I have to admit I’m not really that surprised. There never was much hope she’d get away clean. They hustle her inside the van and sit her down next to me. Rebecca leans against my shoulder, wailing.
Broken-Nose pushes her back upright again. His comlink is out. He wants her picture.
“Shut her up!” Groin-Guy bellows from the front.
“Leave her alone!” I yell back.
I try a different tack. “She’s just scared, and she doesn’t understand.” I dip my chin so that I can nuzzle her blond curls with my cheek. “It’s all right, Becca.”
“They hurt my arms,” she sniffs.
“And my wrists!”
She lifts her head up so she can see the Sweepers. “You people are mean! I don’t like you!”
It’s probably the worst thing she could said to them, but they laugh like idiots, unaware just how much hatred and venom her simple words contain. I kiss her cheek. She sniffs again and says, “I need tissue.”
Broken-Nose reaches into his pocket and pulls out a handkerchief. “Here,” he says, holding it up to her nose. Becca sits up and blows her nose in it. He wipes her clean and says, “Better?”
She nods and sits back.
I stare at him, utterly unsure what to make of this gesture. The other men eye him with bemused expressions.
“Thanks,” I say to him.
He gives me a wan smile and folds the handkerchief before putting it into an evidence bag like the one holding my bloodied rags. He hands both of them to another Sweeper, but I can’t see what the man does with them.
“Can I take your picture?” Broken-Nose says to Rebecca. She glances at me, but I shrug.
“Okay,” she says to him, and gives him a wide smile. He snaps the photo.
“Rebecca Holt,” he reads. “Pretty name. This says you’re dead, too.”
“I’m not dead!”
“I can see that. We’ll have to get this fixed right away. I’m sorry about the cuffs. We’ll see if we can’t adjust them once we come to a stop, okay?”
“Okay,” she says.
I continue to study him. He has brown hair cropped close to his head, and blue eyes set above his misshapen nose. Like the others, he’s clean shaven and solidly built. But I have to wonder: is he really this kind? Or is this some kind of mind-game, a cruel interrogation technique where he pretends to be our friend so that we’ll open up to him? If so, he’s very convincing. I decide to play along.
“I’m sorry about your nose.”
He grins wide. “Hazard of the job. Good hit, by the way. What was that? Muay Thai?”
I shrug. I genuinely don’t know what Mother would call her training. All I know is that it’s intensive, and involves a lot of joint locks, throws and manipulations as well as strikes and kicks.
“Where’d you learn to fight like that?”
“Hey,” says the man who took the plastic evidence bags from Broken-Nose. “They’re clean. Completely.”
Broken-Nose frowns. “You sure? Check it again.”
“Ran the test twice.”
The Sweepers exchange glances. The levity has left their eyes. I can even see Groin-Guy studying us from the rear view mirror.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
Broken-Nose gives me a lopsided grin. “You tell me. First you’re not dead. And now you’re not infected.”
“Everybody’s infected. That’s the way the plague works. It either kills you, or you survive it, but you don’t not get it.”
“Well, obviously you’re wrong.”
“You’re not sick and never were. Your file says you died twenty years ago, but you don’t look a day over sixteen.”
“Still not twenty. You’ve got mad combat skills, and you’re in the company of someone,” he glances at Rebecca, “who normally would’ve been euthanized at birth.” He narrows his eyes. “Is this a test?”
My stomach churns when he talks about Rebecca that way. She’s my sister! Losing Becca would be losing the best part of my life in the Lower. I decide then and there, that I can’t trust any of them. No matter what. Instead, I force a grin. “Okay. You got me. I’m with REGA. We’re testing all of you. Now if you could just drop us off at the next corner, we’ll mark it as a pass. I wasn’t going to, because of how poorly your team performed there in the supermarket, but your follow-up has put you over the line. Good job.”
He breaks into laughter and shakes his head. “What’s your control number?”
I pull one out of the air. “One two five nine five.”
“Really. Lieutenant Bryce Samuelson. Control number oh four dash eight seven two six nine. Sound off!”
One by one, the men in the truck bark out their names and control numbers. I note that each of them starts off with an “Oh four dash.”
“You see?” Bryce says. “Seven numbers. Not five.”
“The ‘oh four’ was implied.”
“Oh four is our unit. If you’re gonna lie, you’d better be more convincing than that. Who are you?”
“What were you doing in the Lower Quarter?”
He purses his lips. “Okay. If that’s the way you want to play it. We’ll find out eventually. We always do. But let me give you a word of advice: it’ll go easier if you cooperate.” He glances meaningfully at Becca and adds, “For the both of you.”
I smile tightly. If I had my hands free, I’d flip him off.
We drive over bumpy roads and around sharp corners for almost an hour. Every lurch of the vehicle sends pain shooting up my shoulders and across my neck. I can’t really feel my fingers anymore, and my butt has fallen asleep from the hard bench they’ve got us sitting on.
I can tell Becca is just as uncomfortable. She’s bent over her thighs about as far as she can go, trying to relieve the pressure on her arms. I don’t know precisely where we’re going, though I have a suspicion. And even though I have no desire to see the inside of REGA, I’d willingly face a firing squad at this point if it meant I could get out of this painfully awkward pose.
