“Daniel!” I rush toward him, but he doesn’t respond. Daniel is a bloody mess, with both eyes swollen nearly shut, and deep lacerations carved into his cheeks and chest. He hangs suspended with his wrists lash together by a cord, which is looped over a hook mounted into a column in the center of the room. His ankles are also tied, and his toes are barely touching the floor.
I grasp him by the waist and lift, but the cord stays wrapped around the hook. Daniel groans as I lower him again. Glancing around, I spy a pair of chairs sitting beside a table against the wall. I drag one over and put it under his feet, then climb on top of it with him so I can reach the lashings.
Daniel opens one eye and lifts his head. “Katherine?” he croaks.
“Hang on,” I whisper. “I’m gonna get you out of here.”
The lashes come free of the hook. Daniel sags against me, and the chair tips, spilling us to the floor. I land beneath him, but I’m unhurt. I roll him off me and check his face. “You okay?”
“Been better,” he manages to say. I untie his wrists, and then his feet, tossing the lashes to one side. “Thank you,” he says, “for coming.”
“You’d do it for me, right?”
He tries to smile, but it turns into a grimace as a wave of pain washes over him. I help him sit up against the pillar. His head lolls a bit, then he opens his eyes and licks his lips. “You should go.”
He shakes his head. “You can’t make it. With me.”
“I’m not giving up. I’ll carry you if I have to.”
“You can’t. Your leg.”
“No. I’m fine.”
“You were shot.”
He’s right, of course. I was shot. I furrow my brow and pull my dress away from my legs. The gunshot wound is still wrapped with the Lyptic’s dressing, but it no longer hurts. Confused, I peel the bandages away, surprised by what I find.
The wound is healed completely. There isn’t even a scar. I touch it with my finger, trying to piece it together. There’s only one explanation that makes sense.
I can still taste the rancid cocktail in my mouth. Angelica had said they’d stay in my body’s fluids, protecting me from further infection and helping me heal faster, but I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly.
None of this helps Daniel, though. He doesn’t have the nanites. Unless…
“What?” he says.
I don’t wait to explain things. Instead, I press my mouth to his, praying that I’m right—and that I’m not wasting a perfectly good first kiss. His eyes widen, and he feebly pushes me back.
“What are you doing?”
“Just trust me.” I press in again.
He hesitates, and then surrenders to it. I feel his hands on the back of my head, his fingers lacing through my hair. I feel a whole lot more than I intended, and for a moment I lose myself in the connection. Warmth floods my body. His lips part, and I feel his tongue touching my own.
It is with great effort that I pull away. His eyes register confused delight. “I’ve wanted to do that for years,” he says. “I didn’t think you felt the same.”
I feel a constricting in my throat, a whirl of emotions, throwing me off balance. This isn’t what I intended. “The cocktail,” I say.
His confusion only deepens.
“Medicine,” I explain. “They gave me a mixture to rid my body of the isotope REGA put in us. It was filled with nanites. They healed my leg.” I show him where the wound was on my calf.
He frowns. “You’re not making a lick of sense.” His voice is stronger.
“You need the nanites to heal you. They made me drink them. I-I had to get them to you.”
“Nanites. That’s why you kissed me?”
“It was the quickest way!”
“By kissing me.”
“Yes! What was I supposed to do? Spit in your mouth?”
“No, that was definitely preferable. I just… wish you had told me that’s all that was.”
I’ve got to change the subject. I see the cuts on his face begin to close. At least it was worth it. “Do you feel better?”
“Oh yeah. Tons.”
“They work fast.”
“They’re not the only ones,” he mutters, then puts his hand out when I glare at him. “That was a joke.” I shake my head and help him to his feet. He takes a breath and nods. “I do feel better. We should do that more often.”
I roll my eyes and grab his arm, tugging him toward the door.
“Just a joke,” he says.
“Yeah. You’re a funny man. Let’s go.” Together we open the door and peer into the hall. “There’s got to be another way out here.”
“That way goes back to that main room,” Daniel says. “What’s down the other way?”
“Stairs that go to the basement. I didn’t see anything down there but the medical room.”
“There’s got to be another way. What about some of these doors?”
“Worth a shot.”
We creep into the hallway and begin systematically checking each door. Most of them are either locked or open into unoccupied rooms. At least one of the rooms appears to be a library of some kind, with row after row of books, journals and computer drives. Beside it is an armory. Stacks of rifles, hand guns, and boxes of ammunition line the walls. An entire cabinet is filled with what look like explosive charges. I pick up a knife, so similar to the ones the Lyptics gave us earlier.
“Do you see this?” I breathe, slipping the knife into my belt.
“I found it,” he says from across the hall.
I tear my eyes off the weaponry and see him standing before an open door. A dark staircase leads up.
“D’you think we should grab some guns?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know the first thing about guns.”
