her hand against the part of the tube that the oxygen should come out of and felt nothing.

“There’s no reason to believe it won’t be there when you need it.” he assured her. “All right now, let’s get started. I’ll walk you through the steps, and you’ll do them. I’ll give you a printout of the instructions to take back to the dorm with you. You need to read it. Then, if you have to, reread it. The next time we meet, I will say nothing, and you will just do it. Okay now, let’s get started.”

 

 

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2016

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Nocturne’s Reaping® : Dirge

Chapter 14

Nora was released from the hospital the next day without much fanfare. She was glad to be leaving that place, which reminded her more of a prison than a place of healing. There was a slight drizzle in the air when Nora finally exited the reception area and then the building. There was a brief moment of happiness when she realized no one had told her where to go or what to do for once. She rarely felt that sense of freedom since the day she walked the streets of Jack’s district — before being forced here against her will.

Thinking about that time reminded her of all the dreams and nightmares she had had since then. How she wished her parents would come and get her! She often thought about how she had done the wrong thing leaving that day. That thought haunted both her dreams and her waking hours. She so wished she hadn’t left on her own. How selfish she had been! To think, if she hadn’t left she’d be sleeping in her own bed tonight. But then, she’d be just living in a state of blissful ignorance that wouldn’t last. Was it better to know the truth or to live with the anxiety of feeling the truth was being withheld from her?

Nora stood stock-still in the field. She didn’t want to go back to the dorm, but could — should she really just stand there indefinitely? Nora laughed softly at herself over the prospect that the administrators would find her there just staring into space. Nora slowly and grudgingly made her feet move forward back toward the dorm.

Upon entering the dormitory, she just happened to glance into the cafeteria. Within it, she spied Jack eating lunch with one of the guys from Group B. Jack lifted his eyes toward her as Nora approached his table.

The guy he was sitting with then turned around and looked at her. He looked years older than both she and Jack. He broke into a wide smile when he saw Nora; it was almost as though he recognized her.

“Oh, it’s you.” he said. Then, he laughed. “You certainly were a source of amusement yesterday. The look on those instructors’ faces when they saw that you got out of that death trap and swam to shore was priceless. Honestly, I laughed the entire time I was in that coffin. Ha, ha! Thanks so much!”

The man pulled out a chair for Nora. She supposed she should be glad he wasn’t rejecting her like the others had.

“Don’t just stand there, girl. Have a seat. I was just telling this guy here about our ‘friends’ who left us to die. You know, the ones who were just so glad it wasn’t them. Seems as soon as Group A takes off, which should be soon, Group C will be fast-tracked into our position. Serves them right as far as I’m concerned. My roommate treated me as though I were already dead. I, for one, don’t intend to die.”

Nora sat down.

“How did you find out that information?” Nora wondered.

“Well, let’s just say that not everyone in this area of the complex is a recruit. So, they don’t just stay in one spot. I’ll leave it at that.” He paused. “Anyway, I heard they like small pilots — the smaller the better.”

Nora looked at the rather large man skeptically.

“Then, why are there tall men here?” she questioned.

“Well, I also heard there are different types of planes, too. Maybe that’s why. Or, maybe they just couldn’t find enough small ones who were old enough. So, they add the small ones in with the big ones.”

Nora was horrified to hear him talk about it like that. It seemed to take the situation to another level of depravity.

The man took one last bite of his sandwich.

“Well, look at the time.” the man noted. “It was great talking to you.”

The man reached his hand out to Jack. Jack took it, and they shook hands.

“See ya, girl.” the man laughed.

The guy then took off. Nora turned and looked after him. She had wondered whether she should have asked for the man’s name, but she decided against it. It seemed obvious the extroverted man didn’t know their names and probably would have asked for them if he had wanted to know. She suspected that he didn’t want to get too close to anyone now. Perhaps, he didn’t want to put himself in the position where he could be betrayed again. Or, maybe he just wasn’t sure the rest of them would make it. Certainly, Nora didn’t seem to be very competent at this point. Nora looked back at Jack again.

