198 Days Until Strength And the Uncertain End
The air was getting thinner, cooler, chilly. Weather, seasons, stories that Heia had once only thought were stories. The changes were happening before her again on the top side as they traveled with only so much supplies, food, and protection. Heia had always thought them real but stories, there but not, then she had lived top side for months and had seen the truth. Now as they road through the Lowerlands, the change was coming. Just the thought of the coming winter sent Heia into a minor fright.
“Heia.” Zeydar’s voice snapped Heia from her stupor, and to face him. He stood outside the bus with her looking out to the world as those inside slept. They had, had a few rough days and they needed to sleep without moving, which meant they had to have a watch. “You okay?”
“Aren’t you supposed to be sleeping?” Where was Lynx? Lynx was her watch partner, not Zeydar. Had he traded with her, without letting Heia know? Why would he do that. He was supposed to be sleeping.
“No one gives me watch, because I’m a fragile child.” He answered as he sat down next to her. “You okay?” It didn’t answer her question.
“It’s getting colder.” She answered his, however, knowing that he wouldn’t understand.
“Yes.” Zeydar looked up to the clear sky as if he had never seen it from so far away before. Most hours Heia wasn’t sure what state he was in, and if he truly understood what was happening. His languid motions put her on edge, but there was a shine in his eyes as he looked back, that he knew, that in a way he was sober but not. She knew he was not.
“Have you experienced winter?” It was a silly question to ask, she knew the moment she asked it.
“I lived in a castle in the clouds my whole life, I wish I could say I have outside of the simulated ones the Cities give us.” He said the words as if he were tearing himself down, rather than making fun of her. Still, she felt hurt.
“At least you got simulated ones. The first time I came topside I was… surprised.” She tried to keep her words measured. She wasn’t like him who had simulated snows, the type that made winter seem fun, and not the hell that the Lowerlands experienced each year. Many people had died in the time they’d been Topside. She feared for the worst now.
“Kind word for how cruel our world is.” Zeydar sighed, somehow knowing the winters on the Lowerlands were going to be horrible.
“How are you feeling?” She tried to ask him about himself instead, not wanting to think of things that could send her into a panic. They’d prepare, and they’d be prepared. But for now she had to focus on the night.
“As if I haven’t slept in weeks, and like my body will shut down at any moment.” He answered with little humor. “So relatively well I’d say.” It was only belatedly that she understood that it was a joke.
Heia had to admit that Zeydar having humor was something she both welcomed and did not expect. She decided to clarify, “generally speaking.” She meant not just the Dreams, but being out of the City, away from everything he knew. She had thought it had hit her when she’d left LakeLost, but as a pampered Star, she knew that he would have the shock worse.
“Generally speaking, I’ve been watched and studied for years by the eyes of those who said they loved me, so I’d say that this is a very nice upgrade. All you guys are worried about is that I don’t die, or kill you.” He seemed to find humor in the comment. Humor that Heia did not place. What had he gone through, she wondered. What sort of life had he seen up until this point? Then she remembered that he’d been placed on a dangerous drug since childhood, one that had been developed for him and his powers. He was not just a pampered Star, he had been treated as a criminal or weapon ready to explode his whole life. Whereas, Heia had been forced to leave her safe space, she wondered if Zeydar had ever had one. She wondered if that was why he willingly took Sweet Dreams, despite knowing what they did to him. She knew, with most certainty, that he probably thought he was a monster too.
Zeydar looked up to the night sky. Heia could see the way his facial structure stuck out beneath his skin. He was only going to get thinner as they traveled. She knew that. They were on the run, elegant city meals were not something they could attain. And he was trying to break free of the Dreams on his own terms. He was going to look worse and worse, and perhaps even get ill before he ever got better. Even if he was mentally in a safer place, his body was most certainly not.
“You are strong.” Heia whispered more for herself than for him. More to tell herself not to judge him so harshly.
Zeydar eyed her before slipping into a smile. “Me? I don’t know if that’s the case. I had nothing to lose but my life. You had everything.”
“Me?” She asked.
“Your family. All of them? You fought for them, and their lives. Me? I’m selfish but you are the strong one. You are the brave one.” Zeydar said the words without any bitterness, as if he truly believed them.
Brave? Was that a word she would have associated with herself? She’d done what was necessary to survive, but brave people would have done more. That didn’t mean she wasn’t going to try now that she knew she was picked. “The world deserves a fighting chance.”
“It does. That’s why you got Evester to give all the Tower collapse dates, and the Aaralax attack dates. You are fighting for our people, all of the people.” Zeydar looked outward once more into the dark of the night.
“We all are.” She disagreed thinking of Kim and Uly, of Rayda and Crass and Lynx and Onyx, maybe not Phil but Kim most certainly. Kim had always cared about people, from the videos that Heia had seen. They were all fighting for the world.
“No. Heia. EverDanger is in it for the thrill mostly, and because Evester is doing it for his father. Your siblings are in it for the journey and excitement. Shawn is doing it for you. I’m doing it to break free. You are the only one who is fighting for the world. If tomorrow the Aralax disappeared, and the world went back to how it was years ago… if we all woke up from this nightmare… you’d be the only one who’d fight for the world.”
The words struck her like a slap to her cheek, making her flush and her words fumble. “You don’t—“
“Know you?” His eyes met her in the darkness, holding her gaze and refusing to let go. “Probably not. But what I do know about you, proves that I’m right.”
She didn’t want to admit that he was, because that truth was too sad. She wanted to believe in those around her, that they truly cared if the world survived. She wanted to believe that Kim truly cared about them, her, people. However, she could not continue eye contact without feeling as if he were reading into her soul. So she looked away first. “I’ll fight for the world even if you don’t.”
“That’s what I’m hoping for. It’s why we were picked. The one who will fight for the world. The one who has the knowledge and skill set to help. And the one who has the powers to ensure that they can.” He said the words completely certain that it was exactly the reasons that they were picked. Evester didn’t know. No one would know but his father, who was missing, for only Evester’s father could fully understand The Project.
And still she wanted to believe him. Was he saying that they were accessories to her saving the world? She had a hard time fully accepting it, yet somehow it seemed like something the Yasloughve Project would do. It had been the question, the wonder of why she had been picked that drove her on, but now she needed a reason to keep going. He had needed a reason to go, a reason that everything made sense. This was her purpose on this team, and even if she was not the same as them, or in it for the same reasons… She was going to fight the way she knew how.
“I feel like we’ll be good friends.” Zeydar leaned back.
“I think so too.” Heia let the smile fall upon her face as she continued her watch the world for signs of horror.