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The rusted door creaked as Wyn pushed it open, torch in hand, the other not far from her gun. Agent Douglass’ directions had sent her on a two-hour trek through the Colony, traipsing back and forth as she did her best to interpret his cryptic clues. They were usually clearer, at the very least providing a street and a building number but the most recent set, delivered that morning, had read like a fever dream.

After talking to the locals, she’d found the red standpipe and tracked the plumbing all the way back to a grating and the service tunnel. Water dripped onto her as she sidled through the gap, careful not to brush against the damp wall, and emerged at a junction. Pipes of various dimensions crossed the room before heading down the side passages or vanishing into the walls. It was a hazard for someone as tall as Wyn, but she could imagine it an excellent hiding spot for others. A rusty pipe gurgled over her head, rattling as something rolled around within.

“I hate tunnels,” Wyn muttered brushing the dust out of her hair but stopped when her torch played across an intricate web of scratches etched into the concrete wall. Circles flowed together, shifting until they reached a central point that held Wyn's attention. She felt her mind calm as she stared at it, tension slipping from her shoulders.

“We’re not causing any trouble.”

Wyn spun around to find an elderly woman holding a plastic tub in her hands. “Where did you come from?”

The woman winced at the bright light and took a few steps back into the tunnel.

“Do you live down here?” Wyn asked lowering her torch.

“It’s getting crowded up there. Less places to sleep since they blew part of it up,” the elderly woman said as she shifted the tub on her hip, bracing it with a gnarled hand, bulbous knuckles and a white scar wrapped around the thumb.

“Do you know who drew this?” Wyn flicked the torch to the drawing on the wall.

“My granddaughter. Are you from the government? Are they opening the school again?”

“Kind of. Can I meet her?”

“Why?” the woman asked warily.

“I’m looking for someone. I was told of a young girl that does these incredible drawings. Designs for machines and schematics.”

“You look like government. You should be careful wearing those in the Colony, people will steal them right off your feet,” the woman said eying Wyn’s waterproofs, paying particular attention to the wellingtons that almost came up to her knees. The boots were about the only part of her old kit that didn’t have ‘police’ written across it in large white letters.

“I can look after myself.”

“Lorca and her lot won’t like you snooping around on their patch. She drove the last government team out. All they wanted to do was check the children’s teeth. Don’t see what harm they were doing.”

“Are they the local gang?” The woman nodded at Wyn’s question. “I promise I’m not here to start trouble.” Wyn pulled her phone out and opened the photo that had been attached to the agent’s message. It was of a young girl, seven or eight, sitting in front of a display board covered with children’s drawings and holding her own entry. The others were the abstract squiggles expected from children but the girl’s was a technical masterpiece. Wyn had zoomed in and studied the loops and whorls unable to decipher their meaning, but Agent Douglass had assured her that just the photo had been enough to attract the attention of his talent scouts.

The grandmother smiled when she saw the photo. “That’s my Ellen, never seen that picture though. She won a competition with that drawing. Guess what they gave her?”

“Coloured pencils?” Wyn guessed.

“Colouring-in books. Within the line.” The grandmother shook her head, rattling the tub in the process. “My girl can draw the inside of a washing machine to the point a repair man can use it as a map. People pay for her skills, not that she gets any of the money. Her father takes it all and throws it away. Only good thing my son did was give me a granddaughter, just wish he’d give me one more thing and vanish.”

“I’m in the right place then.” Wyn gestured to the only other way out of the square room. “Can I meet her?”

“Can’t see why not. This way.”

The grandmother led Wyn to where she’d built a small home around the pipes. Clothes hung from the ceiling and a bed had been made on a raised platform.

A small girl sat on a square of carpet drawing on a sheet of paper. She ignored the two adults looming over her, not caring when Wyn crouched to get a better look and briefly held the phone next to her face.

“What do you want with my Ellen?”

The drawing reminded Wyn of an architectural plan, the sort that would be framed and hung up in an office, testament to the artist’s skill. The girl drew precisely with a pen, not pausing in her work even when her grandmother passed in front of her with the tub.

“Does she talk?”

“Never uttered a word.” The woman stacked the crockery on a small shelf and draped the towel over a hot pipe, smoothing the corners with her broken hand. “The doctor said there’s nothing wrong with her, she just doesn’t want to speak. Can’t blame her, not as if anyone will listen to the likes of us anyway. Is that how you learnt about her? We had a man here not long ago that bought some of her drawings.”

“Are you her legal guardian?”

“Not sure about legal but I’m the only one that’s ever taken care of her. I’m her grandmother if that helps.”

