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My mind knows something happened between walking away from the outer limit barrier and squatting in the corner of a shadowed room taking a leak yet, regardless of how hard I try, the memories will not return. I finish, look around for something to wipe with, find nothing and decide it isn't worth worrying about at the moment -especially since I've no idea where I am.
As I buckle my belt, I'm relieved to find my knife still hanging from its leather sheath. The sun is rising, I can tell by the blue light that filters through the paneless window. I cautiously approach the window and gaze down onto the street below. Judging from the size of the person walking along the sidewalk I must be near the top of one of the tallest downtown buildings.
Person? Downtown? My body tenses as I press myself against the wall and out of view. When I slowly peek around the paintless wooden trim that shows no signs of ever holding glass between it and the fire-scorched exterior, She (no chance a man would wander downtown) hasn't changed her direction or pace. She didn't see me. I watch, curious as she continues along the sidewalk until reaching an intersection. She looks both ways then hurriedly crosses the street and hops back onto the sidewalk where she resumes her more casual pace.
I'm tempted to shout down to her but her behavior causes me to remain silent. I've never seen anyone move in this fashion -worry free. I've only heard stories of a time when we didn't have to constantly be looking over our shoulders and gripping our knives. She continues another block then turns east. The clouds are thick this morning yet even at this height, I can tell she is wearing black leather. Whoever she is, she is well connected. Her jacket hovers just above the ground as she walks, blowing slightly in the breeze until she is obstructed by the single wall standing where once an entire building rose from the ground.
I turn and cautiously make my way into the hall searching for a sign of a stairwell or ladder sticking up from the hole infested floor. While I don't remember how I came to be up here, there must be a way down. As I move closer toward the center of the building, the natural light from the perimeter dims and I almost step through a crack wide enough to send me down to the next floor if I'm lucky, to the bottom if I'm not.
I move slower as my anxiety increases. I can feel my heart beating against my chest. I can't remember the last time I was this worked up. I need to relax. I pause and take a few deep breaths. That's when I hear it -faint at first but growing louder with each second that passes. A ding. A bell. Ding, ding, ding.
My knife is in my hand and I'm crouched on the floor as I slowly move toward the sound. Ding, ding. Forget my chest, I can hear my heart beating in my head. I can feel the sweat rolling down my neck and drenching my shirt between my breasts. I continue toward the sound, crouched, knife ready, taking long, low steps as I hug the wall.
I see something along the wall. At least, I think I do. In the darkness it's hard to distinguish shapes. I take another long, low step forward. I see something for sure. There is a light source ahead. Ding, ding, ding. I run my free hand over my head pushing the sweat away from my eyes -grateful I had my head shaved just before I left.
I notice my hand shaking as I draw nearer to the shape -to the light source. My hand never shakes. I can see there is a hole in the wall ahead. The shape appears to be a part of the wall that has fallen into the hallway. I relax a little. Still, something doesn't feel right. Ding, ding, ding.
A few more steps and the yellow light is bright enough to make out the ragged outline of the hole in the wall. Two more steps and I'm there. I step up on to the fallen chunk of wall to look into the hole, which is slightly higher than my eye level. The wall chunk gives beneath my weight. Not in the way a brittle wall would give -it was soft, mushy, gross. Something crunches then I feel moisture in my boots. The light from the hole casts just enough to see what it is that I'm standing on -in. If I hadn't been so transfixed on the damn hole, I would have seen it sooner and not stepped onto it. A body. Rotting, stinking -but everything stinks these days. I'm sure I don't smell much better than the corpse on the floor beneath my boots.
Ding, ding, ding. My heart is racing now, my breathing more rapid than if I were running full tilt. I try to step back but find my boot is lodged in the...the body somehow. Grasping the lower edge of the hole, I lift myself slightly and manage to pull my boots free. As I lower myself to the ground something happens -I slip in the wetness. I slip and fall onto this person I've just trodden on.
Splat. We are face to face. My face is actually touching hers. It is clearly a woman -that much I can tell as I lift my head away in horror. A girl actually. I shriek and roll off her simultaneously releasing what was left in my bladder (good thing I didn't bother taking the time to wipe) expecting to hit the hard floor of the hall. Instead, I feel the air whooshing past my body as I fall into darkness. Ding, ding, ding grows faint as does the yellow light above. I scream for the first time in my adult life as I anticipate the impact.
Why on my watch? I thought as I hurried along the passageways through the rubble, trails I had traversed since I could walk, trails and paths designed to look as if monsters travelled them nightly; this was how we kept both sides out: fear.
