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„The Fighting Girl“
Promise: The Fighting Girl
What Happened Before...
Translated by Bradley Hall
Copyright ©2014 Maya Shepherd
Coverdesign: Cover-up! by Bianca Holzmann
All rights, including full or partial reprinting in any form is reserved.
Facebook: Maya Shepherd
For my wonderful readers
who have ventured with Nea
on her journey to Promise.
Before being burned at the stake, Miro managed to rescue Nea and brought her into a Carris government building. While Miro lives, he is no longer the same person Nea once knew. He now calls himself Ereb and is not only the god of the Carris; he is also the father of Kasia’s child. At first, Nea tried to take him to task, but it soon became clear that Miro was just a puppet of Urelitas, a high priest of Carris. Miro and many of the Carris followers are under the influence of Memoria, a drug used to quell uprisings before they start by making the user into a mindless drone.
After Nea’s wounds have healed, she is sent with the other slaves to work in the fields. Together with Arras, the twins, and other slaves, she plans her escape. They want to set fire to the whole town, not just their buildings, but the lab where Memoria is produced as well.
Before this can happen, Nea is brought into the government building on a pretext. Urelitas locks her away because he considers her dangerous. He then spreads a rumor amongst the slaves that she fled alone.
The day of the escape comes and the other slaves stick to the plan and set a large fire across the city while Nea is stuck in prison. Miro frees her and they escape. Together with Kasia and the baby, they flee to the agreed upon meeting place. But on the way, Miro remains to stop Urelitas and the Carris.
The rebels seek shelter in an old farmhouse. While Nea forges her plan to liberate Miro, Irina and Harold fall ill. It appears to be an ordinary flu, but quickly it turns out to be Polyora, the deadly disease has somehow come back. The oldest two members of the group die.
Arras admits to Nea that there was a rumor in Promise that an antidote to Polyora exists, but remains silent as to his sources for the information.
Together, they return to Fortania to rescue Miro. They are just in time to see a large parade that will culminate with him being burned at the stake, having been branded a traitor. They manage to prevent Miro from being killed. Urelitas is also suffering from Polyora. Panic ensues among the Carris and many flee the city. Of those who remain, many help Nea and her friends around the city.
After Urelitas becomes even more ill, Elias falls sick. He was Kasia’s first love, but is now with Emmi who fled to Promise to seek the elusive antidote. In the face of his impending death, Kasia admits to Elias that he, not Miro, is the father of her daughter. Nea overheard the conversation and implores Kasia to tell Miro the truth, but she steadfastly refuses.
Nea struggles with her conscience and her feelings. She feels connected to Arras, but at the same time she feels love for Miro, and for the first time he also seems to reciprocate her love. But when she tells him what she found out about Kasia and her baby, he becomes angry, not only at Kasia, but Nea as well, because she did not tell him directly. After Faith falls ill, Nea decides to leave the city to search for the antidote herself.
Miro goes after her and confesses his love. Nea is overwhelmed by her feelings and remains to give their relationship a chance. Thus they not only anger Kasia, who cannot bear to lose Miro, but also Arras, who had hoped that he and Nea could be more. He leaves the city in order to not stand in the way of Nea’s happiness.
But the twins are also disappointed in Nea’s decision. Under these circumstances, Nea cannot enjoy her relationship with Miro. She suffers from guilt. Miro also senses this and releases Nea so she may search for the antidote. They promise to remain true to each other. While Nea sets out on her journey, Miro remains with the others in the city.
On her way, Nea meets a group of brigands, who have somehow managed to capture Arras. Nea manages to free him and flee with him. Arras offers his support to accompany her to Promise.
It’s a starry night as Nea and Arras walk on the lonely highway. Since there is no electricity, the nights are dark. Not only is there no light from street lamp, but there are no lights on in shop windows or homes or illuminating billboards. Looking out at the horizon is like looking into a black hole.
