Child of Light
We break out at midnight, just as we agreed. Like ghosts risen from our graves to reclaim the lives that were stolen from us, we flee.
We are quick and we are fast, one following the other, staying in order the way Tommy has taught us, pretending it’s just a drill, knowing it isn’t. No one speaks, no one whispers; no one makes any sound they can avoid. There are no mistakes because there can be no mistakes. Others who have tried to escape this facility before have all made at least one mistake. And all are dead.
Courage, I tell myself. I am desperate to get free. We all are. Don’t think. Just go!
There are fifteen of us—too many for what we are attempting. But once someone is in, it is impossible to decide later that they are out—unless of course you are willing to kill them to keep them from talking. I couldn’t do that. None of us could. We’re just kids. Ordinary kids in other circumstances; something else now. But still, just kids, not killers. Not yet, anyway. None of us has killed anyone—except maybe JoJo. He says he has, but we can’t be sure about what he has or hasn’t done. He’s big on talk, but you can usually tell when someone is padding the truth, making himself appear to be something he isn’t. We all thought that was what he was doing.
But still we wonder.
We started out as a group of eight: Tommy, Malik, Barris and Breck, Wince, JoJo, Khoury, and me. That would have been enough if together we possessed the skills and knowledge that are needed. But we need more to make this escape happen, as we find out quickly enough once we begin to talk our way through the plan. So we are forced to bring in other kids. It is easy enough to choose the ones we are looking for. All we have to do is keep our eyes and ears open until we discover the handful we need. There are only about 330 of us in the camp. I don’t know if other camps exist.
Still, I assume there must be more. Given this one’s purpose, there pretty much have to be. It’s simple mathematics. Our captors number in the hundreds. We call them Goblins—though in truth we have no idea who or what they really are, save not Human. Piggish faces, warped and twisted limbs, bodies much larger than those of Humans, skin hanging loose in gray mottled folds, voices that communicate as often with grunts and snorts as with words. They are despicable creatures that transcend our worst nightmares. The kids in the prison are here to serve them. We are brought here from all over and raised in captivity. Our lives are predetermined. Someone is needed to maintain and operate the hydroponic farms and weapons factories. But the Goblins require something else from us in payment for their services as our jailers. Goblins are carnivores and require fresh meat, so prisoners offer a ready source of both food and labor.
Our fates as prisoners are fixed. From the moment we arrive, all of us must work to maintain or repair the prison and grounds or be eaten. The disabled, weak, and injured kids are dispatched early. Those who remain healthy and able-bodied are allowed to grow until they are deemed adults and then sent to the reproductive pens, the work farms, and the factories. Unless, as sometimes happens, overpopulation of the prison requires a culling. Then the healthy are eaten, too. Our numbers are never allowed to fluctuate far. If too many die, new kids take their place. Where do the Goblins find them? Where did they find any of us? How are we chosen? No one knows. I don’t know what I am doing here, and this seems to be true for the others as well.
The one common denominator we all share is that no one seems to miss us. Some of us are orphans. Others had families—gone now? I wonder if it is the same in the other camps, the ones we never see. Is it different for them? I don’t know; I have no way of knowing. I just hope it isn’t something worse.
All of us are between the ages of ten and twenty. Adults and little kids are kept elsewhere; we don’t know where. Kids like us are designated as worker bees until we are determined to be old enough for transport to the reproductive pens. There we are paired off and forced to make babies. Once you spend enough time in the pens to renew the population, you are shipped out to work the farms and factories. If you are unable to reproduce or work, you are retired. That’s what it is called—retired. A euphemism for executed. Put down because you no longer serve any useful purpose. Disposed of because, if you can’t work and you can’t reproduce, you are just taking up space. Sometimes they keep you for other reasons—but not often and not for long. And not for pets. Goblins don’t have pets. Just those monstrous things they call Ronks, and those are used primarily for hunting. You can imagine what sort of hunting, right?
I am nineteen years of age, as best as I can tell, but the Goblins don’t know it. I look very young for my age. Luck of the draw. Because in another year, maybe less, they’ll quit caring how I look. They will send me to the pens anyway. I have already made myself a promise. I won’t make babies for them. I will die first.
The fifteen of us trying to break free have agreed about what is going to happen. There are only two possibilities. All of us will get out or none of us will. If it is the latter, there is no point in wondering about our future. If it’s the former, we will be hunted like animals—because, like I say, that is how the Goblins see us.
We go out of our cellblock in two groups—one of seven, one of eight—using lockpicks fashioned during the weeks of planning, opening all the doors we can to allow others to do what they want so long as they understand they are not to follow us. Some try anyway because they see it as their only chance, but JoJo discourages them as only JoJo can. What happens to them after that, I don’t know. I can’t stop to think about it because when you are on the run you don’t have time to think about anything but what’s going to happen if you are caught.
Once clear of the cells we take out the night guards who patrol the walkways—a process carried out by Tommy and Malik using makeshift knives one of our group has fashioned from stolen pieces of shop metal. Their efforts are quick and silent, and the blood on their clothes marks a rite of passage. We race down the stairs to the cellars and through the storage areas. The Goblins don’t see us; they don’t hear us. Guards standing watch outside the doors of the compounds have no idea yet what is happening inside. Why would they even think about it? You don’t think much about your animals once they are safely penned in for the night. You just lock them in and come back for them in the morning. Escape? To what end? Even if we get out, where will we go? We will be missed quickly enough during the morning count; we will be hunted down and brought back. Most will be made an example of. I have seen what that means; they assemble everyone to watch. It isn’t something you are likely to forget. It takes a long time to die when you are systematically dismembered. It serves as a useful deterrent to further escape attempts.
Except that sometimes even that isn’t enough. When survival means you live in a cage and are reduced to the life of an imprisoned animal, a chance at freedom is worth any risk.
The tunnel we crawl through is actually an old drainage pipe. It is only used during the flooding periods, and we aren’t in one now. Finding the pipe was a rare piece of luck. At first we figured we’d have to climb over or tunnel under the prison walls, using rope ladders for the former or endless digging for the latter. But Wince found the opening to the pipe by accident one day while mopping the cellar floors. It lay behind an iron lid fastened to the stone block wall, but he could tell the lid was meant to open and close and he figured out how to do it. Next time he was sent down he carried lockpicks concealed in the soles of his shoes. It took him only minutes to release the seal on the lid. Once he got that far he wriggled his way inside (being every bit as supple and stretchy as a desert cat) and found a hatch that opened into the pipe. Not long after that, he was moved from mopping floors to organizing storerooms, but he still risked everything to slip away and unseal the hatch, crawl inside, and follow it both ways, discovering that one direction took you to what appeared to be a very deep spill pit and the other to beyond the walls and a way out onto the wastelands.
It was Tommy who decided this is how we would escape. A grate seals the far end, but that is hardly enough to stop us if we can make a substance that will melt and break the lock. A big problem without access to chemical corrosives, but then Khoury surprised me by saying she could provide what we needed from the dissolvent she works with in the labs. What was left was to figure out when we would go and how we would survive once we were outside the walls. How big are the wastelands? How many miles would we have to walk to cross them? We were all either born in prison or brought here from other places, and we don’t know where anything is. But Tommy found a way onto the roof one day on the pretense of checking for damage after a storm, and his report was deeply troubling. There is nothing but open ground and scrub brush for as far as the eye can see.
No one knows for sure what is out there. How are we supposed to stay alive knowing so little?