“Where’s her mother?”

“Dead, not that it’s any of your business.”

“Father?”

The woman shrugged and eyed Wyn warily. The child drew a perfectly straight line before terminating in a tight concentration of notches that resembled a mechanism. Wyn thought it had the look of a motor.

“Have you thought about leaving here, getting out of the Colony?”

“Would we be here if we had somewhere else to go?” She gave Wyn a hard look but then softened her gaze. “None of us would be here if we didn’t have to. This wasn’t the life I wanted and it’s certainly not the one I want for her. She deserves better than to be stuck here.”

“I can help you with that. Have you heard of Central’s talent visa programme?”

“Of course,” the old woman gestured to the child. “But she doesn’t speak. She’s no trouble but all she does is draw. If I don’t find her paper she draws on the wall.”

She gestured to the drawings that decorated their small home. Wyn struggled to identify their subjects, but the grandmother pulled a blanket back revealing a sleeping area decorated with detailed drawings of dogs. Shaggy-haired animals, some unlike any Wyn had ever seen. Most were gentle creatures, the sort to fall asleep by the door, waiting for a child to come home from school but a few had ferocious maws and eyes that glowered at her from the paper.

“She likes dogs, not that she’s ever met one. If a dog comes on the TV or she sees a picture of one that’s it, she’s not going anywhere.”

“They have animals in Central. She could draw all the ones she wanted.”

“But she doesn’t talk,” the grandmother repeated. “They don’t want someone like her.”

“It’s not about talking. She obviously has ideas in her head that she wants to get out. Maybe that’s what they want, to help her create.”

“You’d take her from me?” the elderly woman looked down at her granddaughter possessively. “She’s all I’ve got.”

“I wouldn’t do that to you. The visa covers her caregiver and that’s you. You’d both get to start a new life in Central.”

“What would I do there? All I’ve ever known is this. I couldn’t manage it, not at my age.”

“You survived the Colony. You kept her healthy despite where you are forced to live. Central will be a breeze for someone as adaptable as you.”

“I don’t believe you. You’re tricking me somehow.”

Wyn held her phone out so that the elderly woman could see the screen. A video played of a smartly dressed woman standing under a tree gesturing to her surroundings. There was no sound, Wyn learning after repeatedly showing the video that the words didn’t matter, it was the building that did the convincing. The delicate stone facade of the college and the imposing chapel swayed all of them. Nothing like it existed within the sector.

“What should I take? I can’t just leave.” Panic gripped the elderly woman at the thought of leaving her home. Cracked plastic boxes holding what little she had, a few bags of clothes, it wasn’t much but it was all she had, apart from her granddaughter. Wyn felt a pang of sadness as she watched her struggle with the thought of leaving it behind.

“Photos, mementoes, don’t worry about clothes, just memories. The programme provides housing and an allowance.”

“When? Do I have to fill out a form or take her for an appointment?”

“We’ll go now. Just as soon as you agree, I’ll make the call and a car will come and pick you up. You could be in Central inside an hour.”

“Promise me this isn’t a trick. Swear you’re telling the truth.”

“I promise.”

“Yes,” the grandmother smiled warily and then broke into a grin. “Please. We’d like to go.”

“Okay then.” Wyn stood back watching as the woman shuffled around collecting and then discarding things as she went. She made the call, waiting for the automated voice to speak before rattling off the code Agent Douglass had given her. The robot voice confirmed the estimated pick-up time and started listing the luggage restrictions. No weapons, no narcotics, and definitely no pets.

The girl finished her drawing and pushed it to the side before starting on a fresh sheet of paper. Wyn picked it up, turning it around, instinctively recognising the barrel of a rifle, but the firing mechanism looked all wrong. An exploded circuit board only confused her further.

“Where does she get these ideas from?” Wyn asked setting the drawing down next to the girl. She took it and started drawing in an empty corner.

“God perhaps. She makes things with her hands, guns.” The grandmother emptied out a tattered holdall and carefully placed a small cardboard box inside. She packed clothes around it before changing her mind and swapping them out.

“Out of paper?”

“No, metal and plastic pipes. Her father takes her to a machine shop where the owners pay her to build weapons. She enjoys making slam guns the most.”

The child showed a glimmer of interest but soon fell back to her drawing.

“I’m sure she’ll have the opportunity to build other things in Central.”

“Lorca won’t be happy about her leaving.” She rifled through a box, placing items into the bag. “You should know that they don’t let me walk out of the district with her, not without one of them coming with us.”

