When I come to, I’m strapped to something that’s a cross between a bed and a table. A brilliant light shines in my face, and I squint my eyes, turning away from it.
I’m dressed in something like a flannel gown with paisley swirls. It’s an ugly thing, and the swirls don’t quite mesh into a recognizable pattern. Looking at it makes my head swim. I can’t feel anything on beneath it. Someone stripped me naked and took my clothes, leaving me strapped to a table wearing nothing but a glorified bed sheet. I’m angry and terrified, and probably making that same face captured on Lieutenant Bryce Samuelson’s comlink.
I try to think, to remember, but my mind is fuzzy. Remembering is like trying to scoop fog. None of it makes a whole lot of sense, and as soon as I close my fist on what happened, the memories fade.
My mouth is dry, and I start to wonder how long I’ve been here. I’m also worried sick for Becca—how she’s holding up. But what worries me most of all is that I have absolutely no idea where here is, or what they plan to do with us.
I don’t have to wonder long.
The door opens, and a woman in a white lab coat breezes into the room. She’s got a comlink in her hand, and a grim expression on her face. Her heels make a pock! pock! sound as she crosses the floor. I caught sight of them as she entered. They were nice—a deep blue that matched her blouse and accented her eyes. I could never afford shoes like that. Instead, I’m stuck wearing this ugly, discordant thing. I feel a burning shame wash over me.
I hate her for making me feel this way.
She pulls a stool over from against the wall and sits down on it, with her comlink in her lap. “My name is Emily Chapin,” she says, “and you are the late Katherine Holt.”
She gives me a demure smile, which I take to mean she either doesn’t know, or isn’t telling. From her pocket she pulls out a device that resembles a gun. She puts it to my shoulder and squeezes the trigger. I feel a sharp pain in my arm. “Ow!”
“That is a locator chip,” she explains. “So we don’t lose track of you.” She sits down on the stool and says, “So, tell me about yourself, Katherine.”
I frown. No one’s ever asked me that before. I wrinkle my nose. “Why?”
She seems surprised by my question, and crosses one knee over the other. Leaning in, she says, “I’m curious about you. The report I have says that you died over twenty years ago, and yet here you are sitting before me.”
“Yeah. That’s me. The living dead.”
“Do you have any idea how this happened?”
I shrug. “How should I know? One of those thugs in the van said it must be a glitch.”
“Yes,” she speaks in a thoughtful voice, “yes we’ve ruled that out already. What we have is a birth certificate and a death certificate that, by all rights, shouldn’t exist with your face, your prints, or all the rest of the data we have about you. And the same goes for your sister. Oddly enough, her birth certificate includes the original Down’s syndrome diagnosis, but her death certificate indicates she was euthanized two days after birth.”
“My sister is not some unwanted pet you can just put to sleep because you don’t know what to do with her!” I bellow, wishing I could back up my words with a couple of cold slaps across Ms. Chapin’s face. “She has a life of her own.”
Emily examines the backs of her nails. “We could discuss the offsets between your sister’s somewhat dubious contributions to our society, and her costs upon it, but I suspect such academic subtleties would be lost on you. Poor dear. You just cannot see the bigger picture. Let’s talk instead about your mother.”
“Where is she? In the Lower?”
“I don’t have a mother. She dumped me and Becca when we were children.”
Emily appears to be listening to something from her earpiece. I wonder what she’s hearing, who’s speaking to her. She smiles again and says, “Someone must have been raising you.”
I can’t stand to look at this woman anymore, much less listen to her blathering. Instead, I stare at the wall on the other side of the room. I never noticed it before, but a camera is mounted in the corner. Somebody’s been watching us the whole time. I think I understand now what she’s been listening to. Mother once told me that they have ways of telling whether or not you’re speaking the truth or lying. A computer analyzes your heat signature and notes the fluctuations that happen when you tell the truth or lie. It’s not fool-proof, but defeating it is tricky.
“Your mother,” Emily enunciates her words carefully, “the one who’s been raising you since you before you can remember—well, there’s just no delicate way to put this—she’s a terrorist, Katherine. We believe she kidnapped you and your sister from your real mother sometime after you were born, and she’s been raising you as her own.”
“What do you know about her?” I snarl. Nothing! That’s what I thought.
Emily taps her comlink. “Carolyn Lord, or as you know her, Carolyn Holt, is a paranoid schizophrenic who presents with delusions of grandeur and persecution. She’s very dangerous, both to you and to herself. It’s very important that we find her before she hurts anyone else. You could help us with that.”