Scratch that. What I really want is something to happen—maybe even something unexpected—that will magically engineer our escape. I know it’s just wishful thinking.
My thoughts turn to Mother, and I wonder how she’ll take it when we don’t come home. She’ll probably be furious with me for taking Rebecca along, and I don’t know how I’ll explain it to her when I see her again.
If I see her again.
The problem, of course, is that she gave me two contradictory sets of instructions. The first was, “Be sure you find something for dinner. We’re getting real low on supplies.” That was her way of saying we’re fresh out of everything, and if I didn’t go out and forage, we wouldn’t be eating that night. But the second was a long-standing rule. “Don’t let Rebecca out of your sight.” Not that Rebecca would get herself into trouble or anything like that. Rather, it’s that the Lower has become such a dangerous place anymore, and Rebecca only has one natural defense when Mother’s not around.
I don’t mind taking care of her. Rebecca is fiercely independent in her own way, and likes to do for herself as much or more than she’s able. Sometimes I have to remind her that it’s okay to ask for help. For a while there was a kid that used to hang around our neighborhood. Freddie Mills. He asked me once if I resented having to spend all day caring for a retard. He only asked me once. And I say he used to hang around, because after I got through pummeling the crap of him, he never came around again. I think he got the message. But you never can tell. Some people just have a hard time learning.
I’ve never come right out and asked Mother, but sometimes I’d like to know why she did it. Adopted us, that is. She treats us like we’re her own, and that’s mostly enough. But there’s no question in my mind that Becca and I came from someone else. My mother has dark hair, brown eyes, and an olive complexion to her skin. Becca and I are both pale and blond with blue eyes. There’s just no way we came from her body. Sometimes, I wonder who my real mother is and why she gave us up. I suspect that it was because of Becca, and if that’s true, then I’m glad she did give us up, ‘cause I wouldn’t want to be raised by someone like that.
Not that it’s been easy being raised by Mother. Something dark happened in her past that she will not talk about. It’s something that scared her and sent her into hiding. I can think of no other reason why we’re living in the Lower.
Mother works as a scrapper, leading one of the teams of people recruited to collect abandoned cars and trucks and even buses from the twenty-seventh’s streets. Some people, like Mother, do it full-time ‘cause they can’t get any other work. And that’s what doesn’t make sense. Mother is highly skilled and better educated than anyone else I’ve ever met in the Lower. She could probably have any job she wanted. Why she’d choose to work in the scrap yards makes no sense at all.
Scrapping is the major industry in the twenty-seventh, and every able-bodied man and woman who doesn’t do it full-time is still expected to do a turn of community service once a month helping to bring the vehicles in for reprocessing. Since the fuel crisis hit after the plague, there’ve been a lot of abandoned vehicles. Rather than just leaving them there on the streets to rust away to dust, REGA has decided to recycle the metal, rubber, plastic and fabric from them. It sounds noble, until you realize that most of what’s pulled out of the cars is being used to produce weapons for the war effort. It’s so ridiculous, now. No one even remembers what their fighting for. Most of the nations that started the conflict have been wiped out. National boundaries around the world have been redrawn so many times, it’s hard to tell what country is what any more. The war has become just an excuse to keep things the way they are. For all their talk of victory being just on the horizon, REGA doesn’t want the war to end. If it did, then the emergency would be over, and so would REGA’s pretended authority. The truth is, REGA only has authority because they’re the only ones left with enough guns to enforce their will. That’s what these men sitting in this van around me are all about.
I feel the bumps and turns in the road finally smooth out, and I realize we must be near REGA. Located at the heart of the twenty-seventh, REGA has the best kept roads and widest streets possible. There isn’t money for anything else, but REGA always makes sure they get what’s theirs.
Even if it comes out of someone else’s pocket or sweat.
The van slows down and makes one final turn. Through what little I can see of the windshield, it appears we’ve entered a parking garage of some kind or another. I hear the tires squealing across the concrete, as if resentful that they have to roll over such an unnaturally smooth surface.
The van comes to a stop and the side door opens. Brilliant light floods the compartment, and I squint and turn away, trying not to see the glare behind my eyelids.
“Everybody out!” Groin-Guy says. He called out his name and number during the ride over, right along with the rest, but I can’t remember what he said. Besides, calling him Groin-Guy sounds better to me.
I feel two men on either side of me, and they roughly hoist me to my feet. My wounded calf muscle protests the movement, and I feel a million tiny pinpricks coursing through my backside. My legs buckle. I would have fallen to the floor, except the two Sweepers on either side hold me up and bodily drag me from the van. I hear a moan, and crane my head around as two more do the same to Becca.
It takes me a second to realize that the men dragging her forward aren’t following the rest of us.
“Wait a second! Where are you taking her? Becca!”
“Kat’rin?!” Her voice is plaintive, and it echoes dully from the low, flat roof of the garage.
I call her name again, but I’m dragged away from her. I struggle, try and get free so I can run to her. Instead, I feel someone hammer his fist into my gut. Air flees from my lungs and I see red.
I try to call her name, but I can’t get anything else out besides a rough cough, and even that hurts. Then they slip a dark, smelly, stifling hood over my face. I feel the sharp pain of a needle stick in my arm, and something oddly warm courses through my veins. My head starts to swim, and I cannot think clearly. In moments, I pass out.