Mac saw no point in sticking around any longer.
Half an hour, that’s how long he’d waited outside the Medical Bay, along with the other journalists. They were crammed like cattle into the hallway, waiting for answers that would never come. The soldiers boarded up the massive hole in the side of the wall but between the cracks in the wood, Mac could see the light flickering. Captain Flaherty hadn’t returned with his team. With what he witnessed on the security cameras, that dark cloud that went straight for the vents in the docking bay, and the stiffs in the Medical Bay (dark spots lying still, it had to be bodies) he wondered if they would return.
The communicator vibrated against his leg again. Pushing his glasses further up his nose, he ignored it. He hadn’t told anyone about the dark mist. Who would believe him? His editor wouldn’t get off his back. He hadn’t written a story in almost 24 hours. The deadline, the pressure to produce a story about Queen Skyla’s sanity, about Lady Harmony’s supposed condition, it was wearing on him. Something actually was going on here. Those awards on his wall, they meant something once. When he ran out of money and had to submit to writing crap for papers like the Daily Dome, it was like he’d sold his soul. So he ignored his editor’s calls and left the other journalists screaming for a peek inside the Medical Bay, and headed for the Ladies’ Quarters. That was where Lady Harmony spent her final hours before the incident. There had to be some clues there that had not yet been uncovered.
Civilians ran in the opposite direction, toward the Medical Bay. Soliders marching in twos and threes followed. In the civilian quarters district, more soliders escorted small children back to their mothers and fathers, waiting anxiously at their front doors. They tried to ask the soldiers what was going on, and the soldiers fed them the typical, “Sorry, ma’am, it’s just a precaution. Stay inside with your family.” They didn’t know any more than the rest of them did.
The Ladies’ Quarters was located in the inner core, and the quarantine was spreading. Mac picked up his pace, keeping his head down. The soldiers might know his face, and then he might be forced to return to his quarters, which was on the other side of the Lunar Dome. He doubted his press pass would save him from that.
Fortunately the men were too busy with the fretting mothers and busy toddlers to notice Mac. He slipped by the guards and wound up on the promenade. Fifteenth sector. Deserted. Merchants with valuables were always the first to lock up, so they could live to sell another day. Mac ran. His footfalls were heavy on the smooth floor. He just had to make it to the twenty-fifth sector, and there would be a door and then a corridor that would take him to the Ladies’ Quarters.
Rounding a corner, he realized he wasn’t the only one on the promenade. A young woman–a Lady–running as fast as her dress and shoes would allow. Her blond hair, tied back haphazardly, bounced on the back of her neck. She glanced over her shoulder, and upon seeing him, ran faster.
“Hey! Wait!” he called.
She didn’t turn around again. Whimpering sounds escaped her lips as he caught up with her, and reached for her arm. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he said between breaths.
Her eyes were wild with terror as she evaded him. “Leave me alone.”
“I’m not…I’m not going to hurt you,” he repeated. There was a cramp in his side. He pulled her arm and managed to slow her. She broke into tears, and Mac couldn’t understand–he wasn’t trying to hurt her, he only wanted to ask her a few questions…but the terror in her eyes told Mac that she knew something more than those guards did.
“You’re a Lady. I need help getting into the Ladies’ Quarters,” he said, gripping both her arms.
She shook her head and screamed, trying to wrestle from his grasp. “Please…let me go!”
“Are you going to the Ladies’ Quarters?”
“You are a Lady, right?”
That made her pause. She sniffled, and nodded. “You…you look familiar…”
“What’s your name?”
She glanced around the promenade. “I’m Lady Kristen. Junior Lady Kristen.”
“I’m Mac Jaclow. Journalist.”
Her eyes widened with fear and she struggled against him again. “Please! Stop. They’ll kill me if I tell you. Please…” Tears streamed down her face. “Please, just leave me alone, I just want to help my family and the ladies and be a Lady and then get off this rock…”
“Who will kill you? Did something happen with Lady Harmony? What do you know about the dark mist?” His curiosity poured out of him and onto the crying lady. He had to know. This story was his one chance at redemption, to make a difference again, if she would only tell him what was going on.
She fell against his chest, sobbing. “Please, let me go. I just have to do this one thing and then I can go home.”
Her face was wet against him, but the rest of her was warm. How long had it been since he’d held a woman, in any circumstance. Mac couldn’t remember. Mostly they just spit on him for telling lies. So, so many lies he’d written. But they could be undone.
“I can help you,” he said. “Tell me what you need help with, and I’ll make sure they don’t hurt you.”
Maybe she’ll trust me enough to tell me what’s going on, he thought. She drew away. Her face was so young, she couldn’t have been more than eighteen. A mixture of doubt and hope lifted her lips into a small smile. “I don’t know if you can help me.”
“I can try,” he said. “Ladies Quarters, right? We’d better hurry. The soldiers are rounding up the civilians now, but it won’t be long until they’re in the inner core.”
This sobred her. She started running again. “This way.”