I close my eyes, not wanting the memory that instantly flashes to my mind. It’s of a leather satchel, with a brass monogram emblazoned on the buckle. The letters “CL.” I remember asking Mother about it—about why the initials aren’t “CH,” and she snatched it up quickly and scolded me for touching her things without permission. I was seven. I learned then to tread lightly around Mother and her explosive temper. Later that day she announced we would start training me to fight, to hide, and to think strategically. I’ve been training for a war I never wanted to fight ever since.
“You want my mother, you’re going to have to find her yourself.”
Emily listens and nods. Then she says, “Perhaps we could discuss something else. Your immunity, for instance. Something you happen to share with your sister.”
“What about it?”
“How come you’re immune to the plague?”
“How should I know?”
“Were you inoculated?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Isn’t that the same thing?”
She gives a little shake of her head, but doesn’t answer. “Any additional visits to the doctor that weren’t part of your normal schedule?”
I snort and shake my head.
“No additional visits?”
Stupid woman. “No doctor. No visits. I’ve never had a shot in my life. And you know what? I’ve never needed one, either. We’ve never been sick.”
“Yeah, and you know why?”
“I’d very much like to.”
“‘Cause this whole story about the plague wiping people out is just a crock. There is no plague. People only get sick ‘cause of the stupid shots you make everyone get.”
She pushes off her stool and touches her comlink. “So what you’re telling me is this: you’ve never had any kind of vaccination, and you’ve never been sick with anything.”
“Not a thing.”
She touches my hand then, and smiles. In her eyes I see something that reminds me of a cat about to pounce on a bird. “You’re very special, Katherine. Do you know that?”
I roll my eyes. Whether she knows it or not, Emily has repeated Mother’s favorite expression, usually said to me only when I succeed in some test she’s designed, or fail spectacularly. It’s her way of buttering me up. But right now, I don’t feel special. I feel helpless, frustrated, and most of all, scared.
“I just want to go home.”
She pats my hand. “All in good time.” Then she leaves, and I’m still stuck on the table.
An hour or more goes by before the door opens again, and I’d almost begun to believe they’d forgotten I was in here. But this time, instead of Ms. Chapin, I’m greeted by two orderlies in white garments, wheeling a chair before them. Wordlessly they undo the straps that held me to the table and help me sit up. One of them checks my bandaged calf, slowly unwrapping the gauze and taking a look at the seeping wound before applying some clear gelatinous substance to it and applying fresh dressings.
They help me into the chair and fasten my wrists to the armrests with leather straps. I’m in no shape to go anywhere, so the whole thing feels excessive to me.
They wheel me out of the room and down a long corridor. We pass many other doors, most of which are closed. The few that I can see into look very much like the one we just left. I have to wonder what exactly they do in this place. We make a turn at the end of the hall, and as we start down yet another corridor, I spy an open room with someone strapped to a chair, an IV drip hanging above her bed.
I call her name, jerking about so violently that the chair tips and runs over one of the orderlies’ feet.
Someone from the room closes the door, but not before I hear her voice answer back, “Kat’rin?”
“I’m here, Becca! I’m still here!”
They wheel me away quickly.
After several more turns, they finally bring me to another room. It’s so much like the one we just left, that I wonder why they bothered. If I didn’t know better, I’d even believe they brought me full circle, and the whole point of the excursion was to make sure that I saw they still had my sister in their clutches.
The orderlies wheel me beside the bed and unstrap me from the chair. Before I can say anything else, they back out quickly and close the door. I lurch toward it and slam my hand against it, and I reach down to grab the handle when I realize it hasn’t got one.
I’m in a cell.
I sink down against the door and stare at the room. Pale gray walls surround an equally gray, concrete floor. A single bed stands against one wall, with a thin mattress and a scratchy green blanket folded neatly at the end. A wafer-thin pillow sits at the head of the bed. Between the pillow and the blanket are a folded set of clothes.
There’s no other furniture in the room.
I’m cold, so I go over to the bed and examine the clothes. It looks like a blue jumpsuit, not all that different from the uniform my mother wears when she leads her team looking for cars to scrap. I hold it up in front of me. It looks like it might fit, but just barely.
I slip out of the hospital garment and start putting my feet into the jumper when I glance up. In the corner of the room, above my head, a camera is aimed directly at me. I can even see the lens rotating as it zooms in on me. Quickly, I throw the hospital dress back over my shoulders and then slip the jumpsuit over my legs and backside. I turn around before putting my arms through the sleeves and zipping it up in front. This done, I take the hospital gown and walk over to the camera. It’s way out of my reach, but I swing the gown upward anyway. It snags on the camera and hangs there. I smile in triumph and retreat to the bed. The frame is bolted to the floor, but the mattress is not. I drag the mattress off the bed frame and over to the corner, directly beneath the camera. Then I snag the gown off the lens and slip it back over my shoulders.