They pass at least one abandoned car every mile. Their owners fled long ago. They fled in search of food or they ran out of gas and decided to continue the rest of their trip on foot Where were they going? Who knows? The cars are all smashed, broken up, the useful pieces picked up by scavengers. There are pieces of glass everywhere. The wind has scattered it every which way over the past several years. All of the cars are covered with rust. Some are covered with plants.
In the period after the outbreak of Polyora, the people did not want to believe the whole world was affected, instead hoping, praying, that the contagion was limited to a single country or a single continent. They tried to flee, hoping it would be different elsewhere. But soon word got around that there was no place that wasn’t affected.
Nevertheless gasoline is a very rare, and therefore, valuable, commodity. It has been years since Nea last saw a moving car.
Several feet away a wreck stands out of the shadows of the night. It is a Jeep. It is only when they stand in front of it do they see that the windows are still intact. The driver’s door is unlocked and the glove box is open. It’s almost as though someone had been sitting in the car a few minutes before.
Arras’ hand lies down on the cool metal of the door.
“I doubt we will find something useful in that car, let alone discover that it’s still usable,” Nea says critically.
“We should take a break,” Arras replies as he reaches into the interior to unlock the other doors. “You can have the back seat.”
For a moment Nea stands undecided before the Jeep. They have been on the road for nearly a week and the atmosphere between them is still very tense. Arras behaves courteously and is considerate, almost gentle. But familiarity has disappeared. They are like strangers who happen to have the same goal. They were so much more than that. But all this is in the past.
Nea feels guilty toward him. She hurt him and there is nothing she could do or say to make it undone. Sometimes she wishes he would yell at her. If they argued, then perhaps they could make up and finally be friends again. But it is not so easy. Everything is unsaid between them. Nea chose Miro and Arras will probably never forgive her. She does not even know why he offered to accompany her. Perhaps he feels obliged to her after she saved his life for the third time. Still, she is glad that he is with her. She spent two years completely on her own and therefore should not be afraid of loneliness but she is no longer the same. She has changed - Arras has changed her.
Finally Nea slides into the backseat. The seat has some cracks and is completely worn out, but it feels better than being on the cold and wet forest floor.
Arras sits behind the wheel, so Nea can only see him from the side from behind. He stares straight ahead.
“Will you take first watch?” She asks him, just to break the silence.
“Yes, now sleep,” he replies repellently.
“Make sure you wake me halfway through the night this time!” Most nights he had not, he just let her sleep. Whenever Nea then woke in the morning, her guilt became even worse, almost as if Arras intended it. When she asked him about it, he would just shrug his shoulders.
“If you do not sleep, the night will pass anyway,” Arras growls, ignoring her demand. He is annoyed by her and that hurts Nea. She feels as though nothing will be able to make things right between them. If she tries to reconcile things, he becomes repellent. When she talks about something trivial, he only gives monosyllabic answers. If she remains silent, he says nothing.
She pulls her legs in and lies down flat on the back seat, closes her eyes, and tries to sleep. the days are long. They walk each day since the early morning hours. Her feet are throbbing. Her map did not survive the fall into the river, so they use a compass to guide them. Promise is in the south. Arras has taken the lead, and it looks as if he knows the way. Nea relies entirely on him.
Although she is tired, sleep does not come easy. She listens to Arras breathing. If she stretched out her hand, she could touch him, and yet he feels so far away.
“Arras?” She whispers in the silence.
She sees his shoulders tense at the sound of her voice.
“What is it?”
“Can you set your breathing to mine?”
If she could only see his face’s reaction to her question. He remains motionless for a moment before he rises with a soft sigh from his seat, gets out of the car, and comes to her in the back seat. He sinks into the seat and continues to look straight ahead.
Nea sits up and looks at him intently. The faint light of the moon shines on his dark hair and sparkles in his eyes. At the sight of him, her heart contracts - she missed him so much. At this moment, a lot more than she misses Miro.
“Do you think we will be there soon?” She asks softly. From outside, only the wind rustling leaves and the chirping of crickets can be heard.
