Winter Sky

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The gate loudly protested when she squeezed past it, rusted hinges complaining in the cold. Lee winced at the piggish squealing. No one usually guarded this section of the Underground, but the sound was still irrationally sharp.

Finding the coast free and clear, Lee grinned mischievously and ducked into the darkness of Central Park. She struck out due East, checking her watch just to be sure she still had time to meet her liaison and get back without her absence noticed. Mother would blow up a tempest otherwise, but sometimes the rules had to be broken.

Undergrounders didn't go Topside. That was what Mother repeatedly insisted to her daughter and the rest of the colony thriving under the streets of New York. It wasn't their world. There was no reason to leave. They had Insiders who would get the Undergrounders whatever they needed.

You didn't go Topside.

For thirty-two years, Lee digested the rhetoric, and for thirteen of those thirty-two years, she listened and obeyed. The tunnels were her home. Everything she could possibly want existed in the winding twists of pipes and antechambers, but like any child with an imagination, Lee stared past her man-made sky of concrete and cabling and wondered what lay beyond. So when the precocious teen finally worked up the courage to take the leap she discovered a world full of wonder, mystery, and technology.

A grin crinkled Lee's face at the memory, bunching the skin around her eyes. Oh, the things she had created with mere scraps from Topside! Heating. Radio communication. Lifts and pullies. Elevators. She was working towards building what she hoped would be a continuous power source that would allow the Underground to fully detach from piggybacking off the New York electrical grid. That was her reason for her trek Topside this evening.

Well, almost the reason.

There was something undeniably wonderful about feeling the breeze rustle her hair. Something wild and thrilling and natural. Especially in winter. Winter was a magical season. Fall was a close second-with its colors and earthy smells-but winter was full of frost and ice, foggy breaths and snow. In the Underground, there were no seasons. Nothing to break up the days save for repetition, chores, and the tolling of the clocks. No sun. No moon. No stars.

God did Lee love the stars. It was towards the black heaven she turned her head, letting the chilled breeze play with the ends of her shaggy brown mane and tug at her threadbare coat. Squatting, she gathered a handful of snow and held it to her nose. Cold fractals tickled her skin, making her laugh when she snorted and sent the whole fistful flying. Filling her lungs so deeply it left her chest aching, Lee took off, the need to lose herself in the openness of Topside too much to bear.

Sticking to the tree line just to be safe-disobedient she might be but Lee wasn't stupid-she lost herself in the thud of her boots against the icy ground. In no time, she was in the denser areas of the park near the Hallet Sanctuary where the trees and bushes grew in untamed snarls.

Stopping next to a gnarly tree to pant plumes of white fog into the wintry air, Lee readied herself to make a mad dash across a clearing and subsequent stretch of road when her ears picked up the distinct whir of a car engine. Ducking down, she watched a dark-colored van rocket past at an unreasonable speed without its headlights on.

Okay. Not suspicious at all. She frowned, staring after the receding tail lights. It took a sharp turn and disappeared, the smell of exhaust lingering faintly.

Lee didn't immediately follow. She had a meetup scheduled not far from here with an Insider who was supposed to drop off a fresh box of salvaged scrap metal. Lee needed to meet him before someone grew suspicious of dark figures making trades in the dead of night, but something about the van niggled at her.

Backtracking, she shoved her hands into her pocket and pretended to know what she was looking for. A strange sensation yo-yoed up and down her spine like an icy spider, leaving behind silky trails of unease. Something about this moment shouldn't be ignored, but with nothing more to go off of she only had her suspicion.

Probably just a bunch of drunk idiots.

That was probably it. Nothing more. Time to go.

The scent caught her attention when she turned to leave like a cartoon animation of smoke catching someone by their nose. Lee pivoted on her heels and sniffed. Sniffed again just to be sure, but there was no mistaking the smell.

Iron. A lot of it.

Following her nose-which thanks to living in Underground made her sensitive to Topside scents-Lee picked her way along the road until it took and turn and the treeline plunged sharply into a gully. Again, the wind buffeted her. Again, she smelled iron and felt the muscles running along her spine tense. Climbing down one sliding footfall at a time, Lee almost didn't see the motionless form at the bottom. The shadows hid it well, but her eyes were sharp in the velvety blackness, honing in on a delicate hand half-buried in the snow.

Oh, God. Oh, God...no.

Body dump. It wasn't uncommon, but this was her first time running into something like this. Fear twisted her guts into knots, but that didn't stop her from sliding the rest of the way down and clicking on the flashlight fished from her pocket.

There wasn't much of a face to look at. Not one that didn't resemble raw meat, but there was a strong feminine quality to it, even under the blood. Lee's hands were gentle as she rolled the woman onto her back, moving wet strands of dark hair away from her face and letting the beam of her flashlight track over her.

A sick feeling began to boil in her chest like an encroaching electrical storm the more of the brutalized woman she saw. Body in ruin. Blood everywhere, the largest amount coming from a wound in her side. Leaning down, Lee put her ear close to woman's mouth and waited. Braced. Closed her eyes as if that would somehow help her hearing. After a moment-God, it felt like an eternity-Lee forecd out an exhale, fogging the air into a dense cloud.

Still alive. Barely, but alive.

It wasn't hard piecing things together. The van. The woman. The intent behind dumping her in such a secluded area of the park. She was marked to die-left like discarded trash. A broken toy. Was human life Topside so cheap?

Sitting in the dark, snow melting into her jeans, Lee tried to understand how something like this could happen and what came next, but a decision had already been reached without her noticing. In a smooth motion, she scooped the woman up, bearing her slight weight with manageable ease.

The trek Underground was a difficult one, but she made good time, appointment forgotten. Once safely past the iron gate, Lee fought to grab the hanging wrench next to a fat pipe and tapped a frantic message.

Lee returning. Need medical assistance. Get Mother.

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