It took him a while to get started. Not that I fault him for that. His name was Willis, and he’d been living here by himself for better than a week. The first question he asked me was whether or not I had any food.
I shrug. “We should check downstairs. Mom might’ve left something in the pantry, or we could try some of the other apartments.”
He nods, and together we return to the apartment I shared with Mother and Becca. Once inside, I scavenge through the cupboard until I discover a lonely can of tuna and a packet of dried fruit in the corner. I offer it to him with apologies. “Sorry, it’s the best I can do.”
He takes it from me eagerly. “It’s fine. Thanks.”
I watch him scoop the ground fish out of the can, sucking the juice off his finger tips. He offers me some, but I smile and say, “That’s okay. I’m fine.”
I watch him eat, and as he does, he starts to speak. Once he starts, he doesn’t stop. “Mom and Dad always said good fortune should be shared as much as bad, and there’s been plenty enough of that. I didn’t really know what they meant until the Sweepers came. It was the middle of the night. I ‘member waking up and seeing these lights in the hall, under the door. I didn’t know what it was. Then the door flew open, and the men came into the room. They tossed these smoke things on the floor where I’d been sleeping. They made my eyes sting real bad. Mom pushed me under the bed. I saw them. Their feet, I mean. Dad tried to stop them, but they hurt him. They made my parents get down on their knees and put their heads on the floor. I can still see my Mom’s eyes staring right at me. And then they were gone.”
I frown. “The Sweepers didn’t check under the bed?”
“Sure they did. But there’s a cloak there that makes it look like there’s no one down there.”
I sit straighter in the chair. I’ve heard of such cloaks. Made of a flexible fabric that bends light. They don’t make a person completely invisible, but a body could hide quite effectively if someone wasn’t looking in the right place.
Naturally, all such materials are strictly banned in the municipalities. Only certain military units have access to the technology.
“How’d you get hold of something like that?”
He shrugs. “My Dad had it. Brought it back with him from the war.”
More surprise. “Your Dad came back from the war?”
“No one’s Dad comes back from the war.”
“He must’ve used the cloak to get past the lines,” I mutter. “Is it still there?”
Willis gives me a wary look. “It’s the only thing been keeping me safe from tribes. As long as I stay beneath it, they won’t find me.”
“Of course.” Translation: it’s still there, but I don’t want to give it to you. “Have you thought about moving?”
I see his lip quiver as he looks down at the empty can. He’s thought about this a lot… and made his decision already. “If I do, how will my parents find me again?”
“Do you think they’re coming back for you?”
He doesn’t answer. I answer for him. I owe him truth. “They’re not.” His fingers whiten on the can. “REGA won’t let them.”
After a moment, he throws it can at me. “You lie! I hate you!” The can rebounds off my shoulder.
“Hey!” He bolts from the chair. I catch his wrist as he tries to run past. “Willis!”
“Let me go!”
Instead, I pull him into a tight embrace.
“Let me go. Stop!”
“Listen to me! Listen. I’m not lying to you. Your parents love you. They’d come if they could.”
He’s crying now, but still pushing against my arms. “They’re coming back for me! They’re coming back.”
“No. They can’t come for you. But maybe you and I… maybe we can get to them.”
I hate myself for what I’m saying to him. I am lying now, and I know it. But I can’t leave Willis here alone. If I do, he’ll be captured or die. Or worse, be taken by one of the tribes and turned into something unspeakable.
He stops wrestling. “You mean it?”
“Sure. I don’t rightly know how. But I know some people who can help. The Raptors I told you about? Well, we’re planning something. Something big. And maybe it’ll help us get your Mom and Dad back.”
“How?” He sags and sinks into me. Despair drips from his words. “I’m only ten.”
“Ten, huh? I’m sure we can find a way for you to help out. I bet that cloak of yours would come in real handy. And with you staying with us, you won’t need it for protection, ‘cause we’ll take care of you.”
Now an even bigger lie. What right do I have to commit the Raptors to anything? Worse, what chance does Willis really have with the likes of Matthew, Angelica, or Fox or even Maximus? Would they take on the responsibility of raising him? Turning him into a little soldier to fight alongside them in their doomed rebellion? The best I could hope for would be to hand Willis over to Thomas. Let the Lyptics raise him (and turn him into a religious freak like themselves). But that’s assuming Thomas survives his injuries, survives his son, and survives long enough to return to his cult. In short, unless Willis figures out how to make it on his own, he’s pretty much done for.
That doesn’t keep me from lying to him, still. I’m pretty sure he knows I am lying, too. But it doesn’t matter, ‘cause he wants to believe. The same way I wanted to believe I could get Becca back.
Willis is crying now, and I’m shushing his tears, cooing, “It’s gonna be all right,” into his ear over and over again. Finally, he reaches up a small hand and wipes his cheeks dry. I release him.
“You gonna be all right, now?” I say. I feel stupid asking. It’s only what I’ve been murmuring for the last five minutes after telling him his parents aren’t coming back.
He faces me and nods. “Yeah.”