“It’s not far,” he says evasively.
“You know the way, right?”
He does not answer, but instead looks out the window into the dark night.
“Will you not tell me what happened in Promise? We’re almost there...”
His head snaps around to face her and interrupts her sharply: “No, Nea! I do not want to talk about it.”
She winces at his loud words. It has been a long time since she has seen him angry. The last time was when he left Fortania. Perhaps this is the moment she has been waiting for. She could try to provoke him further, in the hopes of finally airing his feelings. There are certainly a lot of things she could say, but before she can say anything, he touches her knee. His hand is warm. She can feel the heat emanating from his body through her jeans. He has avoided her for days, barely looked at her and now to be this close, it takes her breath away.
“Let me go alone,” he urges.
The spell is broken. She pushes his hand away. “I made a promise to Hope. This is not your job!” She replies angrily.
“But you do not know what awaits you there.”
He stretches his arms out to her surprise and acts totally desperate, but Nea braces her arms against her chest. “Then finally tell me what awaits me there.”
“The beginning of the end,” he says with meaning. He has not been looking forward to this moment all week. “Perhaps there is an antidote in Promise, but you will never leave from there.”
“You were there and managed to get away!” Nea countered stubbornly. “Why should I not succeed? You’re stronger than me, but I’m at least as tough as you are.”
Arras lowers his head as he realizes that she cannot be dissuaded from this path, no matter how hard he tries. “Nea, the man I once was died in Promise. I’m just a shadow of myself.”
“Then it is time for you to get your old self back.”
“You would like him, not because he ran like a coward, but because of it.”
Nea shakes her head uncomprehendingly. “Why is it so hard for you to tell me the truth? No matter what you’ve done, I’m the last person who has the right to judge you in any way.”
Arras is at odds with himself. Part of him wants to tell Nea everything. He knows that his silence is one of the reasons Nea ultimately chose Miro. His secrets have always been like an insurmountable wall between them. No matter how close they have been, Nea always knew there was something about him that he was not willing to share with her. But if he had told her the truth, she would hate him if she did not kill him on the spot. There is no excuse for what he has done. When he looks into her trusting eyes, it puts heavy chains around his heart that close his mouth.
“You will learn the truth soon enough,” he says, and rises abruptly out of the car. He feels her gaze in his neck as he sits back down in the driver’s seat. “Sleep! We will arrive at Promise tomorrow afternoon. You will need your strength.”
Nea is surprised they are so close. She looks into the rearview mirror and sees him looking at her, then she turns away and lies down on the back seat.
The sky is cloudless and the sun beats down mercilessly on the skin. In the morning, Nea and Arras left the highway and went on overland paths leading mostly through fields and open meadows. There are hardly any trees to provide shade or offer protection against enemies. The farther they are to the south, the hotter it seems to be. Nea pulled her parka off a long time ago and tied it around her hips while she can feel the fabric of her shirt stick soaked in sweat and stick to her back. It is not unusual for them to travel long distances, but the heat causes them to strain. Arras does not seem to mind, because he is still wearing his coat and does not seem to be sweating. Today, they have barely spoken to each other, while there is plenty they must discuss. What do they expect in Promise? Will they ever get access to the city?
Nea holds back all of her questions. Only Arras’ tense demeanor and their conversation from last night, if you can call it a conversation at all, is keeping her from talking.
At noon their water bottles are empty and there is no drinking water in sight. “Are you quite sure we will reach Promise soon?” Nea asks worriedly.
Arras lets his eyes wander over the horizon. In the distance the outlines of houses can be seen. However, it is not enough for a city. “Do you see the houses?”
“From there, it will only be a half an hour.”
She raises her eyebrows in surprise. Although Arras already told her last night, she cannot believe that they are so close to their goal. For two years she dreamed of traveling to Promise to start a new life. Now it’s not because of her dream that brought her here, but because of fate that pushes them on. All of her hopes are based on this mysterious city.
