Sixteen years ago, Asset Twenty Three:
“We can get out of here. I know we can. Together.”
The air vent was sticky; hot wind blowing constantly through a space so cramped that even she, the smallest of the children, could barely fit inside it. Twenty Three ignored the heat, and focused on keeping her breathing even. Trainer Sloan was about to leave for the night, and he always left his keycard in the second drawer of his desk. She just had to be still for a few more minutes.
She was sweating, droplets of liquid soaking into the joints of her fatigues, making them chafe. Some of it was from the heat, some from the stress. This was their only chance; they’d be moved to the new facility soon.
Through the slats in the heating vent, she watched as Sloan signed off his computer, stood up from his desk, and stretched. Twenty Three scowled. She didn’t like Sloan. He was fat, and loud, and he always got so angry if her scores dropped on any of her exercises. Sloan was mean.
Twenty three breathed a quiet sigh of relief as the man finally made to move towards the door, stowing his keycard in the drawer and grabbing his coat off the rack, just as planned. Twenty Three waited until a few seconds after the door had swung closed behind him, then set to work at the screws that bolted the heating vent into the wall.
For the longest time, figuring out a way to unbolt the vents and sneak into the offices had been the biggest obstacle in their plan, but then the beating night had happened, and unscrewing them by hand had ceased to be an issue. She was stronger now.
Twenty seconds of effort later, she was out of the sweltering vent, and in the office. She didn’t waste her time. They had to be quick here. She moved to the drawer, grasped the handle, and pulled.
It didn’t budge. From her new perspective, she was able, for the first time, to see the stainless steel lock embedded in the drawer’s front end.
Okay, Twenty Three. Time to think. You can do this. Twenty Four’s counting on you. Make a plan.
For almost seven seconds, the girl wracked her brain. Her first idea was dumb. Really, incredibly, dumb. She didn’t have time to think of anything else. She moved to the door, cracked it ajar, and poked her head out into the unfamiliar hallway.
More office doors. No people though; not for now, at least. No cameras, either. She counted that as a blessing, and closed her eyes.
Footsteps, moving away from her, to the left, then down a bend. More to the right, these ones moving towards her. The ones to her left were heavy; more weight sitting behind each impact against the carpet. Without even a second of hesitation, Twenty Three began to run.
The footsteps behind her were drawing closer now. She glanced behind herself, and saw an unfamiliar figure rounding the bend in the hall. She had a second, at most, before they saw her. No time to think.
Twenty Three glanced around herself, and dove for the first cover she could find. An ornamental flower pot sporting a large, plastic molded fern; fake leaves branching in every direction at once. She landed, caught herself, and curled into as tight of a ball as she could be.
Too slow. She’d been too slow. She knew it. Whoever it was had to have seen her dive. She’d failed. She closed her eyes, didn’t even dare to breathe. One second. Two seconds. Three…
The footsteps were heading right for her. For the first time in her short life, Twenty Three found herself in prayer. Not to god. What little education she’d been given with regard to God had said that he was reserved for people better than her.
In lieu of God, Twenty Three prayed to the small things. She prayed to Twenty Four. She prayed to watching the stars together through the window of their cell. She prayed to making faces together when their instructors’ backs were turned. She prayed to the happy things.
The footsteps drew nearer still.
It took everything the girl had to resist the urge to bolt; just to sit there, shaking silently, and hope for fate to save her.
By the time the footsteps stopped, they were barely a yard away. She prayed harder.
Three… Two… One…
On the other side of the flower pot, she heard a door creak open, and her pursuer’s footsteps moving further away.
She didn’t allow herself a moment to be relieved. She didn’t have the time. Slan’s footsteps were growing more and more distant by the second. She ran. Keeping low, keeping quiet, Twenty Three pursued that man faster than she’d ever moved before.
She caught him in a foyer, heard the low murmur as he spoke to a woman behind a desk, leaning casually against the counter.
He’d always told her she was a clumsy little creature, but he didn’t even notice when she swept the keys from his pocket. She took no time to gloat, however. The moment she had them, it was back to the office, as fast as she could go.