“So how ‘bout it? You wanna fly with the Raptors?”
“Are they nice like you?”
A half-laugh escapes my lips. “No. But they’re not like the other tribes. And they hate REGA.”
“Okay,” he says after a moment.
“Why don’t you get your stuff? Be back here in five minutes.”
A filament of doubt flickers in his eyes. “You’ll still be here?”
“Unless you change your mind, yeah. I’ll still be here.”
He turns away from me and leaves. I put my head in my hands then clench my fists together beneath my chin. This feels wrong, and yet it sorta feels right at the same time. I know I’m not supposed to leave him here. What kind of person would do that, anyway? And yet, I don’t have anywhere to take him, either. And if the Raptors decide not to take him in.
“Then I’ll stay with the boy,” I say aloud. “Matthew and his gang don’t need me as much as this kid does.”
A tiny island of peace rises up in the turbulent sea of my emotions. It’s the right decision, I realize. The only one I could possibly make. But now something else tugs at my consciousness.
If the Sweepers missed Willis’ cloak—and Willis himself—what else might they have missed in their raid?
I push to my feet and slip over to the pantry closet. Above, on the top shelf, is the string lying flat against the wood. Impossible to see from the floor. Innocuous, even if visible. I find it with my finger tips and give it a good tug. The entire shelf unit pops loose, swinging inward slightly, revealing a door. I slip inside.
The room itself is little more than twenty four square feet. One wall holds a shelf dusty with training manuals, an assortment of knives and guns, a medical kit, and, the object of my quest: Mother’s scanner. My heart sinks when I see it. I’d been hoping that it wouldn’t be here. Everything else in the room we can do without. Even the guns. I’ve snagged more than one from a dead tribesman or Sweeper agent. The manuals are useful for training purposes only, and we’re all way beyond that now.
But the scanner is the one thing Mother would’ve taken with her, had she been able to do so. That it’s still here means she was probably taken in the raid, along with Willis’s parents. Gently, I lift it from the wall, snagging the spare batteries as I do so. I fit the headphones into my ears and turn it on, letting it cycle through the full range of frequencies before turning it off again.
No one is coming our way, it seems.
I hear movement in the hall. Willis must be coming back. Stuffing the scanner into a satchel from the corner, I snag the knives, guns, and med kit before looping the bag over my shoulder and slipping back out the way I came.
Willis is standing in the room when I exit. His face brightens when he sees me, and I can tell he’s relieved.
“What were you doing in the closet?”
I smile reassuringly. “Just getting a few things.”
He holds up his arm, but it looks as though his hand has been cut off near the elbow. “I brought it.”
I blanch. “Wow. That is… impressive. May I see?”
He grins and unfurls the fabric, throwing it over his head. Abruptly, his image shimmers and seems to disappear. I can discern a faint outline at the top where the back wall appears to curve slightly.
“Dude! That is amazing.”
“It doesn’t work so hot in direct sunlight,” his disembodied voice says. “My Dad was supposed to be a sniper. That’s how he got it. But once he was in the field, he didn’t wanna do it. So he ran. They couldn’t find him.”
I nod. “Makes sense.” His dad was a deserter. At best, he’d wind up doing hard time in a penitentiary somewhere. More likely, they’d just shoot him in the back of his head and dump his body in an unmarked grave. At least, that’s what Mother said they did to deserters.
“Come on.” I hold out my hand, and a disembodied palm takes hold of it. He tugs the cloak off and stuffs it under his jacket. Together, we leave the building behind.
It’s near dawn by the time we reach the old Wolf’s den hideout, but something doesn’t feel quite right. Willis looks up at me with confusion etched on his brow.
“What’s wrong?” he says, but I shush him with a finger to his lips.
“Something feels off.”
I move closer to the entrance, keeping as flat against the wall as I can manage. When I near the steps, I realize what’s bothering me.
The front door yawns open, and there is the sound of an engine rumbling quietly nearby. I sink into a crouch beside Willis.
“I’d bet anything that’s a Sweeper truck.”
“What are we gonna do?”
“Shh! Someone’s coming!”
I pull my knees to my chest, hoping that no one sees us there, and draw my gun just in case they do. I’m not going down without a fight. Not this time. Willis tugs on my hand, passing an edge of the cloak to me. I feel foolish. I’d already forgotten he had it with him.
I spread the garment over my head just as an agent walks down the front step. He stops not five feet from us and cups his hands in front of his face. An orange light flares, and the pungent aroma of cigarette smoke fills the air.
The agent looks down both ends of the street, and then speaks into the microphone by his jaw.
My heart races when I hear his voice. I realize I’ve heard it before. When he turns around, he still wears the medical tape over his nose, and the black circles under his eyes have faded to a sickly green yellow color.
Lieutenant Bryce. Good old Broken-Nose.
My breath catches in my throat when he looks right at me, and my fingers curl around the pistol grip.
His eyes move past me though, and he nods at someone coming down the front steps of the house. I turn my head in time to see two more Sweepers bearing a stretcher between them. There’s a body on the stretcher, wrapped in a black plastic sheet.