The curiosity gives them new strength and they run with determination toward the ruined houses. Just before they reach the houses, Arras cautions Nea to seek protection behind a wall. The buildings look half destroyed. The asphalt on the streets is torn and small plants grow through the concrete crust. The facades are partly covered or brittle. Windows are smashed and doors are broken. Again, looting and rioting took place here, not maintenance. Graffiti can be seen on some house walls, most likely it was not there before the disease broke out.
A lean cat crosses the road, but otherwise everything seems quiet. Nea does not know what Arras is afraid of. Gangs propagate in cities, not a few houses. And if they came across a group of savages, they would have heard them by now. “What are you looking for?” She whispers to him impatiently.
“Patrols,” Arras replies. He darts from one house to the next.
Nea follows him. “From Promise?” She asks irritably. What would they want in this town when they have an entire city to keep watch over?
“It’s been a long time since I was here last. Who knows what has happened in the meantime. Back then, there were guards who patrolled this far out.” He checked further. As before, everything is quiet.
“What would happen if we encountered one?”
He averts his eyes off the road and looks at her seriously in the face. “That depends on what their mission is. On a good day, they would not bother us as long as we flee from them.”
“And on a bad day?”
“On a bad day they would capture us in the best case.”
“And in the worst case they would kill us?”
“We are used to dealing with tyrants,” Nea replies.
Arras launches into a mirthless laugh as he exits the protection of the house on the open road. “Urelitas was a saint compared to what now awaits us in Promise.”
Nea presses her lips together, yet seconds later the words bust out of her mouth, “Stop making suggestions if you do not want to tell me the truth.”
Arras turns around. His forehead is covered in wrinkles.
“You cannot stop me from going to Promise,” Nea snaps at him. “No matter what you may think up to try and scare me!”
He’s about to say something, but then he just takes a deep breath, turns around, and continues walking stubbornly. Nea runs after him some distance behind. Guilty or not, his secretiveness drives her to madness.
The road from the village leads to a major intersection. To the left, the tall buildings of a city can be discerned, but Arras turns right where the trail leads through meadows and fields, which are completely dried up by the sun.
Nea shouts at him, irritated, “But the city is to the left!”
“That’s not Promise,” seeing her uncomprehending face, he adds: “Promise is not an old city with a new name. It is something completely new, built after the plague.”
“A new city?” Nea asks incredulously. “But how did they do it? And most importantly, why? Why would anyone bother to build something new if there are plenty of empty buildings already available?”
“Promise is fully adapted to the needs of the builders. It is easier to monitor a city where you know all of its nooks and crannies, than one that you do not.”
“You know a lot about Promise,” Nea says firmly. It sounds like a reproach. She can see how tense Arras’ mouth becomes as he swallows, wondering if she had caught him at something.
A few minutes later, she hears loud voices. They continue following the road. Finally they recognize the towering buildings of a city stretching up to the sky. Nea stops to shield her eyes from the sun as she looks up at the towering buildings. It can be clearly seen that they were built recently. The gray concrete has no cracks or weathering. She believes she can see people at the top of the building.
“These are guard towers,” Arras explains. “From there, they monitor the land - day and night.” He does not need to add that they have already been spotted. But that does not explain the many loud voices.
There is no turning back now. Nea’s heart beats a little faster with each step they take closer to the mysterious city. After the towers, they come across a high fence, which appears to have been erected around the entire city. It is apparently ten feet high and is topped with barbed wire. Beyond the fence is a wall that is also intended to protect the city from invaders. The sight is scary and more reminiscent of a prison than of a city.
At one point in the fence is a large gate and now it becomes clear where the many voices were coming from. Nea and Arras slowly walk closer and listen to what the people are shouting.
“Let us in!”
“We are healthy!”
Seemingly, many people want into the city, but are not receiving admittance. There are certainly more than a hundred people gathered in front of the fence.