“What he said about the others being fast-tracked, wouldn’t that mean we’re going to be going out soon as well?” Nora whispered.

“It would seem.”

A knot grew in Nora’s stomach.

“But we’re not ready at all.” Nora argued — as though Jack had the power to make the decision. “We don’t know anything. Even if we learn to pilot a plane, how do we fight them off?”

“I don’t think there’s much to know … yet.” Jack replied.

“What do you mean?” Nora wondered.

“I’ve been trying to get information. I don’t think Group A knows much of anything about how to attack the nebula reapers either. My guess is they are being used to gather that information.”

“What?!”

“Calm down, Nora. There’s nothing we can do about it. However, I’m working on a plan to get that information, so we can use it to make a decent strategy for ourselves.”

Nora’s eyes shifted. She hadn’t quite wrapped her mind around the idea that all of Group A was probably going to die. Then again, how could anyone possibly know that? It wasn’t as though the Administration would have been forthcoming with that little detail. And yet, Nora couldn’t stand the thought of it. She didn’t know a single one of them, but somehow she felt a connection. Perhaps, it was the connection that only people who will share the same fate can have.

“Nora.” Jack began. She looked at him, her eyes still distracted. He looked back at her with intensity. “We don’t have a lot of time.”

“What about the others in Group B?” Nora wondered.

“What about them?”

“Suppose we do find something out — are we going to include them in any plan we have? It would make me feel less guilty about having to use Group A’s situation …”

“If we did that, we’d run the risk of their turning us in to save themselves.”

“But they’d have a better chance with us if we could make it work …”

“You and I believe that, but they might not. They could, therefore, ruin everything …” Jack paused. “Not only that, but I’ve heard they will be using our group to escort some of the more prestigious citizens off the planet.”

“Evacuation?”

“That seems to be the plan.”

“Why would anyone take that risk?”

“Those people probably believe there’s more of a risk in staying.” Jack replied. “Some people panic when they’re trapped.”

“Yeah.” Nora replied, looking down.

It was hard enough that Jack’s words reminded her of the confinement exercise. But now, Nora was also troubled by the prospect of what could happen to her parents and brother if the people leaving were right.

“Listen, it may just be a few people who lost the nerve to wait around. Still, if there is a plan in the works, and I can get a hold of it, then we might be able to use it.”

“And everyone else? Will we have to use Group B just like the Administration?” Nora asked him. “I don’t know whether I’m okay …”

“I’ll think about it, all right. I’ll try to come up with something.”

“I know you’re trying …” Nora assured him. “I really appreciate all of your efforts.”

Jack’s eyes momentarily slid over toward a clock.

“Well, as I said, I’ll give it some thought. In the meantime, I’m scheduled for a flying lesson in fifteen minutes, so I’ll have to catch you later.”

Jack smiled softly. Then, he stood and headed for the door.

Nora decided to eat something before she returned to her room. She managed to eat a little, but she found herself alternating between hunger and nausea. Finally, Nora had enough and slowly began the journey back to her room. Sleep seemed good right about then.

As she made her way down her hall, she could see there was a note tacked on her door. When she got close enough, she read it. It was a notice giving her the time and location of her flying lesson. Nora was surprised that the lesson was only an hour away. She took the note from the door.

“What if I hadn’t gotten this note in time?” Nora wondered.

Of course, it once again got her to thinking about what they would do to her if she did disobey them. It unnerved her to know that even if she tried to do what they wanted she could still fail and be punished for that failure. Either way, Nora was sure she didn’t want to find out what they would do to her today. She took the note off the door. Even though the appointment wasn’t far-off, there was still time to spare. Nora didn’t feel like sitting around waiting for her appointment to begin. So, she decided to change her clothing then rest before heading off. Nora concluded she could at least have these moments in between tasks to herself. Maybe she could even try to look as nice as she could; it might give her more confidence.