I’m about to reply when he pushes me into the stair case. “Someone’s coming,” he hisses.
Down the hallway, one of the Raptors opens the door where Daniel had been strung up. He swears at the empty pillar and dashes back down the hall.
We need no further encouragement. I close the door, and together we hurry up the stairs.
We emerge in from a storm cellar into an abandoned warehouse, not far from the train tracks that run into the city. The doors that lead out are made of heavy steel plates, and they swing ponderously on rusty hinges. I wonder how many times it’s been used—if ever since the warehouse was abandoned. On the other side, we shove them closed, wincing as the doors slam shut. Daniel presses the latch into place, but looks at me and shakes his head. No way that latch will stay shut. I see an abandoned pipe lying nearby and retrieve it. He shoves it through the handles.
“Think it’ll hold them?” I ask.
He shrugs. “For a little while, maybe.” He straightens, and for the first time I see him in bright daylight.
“You’re a mess,” I observe.
“We’ve gotta get you cleaned up. You can’t show your face anywhere looking like that.”
“We can’t show our faces anywhere regardless. Sweepers have got to be out in force looking for us.”
Something nags at the back of my mind. A suspicion that I can’t quite put my finger on. “Right,” I say. “Well, let’s see if we can’t find you some water. I don’t know what we’ll do for a rag.”
“We’ll manage.” He takes my hand and leads me out of the warehouse. The gesture is familiar, and though I don’t object, it feels awkward. Questions swirl in my mind like accusations.
Katherine, what are you doing? Why did you kiss him? You don’t really believe it was just to heal him, do you? You’re not falling for him, are you? Do you really think you can trust him?
It takes me a moment to realize they all sound alike. They’re all in Mother’s voice.
Behind all of them is one overriding, repeated question, jumbled in the mix with the rest.
What’s going to happen to you now?
The whole experience makes me feel weak, even a little vulnerable. I’m not used to feeling this way, like I’m out of control.
Even in the midst of the Sweepers capturing me, and my subsequent interrogation and rather brief incarceration, I never felt quite so scared as this.
I don’t like it one bit.
We walk for miles this way, driving further into the city. Even from this distance I can see the propaganda signs on the downtown skyscrapers, flickering through their endless cycle of worn out slogans. Around us rise the decrepit detritus of the industrial section, on the extreme edge of the East Middle. Unlike the Lower, this section of the city never had to be quarantined or forcibly evacuated. It was simply abandoned as REGA assumed control over the enterprises that once made their homes and thrived here. All that was subsumed by the war effort. The workers reassigned to other duties. The resources once devoted to manufacturing goods reallocated. The machines scavenged for spare parts until there was nothing left but their hulking, useless frames. Eventually, even these were trucked away by the scrapping teams, and all that remained were the empty, skeletal husks of the warehouses and factories, slowly being consumed by the weeds.
No wonder the Raptors chose to make their home here. The whole place felt desert-like. Void of people. No one to witness, let alone interfere with their paltry schemes.
The buildings here, like the ones in the rest of the Middle, also had the same kind of electronic propaganda boards mounted atop them, but none of them work any more. The boards are usually powered by solar panels, and the panels make tempting targets for anyone needing to run a fridge or supply juice to an electric heater. Naturally, theft of the panels is punishable by death, and the hard part is hiding them from the obtrusive eyes of the ever-circling drones. But most people have found ways around that, disguising the panels beneath heating grids or running them below skylights or upper windows. It doesn’t always work.
About midday we come across a small inlet with brackish, oily water. It’s unsuitable to drink, but Daniel uses it to wash the blood from his face. There’s nothing we can do for his clothes, but he decides to try and wash them anyway. I leave him there by the water’s edge and wander up to the tracks that run nearby.
The rails below are worn and smooth, with no weeds growing between the ballast stones that fill the space between the ties. I bend down and run my hand across the steel. This is probably the same track that runs down to the HUT, ferrying the captives there into the Twenty-Seventh to meet up with the scrapper crews, and then returning them a week later for a fresh batch of slaves.
This same track will carry the train that will take Rebecca forever beyond my reach, unless I can get back to her and free her from REGA’s custody. In my mind I see her now, the expression of terror frozen in her eyes as they take her away from me. I hear her screaming my name, begging me to rescue her. My hand grips the steel.
I should never have left her. What was I thinking? Why have I run so far? It’s taking me days to get back home, and then what will I do? Beg Mother for forgiveness and help? Come back with an army that I don’t have? Lead a revolution that doesn’t exist and storm the gates of the HUT, demanding her release? Every step only takes me farther from her. Nothing I’ve done yet has gotten me anywhere close to freeing her from that place, and I’m almost out of time. I’ve spent the past six days running from Sweepers, hiding with religious nuts and arguing with political zealots, when what I should have done was broken back into the HUT by any means necessary and spirited her out of there.
