Jay and Suze arrived just in time to see their parents being pulled out of the home they all shared by the Status Police. The brother and sister ducked behind the divider between two columns that stretched all the way to the top of the Status One complex where they and a few dozen other families lived, their heads just below the flowering plants situated in that divider. Luckily for them, this side of the divider was a service area, without a lot of foot traffic from residents. They might have a few minutes before they were discovered.
Suze risked a look through the leaves of the plants to see what was happening. There were her father and mother, blackout visors already fixed over their faces and electronic restraints being placed around their ankles. Other residents stood a respectful distance back but still openly gaped at what was going on, shook, amazement and judgement playing out over their faces to various degrees. Some whispered to someone they were standing next to and occasionally pointed. This would be a topic of discussion for a while, Suze thought.
But why? What had they done? Her parents were staunch adherents to the Status guidelines and laws, as were both she and Jay. It was the law and they all knew the consequences of even the slightest infringement. Even Level One citizens such as themselves could be prosecuted and punished for breaking the law of Status. Maybe not as harshly as a Level Five trying to rise above their station, but still, you’d feel it.
Her parents, she saw, offered no protest. There was no straining against the grip of the police, no screaming or loud declarations of innocence. They seemed to be going along with what was happening willingly. Maybe, Suze thought, they were just waiting to speak to an attorney to start fighting back. Because of course they would eventually fight back. Right?
She looked at Jay. He was six years younger and looked confused and scared. “Just stay down, Jay. It will be alright. I’ll figure out what’s going on.” Her words offered no immediate consolation.
Immediately she began wondering what she should do next. The reasonable, law-abiding move would be to walk out from their hiding place and let the police take them along with their parents. At least then the family would share the same fate. But she hesitated. Being 17 and naturally suspicious of most aspects of the world, she couldn’t help but think there was something not right going on. Or at least there was something she didn’t know and that bothered her.
“Follow me, but stay low,” she said to Jay. She grabbed his hand and the two picked up the packs they’d taken to school this morning when the world still made sense. They walked through the service doors just steps away from where they’d been hiding, careful to open the door only as much as they needed to so as not to draw anyone’s attention. Thankfully there was no one in this back room at the moment, but Suze knew that wouldn’t last long. In fact, she knew, their odds of not being discovered dropped with every passing second. Someone would see them, or a Status tracking camera in a public place would spot them and alert the authorities.
She jumped when she felt a hand on her shoulder and stifled a scream. Turning around she saw Mrs. Wilkes, one of their neighbors who lived two floors above her.
“Quiet, child. Come with me.” Mrs. Wilkes walked past them and looked around a service corridor, apparently checking to make sure there was no one coming. She motioned for the two children to walk toward her.
“Get in here, both of you.” She motioned to a power cart, the kind of thing that would be used to transfer piles of boxes from one place to another. Suze opened the lid on the container that sat on the cart and saw it would fit both her and Jay. Lacking a better plan and still unwilling to go back and join her parents in the custody of the police, she helped Jay in and then got in herself. It was a tight fit, but it worked.
Suze felt the cart begin to move. For a moment she began to consider what happened, how her world had been upended less than 10 minutes ago. She reeled inwardly as shock began to set in. There were too many thoughts competing for space in her mind so she opted to focus on one: Why was Mrs. Wilkes helping her?
She didn’t know much about her neighbor. Jane Wilkes was young, a little over 30, and had always been friendly to both Suze and Jay. She’s seen her parents talking to Mrs. Wilkes a few times and tried to analyze what she remembered of those conversations for anything that might seem unusual. It was the same idle chit chat everyone made with their neighbors and her parents hadn’t, she didn’t think, talk to her any more often than they did anyone else in the building.
Jay began to sob quietly next to her. All she could manage in their close quarters was to put her hand on his left elbow, a poor attempt at comfort. She didn’t think he was loud enough for anyone to hear but still worried.
Some time later – it could have been an hour, it could have been five – Mrs. Wilkes’ face appeared as she opened the lid for the first time since Suze and Jay got in the crate. Suze looked around and saw they were in a wooded area, though she had no idea where this might be. The faint glow of city lights was visible far off in one direction but it was otherwise almost completely dark. It had been just after school, mid-afternoon, when they’d escaped the building.
“You can come out now, it’s safe,” she said. Suze stepped out and tried to get her bearings but no landmarks were visible to help with orienting her as to her location. Just trees and more trees, all below a pitch black sky. Jay stayed in the crate for a bit, refusing to uncurl from the position he’d been in for hours until Suze finally convinced him it was safe. They both gulped down the water Mrs. Wilkes offered.”
“Thank you,” Suze said finally. “Where are we? Why did you help us? What happened to our parents?”
“Patience, Suze. Your parents were arrested this afternoon for a Status violation.”
“But why? Neither of them ever broke a law in their lives?”
“That’s not true. First off, you likely don’t know this but your father was a high-ranking officer in the Status Police.”
Suze in fact did not know that. “No, he works for a bank.”
“That was his cover. Most all Status Police have them. One of the keys to enforcing Status is that people not know when they’re being watched, which is why they all wear masks and have false jobs.”
“So then why was he arrested?”
“Because he’d been working with the Nons.”
The Nons, Suze knew, were those who lived outside civilized society. Even lower than Level Fives, Nons had no Status and kept to themselves in small villages outside the cities. These weren’t rebels intent on disrupting the status quo, just outsiders. Generations ago people had gone “off the grid” to get out of the daily grind or leave social media behind, but they all weren’t survivalist gun nuts. So too the Nons were mostly content to simply not be part of the Status hierarchy but were mostly harmless.
“Help them with what?”
“The government has been cracking down on the Nons in the last year. Hard-core factions in leadership want them gone. They may not be dangerous, but they are still a nuisance. Patrick, your father, was tipping Nons off before government raids on their homes.”
Suze had questions but couldn’t formulate them right now. She was hungry and suffering from the effects of her entire worldview being upended. Wilkes saw no probes were coming so continued.
“I was the cutout, relaying messages from him to the Non organizers. If they were coming for your parents, I’m guessing I wasn’t too much further down their list. The police may even have been at my door when I saw you. I wasn’t planning on saving you from them, I’ll be honest, but couldn’t let you be arrested.”
The tears Suze had been holding back while in the crate and trying to comfort Jay were finally on deck, ready to come bursting out. “What are we supposed to do now? We don’t have anything, just our school packs, and are hungry. What are we supposed to do without our parents?” This time it was Jay’s turn to put a comforting hand on his sister’s shoulder.
“You’re going to have to trust me. Right now, we’re going to the Nons.”