Chapter 9

“Your city? I can think of one or two tribes that might dispute that.”

He chuckles. “I’m sure there are. They’re welcome to press their claim.”

I don’t say anything in response to this, until I realize he’s still waiting for me to answer his question. “It’s my city, too. I live in the Lower. With my Mom and my sister.”

“So you’re just trying to get home,” he sneers.

“No. I’m not.”

He cocks his head. “Okay.”

“My sister is still in the Hut.”

“And you left her there? Rather explains the company tonight.”

“No,” I blurt, thinking of how he kicked Thomas repeatedly. “She wasn’t with me. She’s in the Special Cases.”

“Special Cases. Yeah, I don’t know what that is.”

“It means she’s disabled. She has Down’s. And right now, she’s frightened and alone, and I’ve got to get her back.”

“Down’s. That’s a rarity. So, why are you here?”

“Because I can’t do it alone! I have to get help.”

He shakes his head. “And you think your Mommy can help you?”

“With all due respect,” I bit off each word, “you have no idea what my Mother is capable of.”

He makes an ‘O’ with his lips, obviously unimpressed. “Okay. You’re right. I have no idea what Mom can do. Let’s hear it for the girls, right? But I bet I know what your Mom can’t do. She can’t break into the Hut. And neither can you. That place is impregnable. It can’t be done.”

“No place is impregnable. I got out. I can get back in.”

He snorts. “You really think you got out on your own?”

“Of course not. I had help.”

“Oh, you’ve got that right. You were let out. You and your boyfriend. They let you go.”

I stare at him, dumbfounded. He calls over his shoulder. “Maximus! Show her.”

A tribesman hurries forward. He wears a vest over his bare chest and canvas pants. He thrusts a device under my nose. “You’re hot, girl. See? You and your boy-toy. Totally hot.”

I look to Matthew for an explanation. He leans forward and enunciates the word carefully. “Radioactive.”

“That tracking chip they injected into your shoulder?” Maximus says. “It carries an isotope. As soon as you dug it out of your arm it went live. They got sensors on the drones keyed in precisely to that radiation signature. They’ve been tracking you ever since.”

“We’re keyed in on the signal,” Matthew adds. “That’s how we knew you were out there.” He reaches behind and turns on a screen. It shows a series of red dots across a map, precisely marking Daniel’s and my path since escaping the prison. “Just like REGA, we’ve been following your progress. You see, baby girl, you’re the bait. They light you up like a Christmas tree and send you out there to see where you go. Doubtless they expect you to run to someone for help. Like maybe your Mommy? The question is: why? Why are they so interested in the people you’d want help from?”

I have a sickening feeling inside my gut. “The Lyptics. They helped us.”

He gives a slight shake of his head. “Well, they won’t be doing that again. I’m betting the Sweepers cleared them out as soon as you’d left. They’ve been driving you back toward the Twenty-seventh ever since.”

I stare at the equipment behind him. None of the tribes I know of can even use technology like this, let alone possess it or hack into REGA. “Who are you people? How do you have all this?”

“Like I told you. This is my city. Now you answer my question: Who are you?”

There’s only one explanation that makes sense, and it’s the one thing I know the least about. I point my chin at my shoulder and nod toward Maximus. “There,” I say. He tugs at the corner of my dress, pulling it down to bare the falcon tattoo on my shoulder.

Matthew leans over, studying my shoulder. He holds his open palm up. “Calipers.”

His tribesmen don’t move fast enough, and he starts snapping his fingers. The woman who came to his side earlier presses them into his hand. Grunting, he bends forward and spreads the calipers, measuring my tattoo from wingtip to wingtip, and from beak to tail.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

His eyes flicker to mine. He completes the measurement and tosses the calipers onto the desk behind him. They clatter to the floor. Matthew picks up his refilled drink. Just before tossing it back, he says, “It’s a match.”

A ruckus of murmurs and exclamations erupt behind him. I hear the woman say, “She’s one of us.”

“A match to what?” I cry.

Matthew whips his head around. “Hey! None of that. She is not one of us. Not until I say she is.”

“The numbers match, Matthew,” says Maximus. “You know the law.”

Matthew bursts out of his chair, grabbing Maximus by the vest and screaming obscenities at him. “I wrote the law!”

Maximus coolly takes Matthew’s hand and yanks it off his vest. “And we all agreed to abide by it. No one is above it. No one.”

Matthew smooths out his hair. “Of course.” He smiles humorlessly. “But we don’t yet know who she is. She might be a plant.”

“Will somebody please tell me what the hell is going on?!”

