-sun, shadow, sew, swatches, strength, safety, status, sheen, shrug, shake, secrets, stories, sabotage, strangers, selection, Seventh, survival, steps, skeleton
"Safety in Numbers"
(*This is a sequel to a previous Suggestion Box installment)
Summertime in Walesmoor was usually a mild affair. The sun shone her very strongest, but a thin sheen of cloud still staunchly stayed, filtering her light and heat.
A young girl and her governess sat on the steps behind the house, stitching with silk threads over swatches of muslin. Such a pastime befitted ladies of their status.
The girl glanced up at her governess.
“What is it like, Vonica?” She asked, looking up and brushing her dark hair aside.
Vonica raised her eyes from her work and smiled. “What is what like, Sophia?”
The young girl’s gaze grew very serious. “Being an Ordinary.”
Vonica’s lips pinched somberly. “Your father does not want us to talk—“
“But I am afraid!” Sophia protested. “You have been through a Division before. I just want to know what it is like!”
Vonica gazed at her charge, barely seven years of age. “You are still so young, Sophia. You’ll have a few more years ahead of you before you are in the eligible range from which they cull. You can learn all you need to know—“
“From my governess, who was an Ordinary herself,” Sophia finished stubbornly. “You were Seventh, right? What was it like, the Base-10? Were there obstacles, or puzzles you had to solve? Did they tell you all the secrets behind the institution of Ordinaries and Cardinals?”
“Sophia, stop!” Vonica’s eyes widened in fear. “Are these the stories you’ve heard? Such speculation does not become a lady of your stature.”
“Then tell me the truth!” Sophia insisted. “What happened on the way to Londonshire?”
“Nothing!” snapped the governess. A tense moment of silence hung between them. Vonica’s shoulders slumped, and she sighed. “Nothing happened to me, at any rate... but when I arrived at Base-10, they informed me that I was no longer Seventh. I needed to be the Third Ordinary.”
Sophia gasped. “Third? But wasn’t there a Third already selected?”
Vonica shook her head. “There were only two other Ordinaries when I arrived.”
The young girl quickly subtracted in her fingers. “What happened to the other four Ordinaries?”
Vonica shrugged and went back to her sewing. “Who knows? No one talked about it while I was there, but later on—after I came to work for your father in looking after you—I heard rumors that there had been a Nullifier attack on our caravan.”
“Nullifiers? What are those?” Sophia felt a sudden panic rise within her at the word.
Vonica glanced around to make sure they were alone before sinking her voice to a whisper. “No one has actually seen them, but there have been sequences of events that confirm the existence of a shadow faction. Nullifiers want to overthrow the Cardinals, and that is why they began instituting Ordinaries, one for each Cardinal. The Cardinals, then, cannot be touched until all of the Ordinaries are killed in the order of their assignment. Each Division is another chance for the Nullifiers to strike.
If you are selected, Sophia, I want you to be on your guard at all times. No one has solved the mystery of how or when the Nullifiers slay the Ordinaries—or even if they exist, and it wasn’t just some arbitrary accident that claimed the lives of these people in the past. Stay alert, and live, so that the others may survive!”
Seventeen-year-old Sophia stood stoic-faced as Vonica’s warning thrummed in her ears.
Sophia stepped forward. The pendant and the specified deadline weighed heavy in her hands. She was officially an Ordinary. Come what may, there would be no turning back or running to safety, now. There was only Winter Solstice, and Base-10 at Londonshire.
On the Abacus, Sophia slumped in her seat. Teresa was a simpleton if she thought she could dismiss the warnings. All the same, Sophia wished she could claim the suave confidence that Donovan had, or the keen focus of Alice—and that still small voice persisted in her head, telling her that, as the Third Ordinary, it wouldn’t be long until her time came, if the Nullifiers decided to sabotage the mission.
The hills, trees, and sky skated past with predictable regularity—until the Abacus took a sharp bend, and Sophia stiffened when she realized that they were no longer on the straight track to Londonshire. She could see the original track, stretching off into the distance, while the Abacus slithered along a separate track, winding off to who-knows-where.
To make matters worse, Sophia could feel the cars beginning to slow. A station loomed in the distance, but she couldn’t move as the vehicle ground to a stop. The door hissed open, and somebody stumbled in. Sophia heard heaving sobs, as the person stood.
“Donovan!” the name escaped her lips as she stared in surprise.
“It’s started!” He stammered, staggering over to her. Gone was the collected demeanor he’d worn when she saw him last. “They got Alice! She’s gone!”
“Shush!” Sophia warned him as the Abacus pulled away down the new track. At least they were headed south still—they might just make the solstice, after all. “Calm down and speak plainly. How do you know Alice is gone?”
Donovan stared at her with wide eyes. “I saw—“ he gulped. “I saw the saboteurs take her! My Abacus was close behind hers, remember, and for an Ordinary, there is only one track to Londonshire. We depart in order so that we can arrive in order. But we were just outside Sussexham when the semiconductor on my Abacus had to slow down, because there was a stalled Abacus ahead of him.”
“That doesn’t necessarily mean she was taken—“
“I’m not finished,” Donovan shook his finger. “While we were waiting for the other Abacus, a group of men—I can only assume they were saboteurs—surrounded the Abacus, and I saw them snatch Alice out of the car! They took her right in front of me! And I couldn’t do anything to stop them!”
Sophia gripped his shoulders. “Breathe, Donovan! Just because you saw suspicious men take Alice doesn’t mean they went off and killed her. She could still be alive—“
“Why would they let her live?” Donovan burst out, quivering and shaking in his seat. “She’s the First; she’s worth more to them dead than alive, and once she’s killed, I’ll be next!”
Sophia shook her head. “Then it’s in the interests of self-preservation that I do whatever I can to keep you alive.”
The brakes on the Abacus squealed, heralding a second stop. Sophia glanced out the window, but everything was shrouded in a smoky haze. She didn’t know where they were, what direction they traveled in, or how close they were to Londonshire. She squinted at the shadows, but the only thing she could see was a tall blonde in a blue dress like hers. Teresa! Sophia opened the doors to let her in.
“Sophia!” Teresa gasped, squeezing her arms. “Boy, am I glad to see you!”
“Don’t tell me,” Donovan groaned, “They got your Abacus too?”
“Huh?” Teresa frowned at him. “Donovan, what are you doing here?” She glanced between them. “How did I get ahead of you both?”
“What happened to you?” Sophia asked. “Donovan’s Abacus got stuck behind—“
“Alice’s,” Teresa finished. “I know, I saw the wreck too.”
“Wreck?” Donovan squealed. “No, no—she was kidnapped but the Abacus was still on the track. I couldn’t go forward, so I walked to another station and summoned Sophia’s Abacus. It wasn’t a wreck—“
“Well, a wrecked Abacus stopped mine in the tracks,” Teresa responded, “and when I got out, I found Alice’s body. She’s dead.” She looked at Donovan. “You’re the new First.”
Sophia felt the shadows creeping in, chilling her very skeleton. The slaying had begun, and it would not stop until they were all safe at Base-10… or else.
“All right, here it is,” she announced to the others. “We are safer together than separated, so from now on, we stick together. We will make it through alive—the survival of the other Ordinaries rests squarely on us.”
Also in the A-to-Z Challenge Series: ( * Continuations of Suggestion Box installments)