Nea and Arras are too far away from the entrance to detect what is happening. “What’s going on here?” Asks Nea. “Why are they not letting people in?”
Instead of Arras, a middle-aged woman at the end of the group turns to her. In her arms she holds a newborn. “They only admit the healthy ones.”
“All of those who are not afflicted with the disease.”
“But how do they check? The symptoms don’t show up until a person is infected.”
“That’s just it. Every day they let ten people in,” the old woman complains sorrowfully. They just arrived, so it will be at least ten days before they can get into Promise? New people join the queue without any consideration. There could be infected among them that could infect those who have not been infected.
“What do they do with the people they let in?” Nea asks.
“They are examined. Anyone who is healthy is allowed to stay.”
“And if they are not healthy?”
The woman twists her mouth and leans closer to Nea, as if to confide in her a secret. “So far, nobody has come out again. It is said that there is an antidote in Promise with which they can treat the infected.”
“Let’s go! We’ll never make it inside with the crowd,” Arras whispers as he puts his hand to Nea’s arm. She is confused and angry at the same time. He would give up now? So close to the finish line?
Only then does she notice that despite the heat he has his hood up over his head. The urgent look in his eyes gives her pause and she follows him - away from the crowd. They go back onto the road a bit, but then Arras suddenly turns left into the open field. Nea catches up to him.
“What are you doing?” Nea whispers, irritated.
“There is a side entrance for the guards.”
Now they sneak as close to the fence as they can so as not to be seen from the watchtower. A faint crackling and whirring can be heard.
“Do not get too close to the fence. It’s electrified!” Arras warns Nea. Nea stops and looks up at the fence in wonder. It has been a long time since she saw something powered by electricity. So the rumors are true after all? Electricity, running water, food, maybe even television? Not that it matters, but all these security measures incites Nea’s hope that there must be something worth watching in Promise. After all, what could be more valuable than the antidote?
After they have run a long way, the fence is suddenly replaced by a second wall. A few yards later, a heavy steel door can be seen.
“How did you know about the door?” Nea asks curiously. Arras knew it was there. He did not have to search for it.
“I used to live here,” Arras replies while pointing to a small hole in the door that seems like a spy hole. “This is a camera. Don’t let it see you.”
Nea does not know what to make of all this. But the more Arras knows, the easier it will be to get hold of the antidote.
Apart from the camera, the door is additionally secured by a keypad. A code is needed to gain entry. “What about that?” Asks Nea. “Do you know the code?”
“The code is changed several times a week, but there is one for emergencies. Unless they have changed that one, there should be no problem.” He was ready to input the code, but Nea holds him back.
“What can I expect in there?” There is a slight tremor in her voice.
“Are you suddenly afraid? You still have a chance to leave.”
She shakes her head firmly. “Of course I’m scared, but I have a promise to fulfill. Can you at least tell me what you’re planning? What do we do when we’re in there? Promise appears to be well guarded. Will they not discover us?”
“Not if I can help it! I know where their security cameras are and know the way to their labs. If there is an antidote, then it must be there.”
“There are surely guards inside. How are going to slip by them unnoticed?”
“Behind the door is a transition. There is, among other things, also a space in which they keep their uniforms. We will steal a couple of them and pretend that we are guards.”
The plan does not sound particularly well thought out, but what else do they have against an entire city? Without Arras’ knowledge, they would be lost. Nevertheless, Arras notices the worry and doubt on Nea’s face. He puts his hands gently on her shoulders. “Do you still trust me?”
Although Arras refuses to tell her the truth about his past in Promise, Nea has never doubted his honest intentions. No matter what happened between them, he would never put her in danger. “More than anyone else!”
“I cannot promise you that everything will go well. Perhaps something has changed in the city of which I know nothing. Perhaps they will catch us. Perhaps there is no antidote. But I promise you that I will do everything I can to get you back out of this city alive.”
“That’s not good enough!” Replies Nea. “We go in together and we leave together! No matter what happens, I will not leave without you!”