The truth hits me then. As painful as it is obvious. I ran away to save my own skin. Nothing more.
I’ve been selfish.
Worse. I’ve been a selfish fool. I’ve been letting other people tell me what I should do, where I should go. Their faces flash before me. Daniel, suggesting that we find my Mother. Thomas and his God, insisting that we go to the city—but for what purpose he either will not or can not say. Matthew, demanding that I explain myself to him, all caught up in his stupid resistance, and never stopping once to think that maybe I’ve got my own agenda, and that it has nothing to do with him. Even Mother, sticking her tattoo on my arm and forcing me to train, train, train, but never once asking me what I wanted for my life.
Right now, I just want to save Becca. That’s all I care about.
Daniel comes up behind me. I hear him thrusting through the brush, until he stands dripping beside the track. “What’cha doing?”
“We have to go back.”
The words are out before I really think about it.
“Back?” he asks. “Back where? The Raptors?”
“Back to the HUT. Becca’s still in there, and she needs me.”
He shifts his weight. I sense his objection before he says it. “Kath—”
“You don’t have to come.” I straighten and meet his eye. “In fact, it might be better if you didn’t.”
He looks hurt, and he shakes his head. “Why would you say that?”
“I have to find a way in and get her out of there before it’s too late. I can’t do that if I have to worry about you, too.”
“I can take care of myself, y’know.”
“Yeah. I’ve seen that.”
“Well, yeah, maybe not against people like Matthew and—I can take care of myself. I can!”
“Daniel…” I put my hand out and touch his shoulder. “I’m just saying that if I take you with me, I’m going to be thinking about you, and not thinking about doing whatever I gotta do to get Becca out.”
He shakes his head. “What is it you think you’re going to do, anyway? You’re gonna break into that fortress by yourself? I mean, I’m all for getting your sister out, too. I just think we should stick to the plan.”
“What plan? What plan is there to rescue my sister outside of me going back in there and doing it myself? There is no plan, Daniel. There never has been.”
“We were gonna go get your Mother, and—”
“No. That’s your idea. That’s not a plan. It’s just an idea! And so far I’ve been listening to your idea, and Thomas’s idea and Matthew’s ideas, and I haven’t been listening to me. I should never have left her there! I mean, what kind of sister am I?” The tears start to come, then, blurring my vision, making me weak.
Daniel puts his arms out and reaches for me. “It’s okay.”
“No!” I thrust away from him, angrily wipe the tears from my eyes. “It’s not okay. It’s not. I have to do this. Do you understand? I have to!”
He licks his lips. “I understand. Really. But all you’re going to do is get yourself captured or killed. And that’s not gonna do either of you any good. You want to get your sister back without going to your Mother, that’s fine. It really is. We can do that together. But you’ve got to let me help you. You need all the help you can get. Doing it any other way is just suicide.”
He’s right, of course, though I don’t want to admit it. And now I’m just standing there, tears running down my face, making me look as stupid as I feel.
He reaches out for me then, and this time I don’t resist. But all he does is put his hand on my shoulder, squeezing it gently. “It’s been a crazy couple of days. You’re tired. You’re hungry. I’m hungry. What say we find some food, and then come up with a plan together?”
Finally, I nod, and we move off the tracks.
Finding food proves more difficult than it sounds. I’d hope we could at least trap some small game, but all I’ve got is the knife I took from the Raptors’ armory. It isn’t exactly weighted for throwing—not that I’d toss away the only weapon I have as it is—so unless I can get in real close, it does us no good at all.
Toward sundown we reach the outskirts of civilization. Daniel and I pull up short and duck behind the corner of an abandoned gas station when we see the first people moving toward their homes.
“What are we going to do?” I ask.
“Curfew starts in about an hour. People will be rushing home from work until then.”
“We can’t be seen like this.”
He pulls me to the corner and points. “You see those apartments? People hang out their laundry in the yards behind them.”
“Sometimes. If we can get there before they bring the stuff indoors, we might score some decent clothes.”
I bite my lip. “I don’t know. Any other suggestions?”
“There’s one other option I know of. The garment redistribution center. It’s about five blocks that way. They collect the stuff in dumpsters behind the building, and then process them throughout the day.”
“Don’t they empty them before curfew?”
“Usually around five. People will drop stuff off after work.”
“Downside is they got cameras on the back alley wired to alarms. They go off, don’t look for help from the locals. People around here are all pro-REGA.”
He shakes his head. “Survival tactic. They know which side of their bread is buttered. REGA promises them security, and they’re bombarded with enough propaganda on a daily basis to start believing it. We get caught out here, we’re turned in for sure.”
I bang my fist against the brick wall. “We should never have come here.” He pulls back and gives me a thin smile. In his eyes, I read resignation. He’s heard it all before. “Fine. Let’s just get some food and clothing, and get the hell out of here.”
“Follow me,” he says, and turns the corner.