Nora then took notice of the small, complimentary calendar she had picked up at the commissary. She noted she had been forgetting to cross some days off. By the look of it, she’d already crossed into another month. Out of boredom and a lack of desire to think about the flying lesson, Nora decided to update the calendar.

She thought it through and began crossing out dates she determined had already passed. Finally, she crossed out the last day that was no more. To Nora’s surprise, she realized that the first day that remained was her birthday. She had figured it was getting close, but she had no idea it was upon her. Nora sat on her bed. For a moment, she just stared at the date on the calendar. Then, she began to laugh. Just like the note on the door, she could have completely missed it. So much for the calendar! Really, what was the point? So many times people around here didn’t even bother with dates. Everything here was so immediate. It was always today or tomorrow with the Administration. The note tacked on her door didn’t even have the date listed on it. One just assumed that if they didn’t write tomorrow on it then it had to be today. Yet, ironically, the days were so long and yet so intense that Nora was able to distinguish each one in her mind. There always seemed to be at least one event — even if it was a small event — that occurred to set that day apart from the rest. Even a dropped pencil or a recruit with a cough was recorded in her mind.

Nora couldn’t help but think of her parents. She wondered how her parents were feeling this day of all days. How worried they must be. She grew even more despondent thinking about it.

“Maybe these moments of free time aren’t so great after all.” Nora concluded.

Coming to that conclusion was bittersweet. But it was true; the more busywork they made her do the less opportunity she’d have to dwell on things with her last moments.

“Maybe free time is only positive when you’re happy …” Nora remarked aloud.

She looked at the clock. Her appointment was coming up quickly. She sighed. She may as well head out now. At least, then, she wouldn’t have to rush. Nora ended up making it to the airfield with ten minutes to spare. She was pleasantly surprised to see Jack come out of the hangar just as she was heading inside.

“Oh, you! How was it?” Nora asked him.

Her enthusiasm seemed to surprise them both. But Nora figured it was less about her being happy than it was about her being borderline hysterical.

“It was fine.” Jack said. “Not bad at all.”

“Good.” Nora felt relief. Yet, she was surprised to find that she still felt excitement. She wondered what to make of it. Then, it occurred to her that seeing Jack made her happy.

“Hey, I actually found out today is my birthday.” she continued.

“Really?” Jack asked. He seemed genuinely interested.

“Yeah, I’m eighteen. So, I’d rather not have another exercise like the confinement one today.”

“Like I said, it wasn’t too stressful.” he reassured her in a deep voice.

Nora nodded. She considered.

“Oh. I forgot to ask — when is your birthday?” she offered.

“I’ll be nineteen in six months.”

Nora smiled. Suddenly, she couldn’t think of anything else to say — or at least any intelligent thing to say.

“Hmm … yeah birthdays are important.” Nora looked off to the side. Suddenly, a thought occurred to her. “Actually, I was just thinking about my parents …”

“Well, let’s talk over here then.” Jack advised.

Jack led her away from the entrance of the building and away from any people lingering there. Once they got far enough away, Nora shared her thoughts with him.

“I’ve been thinking — could we get word to my parents? Tell them to leave if they get the chance.”

“I don’t know.”

“They won’t leave without me … or at least not without my telling them to go.”

“But would they realistically be given a chance to leave? And if they aren’t among the ones who are being offered the chance to go, their knowing about the possibility might get them into trouble.”

“Yeah.” Nora acknowledged.

“Besides, we don’t know whether it’s a wise move yet. Until we know the Administration’s plan, how can we know if it’s viable?

“Yeah.”

“Well, we can think about it.” Jack concluded.

“Okay, good.” Nora agreed with enthusiasm. “Listen, I have to get to my appointment. Thanks for talking with me.”

Nora touched his arm with her hand. Both Nora and Jack looked at her hand.

“Well, like I said, I’ve got to get going.” she repeated nervously.

She smiled; she could feel herself blushing. It was hard to turn away, but she knew she had to. There was no point in her waiting around only to be dragged away by force.