A smile twitches on Arras’ mouth; Nea’s heart beats rapidly with excitement. When she returns his smile, he takes her hand. “We must not lose each other!” He says emphatically.
I was afraid we already had, Nea thinks and squeezes his hand tighter as she crouches by the door. Arras stretches his arm to the keypad and types in a four digit number. It takes a few seconds for a green light to come on and the door opens with a click. They flit into a dark corridor, lit by faint lights on the ceiling. Nevertheless, Nea regards it as a small miracle. It is strange to see electric light, though before the disease it was something commonplace.
“We must hurry, before someone comes to meet us,” Arras hisses and pulls Nea along with him. They run fast. After a few steps, the transition splits into two directions. Arras turns right, then crouches down fast; they are just barely unnoticed by a camera hanging from the ceiling.
Shortly, there is another transition. To Nea, it appears as though the corridors are a gray maze. How often had Arras ran these corridors so that now he can almost blindly navigate through them? They scurry past the next camera when suddenly steps are heard. Nea shudders, but Arras opens one of the doors in the corridor and pushes her into the interior along with himself. The doors all look the same and are not labeled, so they don’t know what is inside.
It is pitch dark in the area. They both hold their breath and listen to the steps as they approach. It’s just a small group, perhaps only two or three people. Wordlessly and without note, they pass by the door. Only when the steps are almost a faded memory do they venture back out into the hallway.
Nea’s heart beats uncontrollably in her chest as they continue to the next junction. They avoid another camera and take refuge in a room. As the door closes behind them, Arras flips on the light switch. The sudden brightness causes Nea to squint. The space is full of shelves. There is an array of black suits on each. They remind Nea of the soft stretchable material that wetsuits are made of. In addition to the suits, there are also boots in various sizes. In another area are backpacks, bulletproof vests, and helmets. The clothing is very modern and has been made for a special task force or the military. Nea has no precise idea of Promise, but it is only logical that the founder of the city must have played a leading role in the old world; otherwise it would never have occurred to them to create something new. Perhaps some of them belonged to the military.
Arras removes the hood from his head and pushes a uniform into Nea’s arms. “Would people here recognize you if they saw your face on one of the cameras?” Nea asks curiously as she takes off her parka.
“They will not forget my face,” Arras replies as he slips out of his shoes. At that moment, the door flies open with a loud bang and the room is stormed by several guards. It all happens so quickly that Nea is unable to respond in any way. As she stands there, frozen, she is pushed roughly to the ground. Her teeth clench against each other and she bites her tongue. The metallic taste of blood fills her mouth. The whole room seems to be full of guards. She hears Arras scream, but when she raises her head to look at him, the barrel of a gun is pressed into her neck. “Do not move!” a male voice instructs her. Any attempt to fight back would be futile. There are too many.
Nea remains flat on the floor and watches as Arras is dragged out of the room. Unlike her, he roars like a stuck pig. He kicks and thrashes about. It amazes Nea that the guards do not just knock him out. Unconscious, he would be easier to handle.
As Arras has left the room, Nea begins jerkily kicking her legs. There are only three guards with her now, the rest went with Arras. Two of them grab her roughly by the arms, while the third goes behind her and threatens her with a gun.
“You win some, you lose some,” Nea said to one of the guards as she is led out of the room.
Nea has long since lost her way. She was carried by the guards and through several rooms and several corridors. She is eventually dropped onto the ground and left behind. This room is in contrast to the gloomy corridors, the light here is so bright it hurts the eyes. Several feet away from Nea is a see-through glass door.
The people in the room beyond the glass door do not wear tight-fitting black outfits. Instead, they wear yellow trousers and tunics with hoods that cover the entire head. They are disturbingly familiar to Nea. Back when the plague first broke out, these types of protective suits were seen often. They identified the employees of the Centers for Disease Control.
The glass door opens and a person in the yellow protective clothing walks slowly toward Nea. Their hands are raised, signaling to Nea that she can expect no harm.