Bryce jerks his thumb toward the van idling at the corner, and the two men hurry toward it with their burden.
I can’t help wondering who it is under the sheet.
Now someone else comes down the steps, prodded forward by a fourth agent.
I swallow hard as I see Daniel standing before Bryce, his hands unshackled and his body bruised from Matthew’s interrogation.
“You got something for me?” Daniel mutters.
My cheeks burn, and I shift my aim.
“Danny, Danny, Danny,” Bryce folds his hands behind his back and shakes his head. I remember a certain bully in the Hut talking to Daniel the same way. “Now what makes you think I have anything for you?”
“Come on, man, don’t jerk me around. You promised me the antidote.”
Bryce purses his lips. “I suppose I did, didn’t I?”
“So where is it?”
Bryce opens his breast pocket and pulls out a vial of clear liquid. He tosses it to Daniel, who fumbles and nearly drops it. Daniel uncaps it and glances at the agent.
“Do I take it all now or just like half now and half later or something?”
“Which is it?” I can hear a note of anxiety creeping into Daniel’s voice.
“Whatever you like.”
Daniel hesitates then tosses the whole shot down his throat.
“I should warn you,” Bryce says as he drinks. “It’s not going to work.”
Daniel chokes on the liquid and stares at the agent.
“They didn’t want me to say anything, but the second isotope you carried… well, let’s just say you took longer than we expected. Had we caught up with you a day or two ago, there might’ve been a chance. But now?” He shakes his head.
“Wha-what are you saying?”
“I’m saying you’re going to die, Daniel. And there’s nothing you or I can do about it.”
The bottle falls from Daniel’s fingers and shatters on the concrete. “No,” he whispers.
“You took too long.”
“No. No, you promised!”
“If we’d gotten to you two or three days ago, there might’ve been a chance.”
“No. I tried! I was there! I led you right to them.”
“So you did. But you didn’t deliver. No delivery, no antidote.”
“But it’s not my fault!”
“Not mine either, Babe.”
Daniel presses both hands against the sides of his head. A groan escapes his lips, and his legs give way. He sits down on the sidewalk. Bryce shuffles his feet. “You want my advice?” His voice has softened a bit, but his tone remains grim. He puts his hand on Daniel’s shoulder. “Make your peace in whatever way you can, then climb to the top of the tallest building you can find. Step to the edge, turn around, and just lean back and let go. For a moment, it’ll feel like you’re flying. Then it’ll all be over. Do it while you’ve still got the strength to climb—sometime in the next seventy-two hours—‘cause if you wait too long, you won’t even be able to get outta bed. And it still won’t be the radiation that kills ya. It’ll be the dehydration. And that’s a miserable way to go.”
Daniel raises his head and stares at the Sweeper’s hand on his shoulder, then hard into Bryce’s eyes. Bryce pulls his hand away as if stung. He backs up, turns on his heel, and hurries to his van. A moment later, the vehicle passes in front of us on the street and is gone.
Daniel sits there quietly for a long time, unmoving.
Willis places his hand on my shoulder beneath the cloak and questions me with his eyes. I relax my hand on the gun and pull the cloak off my face.
I make no attempt to stay quiet, now. I push the hair out of my eyes and rise to my feet, then cross the distance between us. When I sit down beside him, Daniel barely acknowledges my presence.
“I screwed up,” he says.
“So I guess you heard everything. How I betrayed you. I didn’t mean for this to happen. I mean, I did, but only ‘cause I wanted to save my brother. After you gave me that cocktail, I started thinking maybe it cleaned out both isotopes. Guess I was wrong.” His voice is dry, passionless, like curled leaves that have fallen from a barren tree poisoned by REGA’s acid rain. I’ve no use for his self-pity right now, but that doesn’t stop him from spilling the story. “They used me to get to Matthew. That’s who they were after the whole time. After the first signal disappeared, they knew I’d made contact. We surprised them by going after the train. That’s why they delayed the raid. But once Matthew started questioning me, they realized we weren’t going anywhere for a while, and so they moved in. I’m glad you weren’t there, though. Guess I got what’s coming to me, huh?”
“Where’d they take them?”
He snorts. “What difference does it make?”
“I don’t know. You tell me.” I can’t keep the anger out of my voice, but I have no time for it. “Looks like you got about two days left. You wanna go out feeling sorry for yourself? Go ahead. Or maybe you can try and put things right, and ‘make your peace in whatever way you can.’”
He stares at me. “You don’t get it, do you? They’ve won. They always win. It’s over.”
I brandish my gun. “Not for me it isn’t. They killed my sister. They took my mother. They’ve taken everything that matters to me. And now they’ve taken the only family I’ve got left. Can you get me to REGA? Can you get me inside?”
“They’ll kill you, too.”
“Not if they can’t see me coming.” I wave Willis over. He comes near and hands me the cloak. I ball it in my fist and show Daniel.
He swallows hard. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to take it all back. And if I can’t do that, I’m going to take them all down.”