The tribesmen look at me, then Matthew waves it off, yielding the floor to Maximus. “The falcon is encoded with certain markers,” Maximus explains. “Precise calculations next to impossible to fake. It’s one of the most closely guarded secrets of the Raptors.”

“Seven and five,” Matthew says aloud. “The year the resistance started.”

“The feathers also,” Maximus continues, but Matthew interrupts, waving his hand.

“Let’s not give away everything just yet. Not until we know for sure.”

My mind whirls. “Thomas said the resistance was dead. But you’re part of it, aren’t you?”

“We are the resistance,” Maximus says, “what’s left of it, anyway.”

“And we’re not dead,” Matthew adds, then darkly, “not yet.”

I take a breath, trying to focus my thoughts. “Look, I don’t know anything about this. I just want to get my sister back. That’s it.”

Matthew retakes his seat, massaging his temple with his index finger. “You see? That’s the trouble with this country. Nobody cares about the collective good. People only look out for themselves. Perhaps you’d care to tell us how our symbol came to be on your shoulder?”

“My mother gave it to me. When I was younger.”

“Back to Mommy again.”

“It’s true!”

Matthew bites his lip and glances toward Maximus. “Well, maybe we should pay Mommy a visit and check it out.”

“Something spooked REGA enough for them to start tracking her,” Maximus replies.

Matthew nods. “So some of the old gang is still out there.”

“At least one of them is.”

Matthew shoots him a dark look, but Maximus says, “We need all the help we can get. He might know how to find the others. And the simple fact is, he did come in.”

After a moment, Matthew sighs. “All right. I’ll ask him. Bring him back. He can’t have gotten far. ”

“Maybe someone else should do the asking.”

Matthew waves Maximus off. “Go ahead.” He turns to the woman behind him. “Angelica? Be a dear and give baby girl here the cocktail. Do the same for her boyfriend if you can get anything down him.”

“You want Tommy and Vince to stop?” Angelica says.

“Yep. Tell ‘em to take five. We’ll need to lay off long enough for it to pass through his system. If we need to move him, we can’t risk that signature getting picked up by some random drone.”

Angelica comes over and takes my arm, tugging me out of the chair. “Come on.”

“Where are you taking me?”

“We’re gonna get you cleaned up. Get that poison out of your system.”

“You mean the radiation?”

“Yep.” She leads me through a side door that opens into a long hallway with several unmarked doors on either side. Fluorescent tubes flicker in the ceiling, and reflect dully off the tile floor. She leads me down a flight of stairs to another corridor. This time, the lights are mounted vertically on the walls, and long pipes hiss steam, wandering snakelike across the ceiling.

“What about Daniel?” I say as we walk. My eyes scan the ceiling and walls, memorizing the details.

“Him, too.”

“What have you done to him?”

“No less than he deserves.”

I tug my arm out of her grasp and stop. “Which is what?”

Angelica faces me. “Listen, girl. You’re just a pawn in a larger game. We know how REGA works. We’ve been learning their tactics for years, and we’ve got a pretty good handle on how they operate. Daniel’s job, if that’s even his real name, is to shadow you. To keep you on target and drive you toward whomever it is that REGA wants.”

“No,” I insist when she reaches for my arm. “He isn’t like that. I knew him from before.”

She shrugs. “Then they got something on him. Answer me this: whose idea was it to see your mother?”

“Mine.”

“You sure about that? Sure he didn’t encourage you in any way?”

I feel sickened by what she’s suggesting, but now that I think about it, Daniel has been pushing me toward Mother. Angelica reads it on my face and takes my arm again, pulling me forward. “Come on. You’re not the first to get played. And this probably won’t be the last time. Look at it this way. At least now you know. And the good news is, it brought you to us.”

I have serious doubts about that really being good news.

She opens a locked door at the far end of the hallway by pressing her hand against a plate of glass mounted on a wall. A thin beam of light washes over her palm, and a moment later the door springs open. Whatever thoughts I had about the Raptors being a simple gang have evaporated. Someone in their organization knows some serious tech to pull this off.

“Where are we?” I say as we enter the room.

“This is the med lab.”

“No, I mean, what building is this?”

She chuckles as she leads me to an exam table. “Nice try, Goldilocks.”

“My name is Katherine.” I take a seat on the table. The room is filled with an odd assortment of medical equipment and sundry items locked behind glass cabinets. I feel as though I’m back in the HUT’s exam room, being interviewed by the Chapin woman.

Angelica has bent over a small fridge, withdrawing a sealed, steel canister. She pulls something out and pours it into a glass jar before replacing the canister, then opens the cabinets and begins adding ingredients.