 

 

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2016

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Nocturne’s Reaping® : Dirge

Chapter 13

Nora could remember hearing voices calling to her, so she must have been in and out of consciousness. Then, when the haze finally cleared, she awoke completely. She slowly opened her eyes. At first, her eyes focused on a strange, bright light above her; the light seared into her. She looked away and blinked as her eyes struggled to adjust. Aside from that one light, the rest of the room was in shadow. Everything looked blurry, and globs of light streamed across Nora’s sight. Nora could make out that there were water pipes overhead, and she could hear water squealing past above her. Maybe it was because of this noise that she had had dreams about her near-drowning experience. At that moment, she almost sighed but ended up coughing instead. Nora concluded she was having trouble breathing because of the water she had inhaled. She sat straight up. As she placed her hand to her chest to stop the aching, she noticed a band on her wrist — sort of a label. The band had her name printed on it. Next, she noticed that her newfound sitting position allowed her to make out more of the room. It was a stark, unwelcoming room. On the walls were rows of metal cabinets. Nora figured she was in some sort of hospital. Yet, there was no buzzer, which would have allowed her to call for a nurse.

Nora sat there for a moment just thinking. Eventually, she found she couldn’t take staying in that bed any longer. Thoughts of the confinement exercise flew through her mind, and, even though she wasn’t tied down, she felt she was being restrained. She had to move! Fortunately, she didn’t have an IV in place to anchor her to the bed. Nora flung back the blanket and jumped up. She could see a light coming from a small window near the top of the exit door. Nora was glad to find the door was unlocked.

Nora opened the door to a long hallway, which was lit with fluorescent lighting throughout its length. On the top of the right-hand wall was the same type of water pipe as before. It made Nora conclude she was in a basement; the hall of which was so empty she could practically hear her breath echoing.

Nora suddenly had this strong desire to get back to her dorm room and blend back in with the others. There was a sense inside of her that she had messed up. She was supposed to have kept her cool, but she hadn’t. Maybe it was her imagination, but she could feel their disapproval — their condemnation — even now while she was alone. If she stuck around the hospital, surely someone would come to speak to her once that person knew she was awake — perhaps even Mrs. Grafton. Maybe if Nora could slide back into the routine, they’d figure she already knew the importance of toeing the line, and they wouldn’t need to threaten her. In the back of Nora’s mind, she could still see the look on Tina’s face after Tina hadn’t gone to that first meeting. Nora figured that she had messed up far worse than Tina had when she simply missed a meeting. Nora not only screwed up her own training but possibly traumatized the others as well. Then again, it wasn’t as though the confinement exercise wasn’t traumatic enough in and of itself. Nothing Nora did or didn’t do would change that reality.

Nora began to step into the hall upon her unsteady feet. The question was which way she should go. The way to the right seemed longer than the way to the left. The part of the hall to the right also seemed to have a connecting hall off to the side. She decided that venturing to the right was the smart choice.

“All right.” she whispered to herself.

Nora was off. She kept her eyes on the pipe to steady herself as she progressed. Nora reached for the wall and touched it. She paused briefly. Then, there was a noise behind her, the sound of a door squeaking open. Nora stiffened and held her breath.

“Wait there, Miss Montgomery. Your bed is back this way.”

Nora turned to see that it was a nurse calling to her. The nurse didn’t look friendly, but that wasn’t particularly surprising to Nora. The nurse approached then. When she got to Nora, she grasped Nora’s arm and began guiding her back to her room.

“Do I have to do it again? The confinement exercise — do I have to do it again? ” Nora asked chokingly as the nurse tucked her in.

“No.” the nurse replied coolly.

“Do you know what I’m talking about?” Nora wondered.

“Yes.”

“Well, don’t I have to pass?”

“No. If they let you repeat the exercise, then everyone could maintain he or she couldn’t do it to delay everything.”

She made it sound so logical. Nora felt torn. She certainly didn’t want to do the confinement exercise again, but what if it really was necessary in order to survive what was to come?

