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Gren dodged around the big guy blocking the path, he swiped a hand at her, but she was too quick. That was one of the things she’d learnt about herself, if she was focused then no one could catch her. She darted past cells and through doors, skipping around people and dancing down steps. It was her playground, and it was all mapped out inside her head, timings, and distance, treating it like one of Jens’ maps. Concentrations of people meant opportunity, but it came with a higher risk. The mess hall was her favourite place in the entire prison and not just for the food and the cooks but for the rows of inmates desperate for conversation.

Gossip was another thing Gren learned about herself, she loved it. The little talk that served as appetisers to the main news of the day, she consumed every little bit, no matter how mundane. She knew all sorts of things that on their own seemed meaningless but when brought together meant that she could trace the lines of loyalty and hatred that crisscrossed a building only designed to hold a fraction of its current guests. She held all the threads inside her little head, hoarding them like precious morsels that she fed upon when locked in her cell and lying awake listening to the major as he struggled to breathe on the bunk beneath her. When the fear crept in around her blanket making her feel small, she pulled at them, and memories and hope came to her. She was a spider perched up high in the corner of her cell watching and in turn, enraptured by the web of life spread out before her. Despite the danger, she had never felt so integral to existence as she did in that prison.

A fight was brewing on the floor where she lived, she could feel it as soon as she skipped down the stairs, the major’s dinner in hand. Lines were being drawn, men and women in doorways casting furtive glances or walking with deliberate bravado. Gren smiled and nodded to every face she passed, even the ones that glared or avoided her. They were her people even if they didn’t know it.

Warwick stepped out of his cell, his right hand under his shirt. A wiry frame with a patchwork of hair deliberately sculpted to reveal a confusing array of tattoos and scars.

“Evening, Warwick!” Gren called out cheerfully. A mug of tea in one hand and a cracked bowl of stew in the other.

“Piss off,” Warwick growled without bothering to look at her.

Gren slowed but kept her distance. “Whatever it is you’re going to do, it isn’t a good idea.”

“Why are you always sticking your nose in?” Warwick raised his left hand to give her a slap, but Gren stood her ground, daring him to follow through with the familiar threat.

“Don’t you fucking do it!” The shout came from a few doors down and from one of the few women on the corridor. She stood in her doorway watching what was happening carefully.

“Or what?” Warwick demanded, forgetting about Gren for the moment. “This is my floor. I was here long before you moved in.”

“It’s not a hotel, you idiot,” the woman snapped back. Someone in the cell behind her laughed loudly and she went back inside.

Warwick pulled a screwdriver out from under his shirt and spun on Gren, pushing her back against the wall, eyes bulging as Warwick brought the sharpened point closer to her face.

“I don’t like you, nor that militia bastard you hang around with.”

“Gren!” Tom shouted from a cell further along. “Gren!”

Heads popped out of cells and soon most of the corridor was watching them. Warwick made a feint with the shank but pulled it short, laughing and baring blackened teeth. “Tell the major I say hello.”

Gren walked away as calmly as she could but the hand holding the tea shook and she gripped the mug tighter.

“Gren!” the major shouted again and Gren put a smile on before entering the cell.

“Are you okay? I heard him stop you,” Tom said, his face ashen and etched with pain. He was halfway off his bunk, arms shaking with the effort.

“I’m cool,” Gren chirped, adding a little skip as she crossed to the table and set the tea down. “Dinner.”

“Did Warwick threaten you?” Tom asked as Gren helped him sit back against the wall, shifting a pillow to support his back. “You shouldn’t talk to him.”

“It’s okay,” Gren said standing back and inspecting the bruises on Tom’s face. They had come out a deep purple, but it was the cut on his arm that worried her the most. It oozed puss and looked infected. “I’ll go to the pharmacy when they open in the morning and ask the nurse to come and look at you.”

“They don’t make house calls, Gren,” Tom said closing his eyes. “I just need to rest.”

“I’ll ask them nicely.”

“This may come as a shock but not everyone wants to be your friend.”

“That’s because they don’t know me yet.” Gren retrieved the mug from the table. “I have tea, with milk.”

“Actual milk?” Tom took the mug, Gren making sure he had hold of it before she let go.

“Big Mike was on tea duty, and he keeps a little jug of the real stuff under the counter for his friends.”

“You’re more resourceful than any soldier I’ve ever served with.”

Gren picked up the bowl of stew and tilted it so Tom could see the fat dumpling sitting on top. He gave a quiet laugh, wincing at a pain in his side.

Gren pulled the chair closer and lowered her voice. “I think I’ve found a way out.”

“How many times do I have to tell you? You can’t escape. This isn’t the sector prison; this is the barracks. You can’t bribe the guards or sneak past them. You mess around here, and they shoot you.”

“I know the difference. But just listen to me for a moment.”

“I always listen to you. Tell me your plan.” Tom took a sip of the tea and watched Gren as she talked. She reminded him of his son, that same exuberance and blind optimism.

“When I’m waiting in the queue at the dispensary, I’ve been measuring the hatch. I’m careful not to be obvious, I just take my time when it’s my turn and I think I can fit through.” She saw him shaking his head but ploughed on, “I can. They designed it with adults in mind, not for someone my size. I’m smaller than anyone here. Look how baggy my clothes are.”