“What is that?”

She turns around and offers me the jar. “We call it the cocktail.”

I wrinkle my nose at the dubious mixture. The jar contains a thick, frothy, gray mixture. “What’s in it?”

“You got a background in biochemistry? Nanotechnology?”

“No.”

“Then don’t ask questions you won’t understand. Bottoms up.”

“I’m supposed to drink this?”

“Only if you want to live. The longer that isotope stays in your system, the sicker you’re gonna get. The harder it’s gonna be to repair the damage. Now, drink up.”

I lift the concoction to my lips, hesitating.

“It tastes a little like mint,” she says.

I shake my head and tilt the glass back.

And gag.

Angelica is right there, pushing the cup back to my mouth. “Okay, so I lied about the mint.”

“This is disgusting!” I choke.

She keeps the cup at my mouth. “Don’t stop! You gotta drink it all.” I force the liquid down, groaning. “That’s a good girl.” She takes the cup away when I finish.

“I think I’m gonna hurl.”

“You don’t wanna do that. You’ll just have to drink it again.”

“Seriously. What is this crap?”

“Mostly medicine. Some nutritional supplements to aid in cellular regeneration. And the pièce de la résistance? Nanites.”

“Nanites?”

“Yep.” She turns around and rinses out the jar as she talks. “Tiny little machines with one purpose: to seek out and destroy all that nasty isotope and wash it right out of your system. Added side benefit? They stay in your body’s fluids and protect against further infection. Little suckers are a wonder, too. You’ll heal a lot faster, now. They won’t keep you from dying, and it still don’t do spit about the virus, of course, but you’ll probably live longer and healthier. I’ll say this about REGA. They’re consistent. Been using the same formula for years. Enabled us to devise an antidote to their isotope. Oh, I should mention, that stuff also contains a pretty powerful diuretic.”

“What’s that mean?”

She grins. “That means you’re gonna have to pee real bad real soon.”

She isn’t lying. Within minutes, I feel the urge building inside my bladder. “Uh oh.”

She hands me a bed pan. I look askance at it. “You don’t have a toilet?”

“That urine’s radioactive and filled with nanites. It does not go into the sewer. We’ve got a special drain for it.”

“And you couldn’t put a toilet over it?”

She puts her hand on her hip. “It ain’t no picnic for me, neither.”

“How about some privacy?”

Angelica rolls her eyes and turns around. I sit on my knees, lift up the dress, and slip the bedpan beneath myself, thoroughly embarrassed. Angelica holds a tissue over her shoulder when I finish. I take it from her and wipe up. She turns around when I’m done and takes the tray from me, walking it over to a drain in the floor beside the wall. As she starts to pour it in, I see my opportunity and slip down from the table. She’s off balance as she empties the pan and doesn’t hear me coming.

I shove her violently forward, smacking her head into the cement wall. She grunts and goes limp, falling to the floor. I hammer her head onto the ground once more for good measure, just to be sure she’s out cold, then dash back to the door.

It doesn’t open when I tug on it. That’s when I spy a palm reader on this side of the door as well. Hustling back over to the unconscious woman, I heft her arm over my shoulder and drag her to the door. Her head lolls against mine, and I can see the blood trickling down her face. She’s gonna have a nasty headache when she wakes up. I grab her palm and press it against the reader. The door unlatches. Dropping her beside it, I drive my elbow backward onto the reader, fracturing the glass, and then slip out the door before it closes.

On the other side, I glance furtively down the hallway, spying no one.  I didn’t see any cameras on the way down, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any in hidden alcoves viewing me right now. Regardless, I mean to press my advantage for as long as it lasts.

I scurry over to the stairs, then creep up them slowly. At the top, I peer down the corridor from the level of the step. I see  no one.

As I straighten and round the corner, the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Quickly, I flatten myself against the wall and duck back into the stairwell.

One of the doors down the corridor opens up, and two of the Raptors step out. I can see that their knuckles are bruised, and blood has spattered their clothing.

“Once Angelica gives him that cocktail, he’s gonna heal a lot faster,” one of them says.

“I know,” the other replies. “That just means it’s gonna be that much more work to break him.”

They start walking down the hallway, their voices dwindling.

“You wanna complain to Matthew about it?”

“No way. You seen the mood he’s in?”

I watch as they round the corner, and then sidle up to the door they just left. Unlike the medical room that Angelica took me to, this room has no fancy palm-scanner on it. Just a simple doorknob without even a keyhole. I wonder briefly why it doesn’t have a lock.

As soon as I open the door, it becomes painfully obvious why they don’t bother with one.

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