Why me? No one was going to believe me, no outsider had ever scaled the barricades, no outsider would want to, we leaked too many stories of the horrors within the city, some real, many imagined, all designed with our safety in mind.
I quickened my pace, any female with wits as this one, might see through the disguises we used. Then again, it was almost dark, and perhaps, wits or not, those horrors that were real, would take care of the problem for me. Maybe I didn’t have to report the breach.
But I had to, it was law. All breaches of the perimeter must be reported at once; a breach was the only reason a sentinel could leave his post. These words had been repeated so many times during his life, from his fifth year when he was assigned third level sentinel duty, then again at 11 when he earned (two years early) second level sentinel duty, and again, every other morning, for the past 7 years, as he suited up and headed out to the real perimeter, with the razor wire, the concrete, and the smell of death.
Why me? Early now, I am going to be challenged by the second level, and if none of the cameras or sensors picked up the intruder, I was going to have to fight my way in. Sun at my back, sun at my back, sun at my back; let the other guy get blinded.
“Hey, Grant, why so early,” came the call from somewhere to my right.
“A breach,” I hastily called back, veering slightly left to try to skirt his position.
“Nothing showed,” was the answer, closer now, and I wasn’t yet in position.
“She came right over after kicking some big guy in the jewels,” I called, slowing, turning toward where I thought the other sentinel was lurking.
There was a snicker to my left, and the same voice to my right, much closer than expected, possibly inside the burned out shell of one of the thousands of cars that still lined the streets of the city, repeated, “nothing showed.”
I caught movement out of the corner of my left eye, turned my head in that direction, and understood an instant too late my mistake. The snicker was a recording, and the movement was only a shadow of the man who landed the debilitating blow to my head. Thankfully he didn’t kill me, a breach of protocol to be sure, but one I will be repaying for years, if not decades (if we live that long).
I came to in the office of the second sentinel commander, a seasoned soul of 32 years, not the oldest man inside, but one of the top ten we all guessed. 25 was considered a long life inside, we all knew that the outsiders lived much longer, but they didn’t come back when they died.
The city had been abandoned for years. Neither side sent men within the outer limits for fear of the horror that dwelt beneath the concrete and steel shells that once housed millions. I cannot say what drew me into the emptiness even now. I suppose reflection is jaded with emotion and therefore a fruitless effort.
My body ached from the beating it took the day before. I can generally hold my own in a fight but this man was out of the ordinary. My only solace is that toward the end, I managed to cut him with my knife. It wasn't deep. A mere scrape across his ribs -but it bled like a sonofabitch. Just enough to distract him as I punted his crotch up into his stomach. You'd think a man would learn to protect his jacobs by now. Clearly his over-confidence saw to his undoing.
He shouldn't have messed with me anyway. Who picks a fight with a woman on the edge of the outer limits? He was just asking for an ass kicking and I was happy to oblige. Did I kill him? Did I kill him as he lay there like a baby in the street cupping his manhood while tears and snot and blood ran together on the side of his face. I didn't. I couldn't.
I had more important business to attend to. Plus, he had earned my respect. If I hadn't pulled out my knife it would have ended differently. He was nothing to look at. Average height, average build -even a bit on the small side. My god was he fast though. He had my respect as I walked away. I walked on, beckoned by something more powerful than survival.
One thing was for sure, I was headed where no man would follow. No woman either. Even now, as I said, I'm not sure why I listened to that voice that called to me but I did. I climbed over the concrete barriers stacked ten-high marking the beginning of the outer limits. I climbed over the fifteen foot fence topped with razor wire mounted at the peak of the barrier pyramid that encircled the city.
The sun was setting to my right then left as I thew my legs over the razor-wire topping and began the climb down. Blazing orange light threw long shadows when interrupted by what remained of the buildings, long abandoned. No rubble from the destruction littered the streets making the scene even stranger. We all knew why that was -the thought of it sent a chill through my body.
As my feet touched the pavement, the sounds from outside the wall immediately silenced. The hum of the generators, the buzz of the trucks patrolling the districts. Even the wind silenced when I dropped off the second tier of the old traffic barriers. The sound of my boots hitting the ground echoed between the buildings towering above me. I froze. Waited. Looking. Scanning the streets from left to right then the buildings now windowless and open for any sign of movement. Nothing.
Every molecule in my body wanted to turn around and retreat over that wall yet something more powerful pulled me onward toward the center of the city. Toward the heart of the madness.
I had never traveled inside the wall. I don't know anyone who has. Why then, was I being called? Why now? My body began to move. It was all I could do to slow my pace, quiet my footfalls and stay in the shadows as I continued on. It was my body...but I was not in control -and that frightened me even more than what lies ahead.