“Not that we don’t believe you,” the nurse continued, “but we can’t have the others getting ideas. Still, if you felt you needed the experience you should have tried harder. After all, everyone else managed to make it through — even after your episode — lucky for you the Administration had a spare confinement vessel.”

Nora didn’t call attention to that last part the nurse grumbled in a barely audible voice. Instead, Nora asked, “So, how long am I going to be here?”

The nurse just stared at Nora. It was as though she still suspected Nora of trying to get away with something. In actuality, Nora didn’t want to stay there. It kept her failure fresh on everyone’s mind.

“The doctor will be here in the morning.” the nurse spoke.

There remained an edge to the nurse’s voice, almost a disappointment. The nurse then turned and left the room. The door clicked softly behind her. Nora breathed slowly and stared at the ceiling.

“Did I overreact?” Nora wondered.

No, just the thought of going back into that capsule caused a sudden wave of panic to grow inside of her.

“What exactly was that exercise supposed to demonstrate,” Nora began to contemplate with some anxiety.

Maybe if she could figure out the reasoning for the confinement exercise, she could prove to herself it was pointless and let the fact she didn’t complete it go. Was that the way it was going to be when she was in one of the planes? How small were the planes? They didn’t seem that small when she saw Group A fly overhead. Then again, later, after that one plane had crashed, she heard someone say that more than one person had died. Depending upon how many were inside, they may have been piled on top of one another like sardines in a can. Nora wondered whether it would be worse, better, or the same to be in a small space with at least one other person. She guessed it mattered who that person was. At least she hadn’t been put through the exercise with someone she didn’t know or like. It was bad enough as it was. Then again, if that was the way it was going to be, why delay it? Why not put them with other people during the confinement exercise? In the end, Nora couldn’t help but conclude that freaking out the recruits ahead of time wasn’t helpful to them. Nora doubted the experience was going to make her any calmer when the time to get into a plane finally did come.

But why did the planes need to be smaller than the ideal size needed to comfortably accommodate the pilots? Did it have anything to do with the nebula reapers? Did it make it easier to evade the reapers? Or, was it just because it was easier to get the planes through the force field, which now surrounded the colony instead of the nebula reapers? Nora had wondered how they planned on making it through the new force field after it was mentioned during one of the lectures. She decided that maybe the small size of the plane allowed them to open a smaller hole in the force field. But still, couldn’t they have found a better way? Had they even tried? Probably not, Nora thought. They didn’t seem to care.

Nora could hear the door click open as she lay there. She assumed it was the nurse. Nora had no idea what time it was, but she figured it was too soon for the doctor to have arrived. Either way, Nora didn’t feel like looking at the nurse and having the nurse look upon her with disapproval again. She figured that whatever the nurse had to do inside the room she didn’t need Nora’s attention to do it.

However, when Nora heard footsteps approaching the edge of the bed, she couldn’t help but turn her face toward her right.

“Jack!” she cried out.

He smiled.

“Hey.” he returned.

Nora lifted herself up into a sitting position. Jack found a chair and started to drag it over to her bed.

“I guess I really lost it before.” Nora offered.

Jack looked at her questioningly for a moment.

“How are you?” he asked her.

“All right.” Nora clutched at her blanket with her hands. Jack raised an eyebrow. Nora looked down again. She bit her lip. “Then again, maybe not. I don’t know; I can’t seem to get my head straight …”

Jack nodded and sat down.

“So, did you go through with it?” Nora asked. “The nurse said everyone else did …”

Jack nodded.

“I probably should have just done it.”

“Why?” Jack asked her.

Nora looked at him skeptically but couldn’t think of an answer that would convey what she was feeling. She grew very serious then.

“You shouldn’t have to go through this training at all but especially not now.” she told him. “I do want you to consider what I said before. I want you to leave if you can.”

“You mean you want me to delay for a short time then …”

“What if something happens? What if there ends up being no need for you to go? There’s no point in both of us dying.”