I wonder how long they’re going to keep me here. I lay back against the wall and crush the pillow to my chest. A moment later, the tears begin to fall. I feel them rushing hot down my cheeks, making my nose run. The whole enormity of what’s happened, and the not knowing what’s going to happen crushes me under its weight. More than anything, I wish Mother were here to put her arm around me, tell me it’ll be all right—or even yell at me and tell me what to do next.
I try to imagine her voice, but for some reason I can’t conjure the sound. This only makes me cry more.
At least they can’t watch me over that camera.
After what feels like half the day, I hear keys rattling on the other side of the door. I push myself to my feet and move away from the door as it swings wide. A guard enters first, holding a mean looking stick in his hands. Behind him, an orderly comes in carrying a tray of food. The orderly glances at the bed and at me and hesitates, but then carries the tray over to the far wall and sets it on the floor. He turns and, barely glancing at me, goes out the door again without a word. The guard waggles his stick at me.
“Put that bed back where it belongs.”
“They’re watching me on that camera.”
“Yeah,” he says, his eyes wide. “That’s what it’s for.”
“I don’t want them watching me when I change.”
“How is that my problem? You put the bed back, or I’m gonna take it away.”
“What will I sleep on, then?”
“Again, not my problem. You do as you’re told. Got it?”
I grind my teeth. “Fine.” Picking the bed up, I drag it back over to the bed frame and throw it on top. “Happy now?”
“Pillow and the blanket.”
I roll my eyes and do as he says. As soon as the pillow lands on the bed, he backs out the door and slams it shut. I hurl the pillow at the door.
My stomach rumbles. I bend down and pick up the tray. The tray has no dishes on it except a small, metal cup of water set in a hole on one end. The food is contained within a bowl-shaped depression in the middle of the tray. There are no eating utensils at all.
The food looks unappetizing despite the hunger gnawing at my stomach. It appears to be mashed potatoes, soggy green beans, and some gray product that might have been meat at one time. All of it is cold. I pick up the slab of meat and try to shovel the potatoes and beans into my mouth, washing down the flavorless meal with the water. I can only choke down about half of it. My fingers are sticky from the mashed potatoes, and I’ve nowhere to wipe them clean except my clothes or the underside of the mattress. I’m about to choose the mattress when I get an idea.
Taking a small scoop of potatoes in my palm, I move over to the camera and hurl them up at it. A few more successful tosses, and a pasty film now covers the lens.
I smile in satisfaction and sink down to the floor.
It isn’t long before I get a result. Once more, I hear the keys outside the door, and then the guard steps through. He orders me back against the wall and moves over to the camera, trying to reach it with his fingers. He has to stand on his toes to get high enough. As he reaches for the lens I see my opportunity, and without hesitating, I take it.
I fly out the door, grabbing it and slamming it shut behind me as I clatter to the floor, my wounded leg giving way beneath me. I hear his frantic shouts through the steel. Pushing to my feet, I stagger down the hall, trying to remember the path the orderlies took on their way here. When I come to a set of doors that look familiar, I start trying each of them. All of them are locked. I must’ve taken a wrong turn. I’m about to retrace my steps when I’m spotted.
A loud “Hey!” reaches out to me, and I turn, hobbling in the opposite direction. From behind me I can hear the sound of pursuit. As I round the corner, I collide with a group of people all dressed like me, walking single file toward an exit. I can see daylight on the other side.
One of them, a boy about my own age, grabs my arm and shoves me in front of him. “Eyes forward,” he hisses. “Don’t react.”
“Thanks,” I mutter, but he shushes me.
Just then, the guards chasing me round the corner, blowing a whistle. From the front of the line, someone calls, “Halt!”
The guards move down the line, looking at each of us. I do as the boy says and keep my eyes forward, my head down. I don’t react as they pass. They keep moving until they reach the front, and then they speak briefly with the guard who was leading the prisoners. Abruptly he yells, “Count off!”
Behind me, the boy whispers, “Say nothing!”
I can feel my leg bleeding, seeping through the jumpsuit. I hope I’m not leaving a trail for them to follow.
Down the line, the numbers roll in rapid succession. The girl in front of me says, “Nineteen!” and the boy behind me yells, “Twenty!” before I can squeak out a word.
I see the guards at the front conferring a bit more, and then the leader calls out “Forward!”
Once more, the line shuffles ahead. We pass through a pair of double doors, and I’m outside.