“Let me worry about that.” Wyn checked her watch, they needed to hurry up they were going to meet the car. “Did they pay her well for the work?”

“My son took it all. Either drank it or used it to buy his drugs. Is that why Central want her, to make weapons?”

“They don’t use slam guns. Have you got everything?”

“What then? It’s the only thing she enjoys doing.”

“I don’t know why Central does anything.” The phone vibrated in Wyn’s pocket, an update from Agent Douglass. “We need to hurry. There’s a car on the way.”

“It’s really happening?” The grandmother froze with the holdall clamped under her arm.

“It is. Do you have everything, birth certificates, baby photos?”

“I lost those in a fire. Ellen is all I have left. Ellen, we’re going for a walk, come on darling.”

The girl stood up and the grandmother helped her into a threadbare jumper.

“Have you not got any jackets? It’s raining heavily outside.”

“I haven’t been out there for years,” the grandmother said as she tucked a cardigan into the bag and did the zip up.

“We’ll stay under cover for as long as we can. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait too long. Let’s go,” Wyn said and led the way back to the ladder. She went up first and then reached down to help Ellen, but the little girl scampered up and jumped out before Wyn could grab hold of her. The grandmother took her time and gratefully accepted Wyn’s help to stand up.

“No more ladders for me,” she beamed as she grabbed Ellen’s hand to stop the girl from wandering off. “Which gate?”

“Parson Street,” Wyn said taking a moment to orientate herself with the map on her phone. She held it at her side, careful not to be too obvious with it.

“I know the fastest way, but it goes past a gang checkpoint. They won’t let Ellen go, not without an escort.”

“Tell them you’re taking her for a check-up. I’ll be behind you, but be adamant that you have to go.”

“This isn’t a trick, is it? If I get on their wrong side, I won’t be able to come back. If my son learns I tried to leave with her he’ll be furious.”

“I promise this is happening, but we have to hurry.”

Wyn let her take the lead, following a few paces behind. The streets were busy with a seemingly endless procession of people moving around, bundles of belongings in their arms or the anxious look of those unsure where to go. Water ran down some of the internal walls, flooding stairwells and turning sections into indoor rivers.

They reached a checkpoint set up at the entrance to a market. A group of men and women stood around smoking and drinking beer. Wyn noted the variety of weapons on display and wished she’d chosen another route but one of the women raised her head and pointed at Ellen. The grandmother glanced over her shoulder, but Wyn just nodded for her to keep going. It was too late to turn back.

“Hello, Ellen,” the young woman said sidling over with an ingratiating smile. She wore a thin black vest, exposing thin arms heavily tattooed. From a few metres back Wyn could make out the diamondback snake coiling around her arm. “Where are you going?”

“To the doctor's surgery,” the grandmother blurted and pulled Ellen along, but her granddaughter was too interested in the guns on display and tripped over her feet. “Ellen, I haven’t got time for your games.”

“You know the rules, she can’t leave unless one of us goes with her.”

“She has to go today though. She needs her medication.”

“Her dad never said she took anything.”

“My son wouldn’t have a clue what she needs,” the grandmother snapped, and the woman raised her hands in surrender.

“Okay, okay. I’ll come with you, make sure those nurses don’t give you any grief.”

Wyn slowed down, letting the grandmother and her new escort get a few metres in front of her. They turned from the path and took some steps up before arriving in another shopping area with a high roof made of vaulted steel beams. They stopped by a closed door and their escort pressed her face to the glass.

“They’re shut. The lights are off,” the woman said pressing her nose to the glass and trying the handle. She caught sight of Wyn’s tall reflection and spun around. “You’ve got people waiting for you, hurry up.”

“Sorry I’m late,” Wyn said as she crossed the distance, her spare cuffs hidden in her hand.

As soon as Wyn was close enough she grabbed the woman by the arm and spun her around, pressing her to the door.

“What the hell?” the woman started to complain but it was too late. Wyn slipped the cuffs on, locking her to the railing and stepping back.

“Are you crazy?” the woman twisted around glaring at the grandmother. “Tel won’t like this. You can’t take his daughter away. We’ll find her.”

“Good luck with that.” Wyn turned them around and out of the hall, the woman’s angry shouts following them as they raced to the exit.

They left the Colony to come out under a busy traffic junction. Bridges crossed over head along with a train line that sparked in the rain. The child screamed as the rain fell on her and Wyn shrugged out of her coat draping it over her head. They stood for a moment, Wyn glancing back expecting people to come running out any second

“It will be here any minute now,” Wyn said checking her phone and scanning the street.