Nora could hardly believe she spoke the last word. In fact, after she uttered it she froze. Jack kept his eyes on her for a moment. He could tell the moment he saw her that she was exhausted emotionally and otherwise. So, it shouldn’t be surprising to him that she’d basically given up on herself. He stood and began slowly pacing around. Suddenly, he stopped.

“I don’t think you realize how much my meeting you that day meant to me. And now, you give me a reason to somehow make it through this situation.” he told her. “You know, if you weren’t here I really wouldn’t care as much what happened to me. Plus, my helping you gives me something to focus on other than my poor, sad self.”

Nora stared forward then.

“Ironically, being above ground with you is probably the best …” Jack began.

“Stop it! Just stop it!” Nora cried out.

Tears formed in her eyes.

“And what if there is no way to win?” she asked.

“Then, at least we tried.” he returned.

Nora was dumbfounded. Her lip quivered.

“I feel so alone, so odd. I feel as though I’m stuck in some nightmare. I only wish I could go back home … go back to reality. Then again, maybe this world is what’s real. Maybe the rest of it is a dream. After all, it’s the world that told us what reality was. Sometimes they’re wrong, I guess.” Nora paused in the middle of her delirious rant to catch her breath. And yet, she couldn’t seem to stop herself from continuing. “I mean, think about it, this threat has been hanging over our heads all this time. They kept it all from us. It needn’t have gotten this bad. They could have had a plan — one that didn’t require people to die like this.”

Jack considered. Should he try to make her feel better or just be honest about what he was thinking? He chose to be honest.

“Yeah, still … I mean, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but the reality I’ve lived has never been great.” Jack put forth. “Maybe I’ve just lost perspective, but it all feels like more of the same to me.”

Nora was stunned silent. Then, she thought of something.

“No matter where we were before, it seems we’re all in this same sinking boat now.” Nora offered.

“Some of us; you being one.” Jack spoke lowly. “The rest of this world — I’m sorry, but I doubt it. Circumstances could change for the worse, I suppose. But if they don’t …” Jack trailed off. “As far as our getting out of this situation permanently, you have a better chance of that than I do. I did wonder at the time why you stayed, but I thought you must have had your reasons for not trying to escape. Still, if there’s a chance for you …”

“I have a feeling it’s too late.” Nora said. “They aren’t going to just let me go now. Honestly, I’m pretty sure it was too late the moment I was loaded onto that conveyance vehicle.”

“Maybe. But what if it isn’t? I hate to say it, but they could probably find someone to replace you. You don’t have any skill in piloting a plane or anything that couldn’t be replaced.”

“Would my admitting where I come from repair the situation that the colony is in? Would it be any better for me — or even right?” Nora wondered. “Then again, maybe I’m just afraid of becoming more upset if I’m not believed or if I’m refused anyway. If I get my hopes up and nothing changes … how could I handle it? And if I did go home, I don’t want to sit around knowing this horror is happening to other people and wondering whether it could still happen to me. That’s assuming they would even let me leave now that I know too much. At best, they’d probably just lock me up somewhere to wait it all out. And would our world be spared and ever go back to the way it was or at least the way I thought it was? Or, would I just be waiting to die?” Nora paused. “Still, I admit it does haunt me sometimes that I’m destroying my own life by not trying.”

“Then try.” Jack responded.

“How?” Nora asked him with gravity. “You really want me to confess that I was picked up by mistake to the people who forced me into that coffin? Does it really matter now anyway?”

“No.”

“Then what?” Nora questioned him.

Jack hesitated.

“I have some ideas I’m working on.” he finally admitted.

Nora was taken aback. When she asked that question she hadn’t really expected there to be an answer. Still …

“In the meantime, try to stay sane for me.” he added.

Nora realized how badly her breakdown must have affected him. She nodded slowly.

“I’ll try.” Nora agreed.

“Good.” he said. “I’d better get going before that nurse finishes her dinner.”

Jack sneaked out of the room as silently as he had entered. Nora lay back down. Jack’s talk had done the trick. She did have enough hope at the moment to stay sane, she supposed. But would it last?

 

 

Copyright © Jennifer Alice Chandler 2016

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