Drawer open. Keycard retrieved. Drawer locked back up again. She left the keys on top of his desk. Hopefully, he’d just think he forgot them. Then, she got back inside the vent, and set to work screwing the frame back into place against the wall. She was running late. Her detour had cost them almost a minute. Twenty Four would be wondering where she was. She did her best to ignore the heat as she crept her way back through the ducts towards her partner.
The warden was easy enough to dodge as she made the short trip back through the common area to her cell, doing the best she could to act like nothing was wrong. She didn’t like the warden. His breath smelled of fish when he leaned in close.
No sooner had she made it back through the door than something struck her in the side, and she felt something begin to wrap around her, binding her tightly. She was wound up so tightly that she was already filling her lungs to scream before her brain kicked back in, and she recognized him.
It was Twenty Four, his breathing was ragged. She hugged him back.
“What took you so long!?” the boy asked, his voice an urgent whisper. “You were gone ages!”
“Fattie’s desk had a lock on it,” she muttered, patting her partner gently on the back to calm him. “Grabbed his keys. We’re okay.”
In the back of his throat, her partner let out a growl.
“I hate him,” he muttered, giving her another quick squeeze before he pulled away. “I hate him so much! He doesn’t even let stealing from him be easy!”
At that, Twenty Three let out a giggle.
“He’s Fattie,” she answered. “It’s his job to make things suck.”
Twenty Four grinned.
“Well, anyway. You got the card?”
“Yup!” she nodded. “You did your bit?”
At that, Twenty Four’s grin widened.
“Yeah. I found us some big winter coats and a bunch of socks. If we wear enough, we should be okay outside without shoes; even in the snow. I even managed to sneak some food.”
“Okay,” Twenty Three nodded. “That’s everything. Now, we just gotta do it and we’re free.” Saying those words, the girl felt something, like a buzzing in her stomach. It felt like fear, but more charged, more excited. Their freedom was so close. She dug the keycard out of her pocket, and passed it across to the boy.
Much as she hated it, Twenty Three knew that this part of the plan had to be Twenty Four’s. He was the one with access to the ever crowded laundry rooms. Now, all that was left was for him to sneak through to the exit with their supplies, get past the gate, and use the card to open up a path for her to follow. She’d know it was her chance when he signalled her through the window.
There were few words exchanged in the moments before he took his leave. Just a second of awkward silence, followed by the tightest hug they’d ever shared.
“Stay safe, okay?” she said, her heart already thudding in her chest.
“Course I will,” he mumbled back. “… Just three more minutes, kay? Three minutes, and then we’ll be free.”
Twenty Three had nothing to say to that. She could hardly even believe it. She nodded into her partner’s shoulder.
“… You gonna let me go, then?” he asked, his tone just a little light; joking, in spite of it all.
“No,” she muttered back, before pulling away. She sniffed. “… See you soon.”
Twenty Four nodded. Then, without another word, he slipped through the door, shutting it behind himself with a quiet thud.
Twenty Three took a deep breath, and forced herself to be calm. Well, she tried, at least. Within a few seconds, she was pacing. Then, she was stretching; running on the spot in the middle of the room, just to dissipate the nervous energy.
This’ll work, she told herself. It has to.
After a little over a minute, she gave up trying to play it cool, and gathered up her things, before moving across the room, and climbing up to the window sill to wait.
The next two minutes were the longest she had ever felt. Longer by far, however, were the two minutes after those, and the next.
And the next.
At first, Twenty Three was merely scared. Maybe he’d been caught. Maybe the card had failed. She pushed those thoughts down, and kept her gaze affixed to the snowscape beyond her window.
After ten minutes, however, when no alarms were heard, and none of the adults came in to snatch her, she felt a different kind of fear.
What if he’d left her alone? What if he’d just gone through the gate and ran? What if he hadn’t thought of her?
She pushed those thoughts aside. No. This was Twenty Four. He was her partner. He was her soul. He was her friend. They’d been together since before she’d had memories.
She didn’t want to die alone.
She was still watching through the window long after the night had come. She didn’t look away when the sun fell. She didn’t look away when the dinner call was sounded. She didn’t even look away when she heard the door opening behind her, and two of the grown ups came in to deposit something heavy on the sheets of Twenty Four’s bed.
She didn’t look away when the tears began crawling down her cheeks.
They left him on that bed all night.