In time the trees thinned and gave way to high grass and shrubbery. By then Aderyn was wheezing and her eyes and exposed skin felt red and raw and itchy. She needed to rest often and she drained the bottle of water Resh gave her.
“Your injection is wearing off,” he said, worry coloring his voice. “We need to get you to the tunnels soon or you’ll relapse.”
Aderyn felt sluggish of thought as they stumbled through the field. She hardly reacted when an insect stung her hand, though Resh seemed to worry over the tiny wound. By the time they reached a gaping hole in the ground, the light of Querra slid behind the massive mountains, plunging them into darkness.
She didn’t remember being carried the rest of the way, but the woman who injected something cold into her veins told her she had. “I think he’s taken with you,” she said with a shake of her head. “But he always did have a heart for stories.”
“Stories?” she muttered, feeling the fog begin to fade from her mind and the burning lessen in her skin.
“That boy who brought you,” the woman said. “He sees a legend, a destined love or ending in every thing.” Aderyn heard her sigh. “It’s no good for him.”
Slowly, breathing became easier and while she still felt weak, the will to move returned easily enough. She sat up and gazed about. Unlike the previous room she’d been in, this one was brightly lit with several cots covered in clean, crisp, white sheets. Several men and women lay on them, some asleep and some not. One of them glanced at her but then looked away, shutting her eyes.
“I’m Aderyn,” she said to the woman, who came over and pressed two fingers to Aderyn’s wrist, then felt her cheeks. She was older, as old looking as Aderyn’s grandmother was when she died. She was four hundred and twenty-two… Groundlings don’t live that long. She ignored the thought that Nulls didn’t either.
“Hello, Aderyn,” the woman said, removing her hands from her cheeks and turned to pick up a stick of shiny plastic. She used it to make marks on a sheet of something, paper perhaps. Groundlings sometimes used paper, didn’t they? Her research was escaping her at an alarming rate.
“What’s your name?” Aderyn said.
“Mm? Oh, most call me Governess,” she said and brought back another metal device that she pressed to Aderyn’s exposed arm. She didn’t remember pulling down the jumpsuit’s top. “This will pinch.”
It did and she let out a short gasp and the woman helped her back into the jumpsuit.
“You haven’t been planetside much, have you?”
Aderyn shook her head. “No, only once on Hyperia.”
“Shows. Your antibodies are non-existant. Were you born into service?”
“I…” she began and caught herself. I am a groundling servant. That is all. “I… yes.”
Governess looked over her shoulder at her, dark brown eyes squinted slightly. Aderyn looked away, worried she could see right through her lie. She caught sight of that girl looking at her and Aderyn frowned. The girl had a mask over her nose and mouth, only her light blue eyes showing. Her head was shaved, leaving only hint of what might have been blonde hair. Do I know you?
“How is she?”
Aderyn turned back to see Resh appear in the doorway. He looked even slighter in the harsh light of the medical room, his features wan and cheek bones and jaw sharply visible. He smiled at her and Aderyn forced a smile back, though fear boiled in her stomach. She was not safe here. She had to get back to her mother, warn them… My mother is dead. The thought did not upset her and Aderyn felt sick that it didn’t.
Governess snorted. “She’ll take weeks, months maybe, to acclimate. You found a purebreed for sure this time. Should have just left her, she probably belongs with them.”
Resh ignored her and came to Aderyn’s side. His light eyes caught hers and she felt that fear grow, mixed with sorrow and regret. He saved my life… saved it by not killing me.
“It’s all right,” Resh said. “She says that to every space-born we find. Convinced every last one of them preferred to be a slave than be free.” He rolled his eyes. “Is she all right to come with me?”
“Sure,” Governess said, not looking at them. “Please, take her off my hands.”
They walked into a tunnel made of impervaplast. The shiny walls showed her reflection and it made her gasp. She reached up and for the first time realized her hair had been cut short. Where it used to reach near to her waist, it now swung free just below her chin. How did I miss that? How sick was I?
“Sorry about that,” Resh said. “Some of it was covered in burned. It’ll grow back.”
She nodded but didn’t say anything in return. The tunnel had several doors inset along its length. Some of them were open, exposing what looked like living quarters. Aderyn saw two older-looking groundlings with a baby in the man’s arms. They looked up as Aderyn passed and she looked away.
“How many live here?”
“About two thousand,” Resh said. “This tunnel is only one of the wings, there are about ten or eleven I think. It’s crowded but it’s better than being a slave. The city folk are… well they’re a little better off I guess but I’d rather live here.”
Two thousand. Are all of them armed like Resh was? Aderyn’s family only fielded two dozen knights. Less than that now, she imagined. Much less.
“How did you build all this?”
“We didn’t,” he said. “We found it.”
Found it? Aderyn couldn’t imagine any noble family constructing something like this and just abandoning it. There was something going on that she didn’t understand but if she could stay, convince them she was just a servant… maybe she could beg forgiveness for what she’d done with the information. Her father would take her back then. Wouldn’t he?
“Here,” he said and opened a door. She stepped through it and stopped, the fear in her gut turning to terror. The room was empty except for a table seating five older groundlings and two young men holding weapons on either side of it.