Gren stood up and pulled at the side of her shirt. All the prisoners wore the same faded yellow outfit of lightweight trousers and shirt. A jacket could be added to the ensemble, but they were in short supply and traded for a premium on the black market. Gren’s clothes were massively oversized, the shirt like a tent and the trousers turned up so far that they almost returned to the knee. A string belt was the only reason she wasn’t tripping over every time she took a step. They let her keep her own shoes although the laces were confiscated.

“And then what? Do you think the doctor and the nurses won’t notice you on the other side? Give it up, Gren, there’s no way out of the prison.”

“Don’t lose hope, I haven’t. I’ll scope it out when I go there this afternoon.”

“Don’t draw attention to yourself, it’s not worth it.” Tom sipped his tea and then shook his head. “I know the corridors on the other side and there’s no way out, not without going back through the barracks. It’s a dead end.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because I spent three months working in the prison. Every militia soldier does as part of their training.”

“There has to be something we can do, some way of getting a message out.”

“There isn’t.” Tom lowered the mug. He wouldn’t admit it, but the latest beating had shaken him, a part of him not wanting it to stop but for them to finish the job. “I want you to find somewhere else to stay. One of your friends might be willing to take you in.”

“You want to get rid of me, why? What did I do?” Gren asked, clutching the bowl tightly.

“Nothing, Gren, but you can’t stay here. If you’d been with me in the yard then you would have been hurt too, and I don’t want that to happen.”

“They attacked you because I wasn’t there, don’t you see? We just need to wait a little longer and we’ll get out and then you can go home and see your son.”

“Gren, I’m not going to make it.”

“You will, I’ll make sure of it.”

A long sharp whistle had Gren on her feet and facing the door.

“What is it? Is it Warwick?” Tom sat up reaching for the corner post. Gren took the mug and set it on the table with the bowl.

“Don’t get up.”

“Shut the door before he gets here.” Despite the pain, Tom pulled himself to the edge of the bed.

Gren ran to the door and poked her head out, expecting to see Warwick on the prowl but he wasn’t there. She turned the other way, listening to the stomping of heavy boots as they echoed down the corridor.

“No, no,” Gren muttered to herself as she slammed the door shut.

“Who is it, Gren?”

“Guards, but they’re not getting in.”

“It might just be a spot inspection. Get on your bunk and stay out of this,” Tom said as he struggled to stand up. He was sweating and gritting his teeth, but he made it, resting an arm on Gren’s bunk to support himself. “If they want me then they can have me. Promise me you won’t get involved.”

“I can’t do that,” Gren said picking up the chair.

Tom reached out and caught a wooden leg, pulling it towards him. “You don’t have to do this, Gren.”

The heavy footsteps grew louder until they drew level with the cell and the door flew open. Three guards rushed in with clubs drawn. Tom spread his hands, surrendering but the first guard swung and hit him in the thigh, knocking him over onto the lower bunk. Gren screamed and lashed out with the chair, hitting the guard on the arm.

“Leave him alone!” Gren howled but the guards grabbed her, tearing the chair from her grasp, and hauling her from the cell.

“Bring her back!” Tom shouted just before the last guard in the cell struck him with his club and knocked him to the floor, blood pouring from a gash on his forehead. Gren lashed out at the guards, kicking, and punching but they took her by the wrists and carried her down the corridor.

“Gren!” Tom cried out from the cell. “Don’t take her, it’s me you want.”

“Tom, Tom!” Gren shouted as the main door slammed shut cutting her off from the major and the place that had become her home.

The guards lifted her up, one had her by the legs while the other took her wrists in one hand. She swung between them as they strode along the corridors.

“I don’t want to go, I didn’t do anything,” Gren cried as she bounced along. “Where are you taking me?”

They passed from the inmate wing and entered a series of featureless corridors terminating at a large exterior door. The lead guard made a call on his radio, and they waited for the response.

“Where are you taking me?” Gren asked from her hanging position. “Please, I didn’t do anything I promise. It was Warwick causing the trouble, not me.”

An alarm buzzed and the guard pushed the heavy door open, standing back to let the others out into the cold wet night. Gren shivered and tensed as she felt the rain on her skin for the first time in months. The exterior of the barracks was dark, and they marched across the soggy grass under the reflected glow of the sector’s lights bouncing off low rain clouds. Feet squelched on the muddy grass, Gren bouncing just above it, twisting to get a look at where they were heading. She caught sight of the high outer wall but then in front of it was a smaller curved section, lit by its own bright spotlight.

“What’s that? No, you can’t do this, I didn’t do anything,” Gren wailed unable to take her eyes from the curving wall and the blackened section in the centre. “Please don’t do this. It was Warwick, not me. I promise I won’t do anything. I promise.”

The guards marched silently past the execution post and Gren blinked through the tears, lost as to where they were going. A bolt rasped and the guard’s passed through a gate in the much larger exterior wall, pausing only to throw Gren to the ground before retreating inside. The gate slammed shut and Gren was left outside the barracks, sitting in the mud unsure what was happening. She got unsteadily to her feet, rubbing at her wrists. A short distance away was a partially flooded carpark and a road running from the main gate to the tower blocks of the sector.

With nothing else to do, Gren walked towards the main gate, nervously expecting a light to come on and for someone to shout at her. She reached the road and stood staring at the little barrier thinking she could slip under it with no one noticing. She wasn’t ready to leave. She knew people inside, and it was warm and dry, and she had a bed. A guard watching her from the gatehouse raised their rifle and sighted up on Gren. She ran, splashing through the puddles as she raced for the main road, the guard's laughter following her into the night.


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