“We can’t wait here, they’ll come for us.” The grandmother took Ellen’s hand and started walking away.

Cars ploughed through the flooded road and intrepid tuk-tuk drivers bounced up onto the pavements to get around the deepest parts

“We have to wait,” Wyn said getting in front of them. The rain soaking her shirt.

“I was wrong to trust you; there’s no car is there?”

Ellen made an excited sound under the jacket and pointed to where a Lancaster armoured personnel carrier was approaching at speed. It careened through the deep puddles, scattering the handful of pedestrians out in the rain before slowing and coming to a stop in front of the child. The door slid back, and a white armoured soldier jumped out, scaring the grandmother but delighting the child. She was clambering in before Wyn could stop her.

“I can’t go with them,” the grandmother said but Wyn helped her into the seat by the door and clicked her seatbelt for her. Ellen had already buckled herself in and was staring with glee through the hatch at the cockpit.

“It will be okay, just do what they tell you and go with it,” Wyn said. She picked her coat up off the cabin floor and stepped back to let the sentinel back in. The armoured soldier gripped its rifle and observed the entrance to the Colony with cool detachment.

“Are you not coming with us?” the grandmother asked. She had the holdall on her lap and the other hand holding an excited Ellen back in her seat.

“No, but you’ll be met by a Lancaster rep at the border gate. They’ll answer any questions you have.”

Ellen switched her attention to the silent soldier seated opposite them. The white armour and black faceplate, giving no hint of the human contained within. The grandmother gave it a wary look.

“Ignore them,” Wyn said stepping back into the rain and putting her coat on. “They’re humourless bastards but harmless.”

The soldier turned its head to look at Wyn and for a moment she wondered if she’d hurt their feelings, but it produced a plastic wallet. Wyn took it and stepped back to let the door slide shut.

The car drove away and Wyn ran across the road, taking shelter under an overhang. She checked the envelope, finding a wad of cash, more than most people made in a month but scarcity was driving prices up to the point where a can of beans would soon be a luxury.

Her phone rang and she stepped further into the doorway before answering.

“Agent Douglass,” Wyn said without looking at the caller ID.

“Did you find the girl?” Agent Douglass asked.

“You know I did, or you wouldn’t be calling. They just pulled away.”

“Excellent. It goes much more smoothly when you do it. Helps them to see a trustworthy face, one of their own.”

“She draws guns by the way. Is that why you want her?”

“Really? I had no idea. It’s not so much about what they can do now but their potential for the future.”

“We’re just a resource to be harvested, right?”

“It isn’t like that, Wyn. It really is a better life for them in Central.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

“Is everything alright?”

“Is there any news on the temple? I’ve had word they’ve started up again, but I can’t find the location.” Wyn peered out at the sound of an engine backfiring. A bus came to a rolling stop in the middle of a deep puddle, black smoke pouring out of the engine compartment.

“We’ve picked up some chatter but there are too many mentioned locations to be of any use. The list of active numbers grows every day though, so I’m hoping the security algorithm will spit out something soon.”

“It had better because every day is another chance for them to launch their attack. We both know just how much of the phreno they have on hand.”

“I can assure you, I’m taking this as seriously as you are.” There was a pause on the line. “Wyn, I’m not sure how to say this.”

“What?” Wyn asked distracted by the line of people disembarking the bus. They all grimaced as they climbed down into the water, holding children or bags up to keep them dry.

“I found your brother.”

The slab under Wyn’s foot was loose, rocking over a void formed by the incessant rain. Sinkholes were opening across the sector swallowing cars, buildings, and people. It wouldn’t be too long, Wyn thought, until it consumed all of them and the sector just popped out of existence.

“Did you hear me?”

“I didn’t ask you to look for him.”

“I was processing your application for sector residency, and he came up as a relative. I can tell you what I found if you want?”

“No,” Wyn stared at her reflection in a shop window. The cafe was closed, shut permanently from the dirt and water covering the floor. “I didn’t submit an application.”

“I did on your behalf. Bureaucracy being what it is I didn’t want to leave it too late. You’ll be pleased to hear they granted you an A grade classification.”

“I haven’t said I’ll work for you.”

“Wyn, you must realise what is happening to your sector. You won’t have the option to leave for much longer.”

“Tell me when you find the temple, then I’ll give you my decision.”

Wyn hung up. He said he’d found her brother, not that he was alive. Her thumb hovered over the recall button. She had a chance to find her family, all she had to do was say yes and leave all this behind. She could start a new life, one of her own.

The phone vanished into a pocket as she started walking, eager to get back to the pub.


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