Becky and I hadn’t made it five steps out of Carrie’s room before Birdman shouted at us.
“Get back inside,” he snapped, striding across the courtyard to me.
“They’re here,” I said, still moving toward the door.
“Dammit, get back in your hole,” he said. “We haven’t checked them yet. Half of ’em could be dupes for all we know. And don’t think Maxfield’s not going to double security after your stunt last night.”
Becky looked at me. We both knew he was right, but from the look on her face I almost thought she couldn’t survive the wait.
“How long will it take?”
He started for the door. “As long as it takes. And I’m sure as hell not bringing them all in here. This fort is secure, and I don’t bring anyone in that I don’t trust.” He shook his head. “Except you, I guess.”
Becky stood in the cold morning air, staring at the gate, hopeful and scared.
She didn’t look guilty—that was all me. I’d led them to their deaths, not her. She was probably thinking more about them now, about how they’d suffered and how she could help them. I was thinking about how I needed to beg for forgiveness.
More people in the fort were spilling out of their rooms now, eager to greet their friends they’d never actually met.
I put my arm around Becky’s waist and pulled her toward me.
“I have to see them,” she said, hardly above a whisper.
“We will,” I said. “We just need to be safe.”
Our eyes locked for several seconds before she nodded and we walked back to Carrie’s room.
Carrie was anxiously brushing her hair, trying to see herself in the broken shard of a mirror she kept on her table. She turned to look at us, nervous and embarrassed.
“You look beautiful,” Becky said, breaking into a smile.
“He’s here,” she said. “I saw him through the window.”
I’d seen Curtis, too, actually walking on his injured leg. Just two days ago they were saying he might lose it, but he was walking without a crutch. There was a noticeable limp, but that was hardly something to complain about. Whatever advanced medicine the school had supplied us with that was healing Becky’s arm must have also saved Curtis’s leg.
“Is this a new shirt?” Becky asked, touching the thin yellow linen that was the cleanest fabric I’d seen since getting here.
“I’ve been saving it. I wanted to look nice.”
Becky turned Carrie around and looked at her. “He’s going to love you.”
Carrie’s face contorted for a moment, like she was going to break down and sob, but she pulled it back and took a deep breath.
“Go get him,” Becky said.
Carrie nodded and left, leaving her coat on the bed.
“Please, Curtis,” Becky whispered. “Don’t freak out.”
I pulled Becky to me and held her tight.
We watched out the window as the disheveled group gathered. Becky had her journal and was quickly scribbling a list of everyone she’d seen. Last we’d heard, sixteen had died at the fence. We knew Hector had been killed back at the school. What we hadn’t been prepared for was how small the group of survivors was.
Thirty-three. When I’d gotten to the school, there were seventy-two. Sure, many of those had turned out to be androids, but that didn’t do much to make me feel better. Seeing the thirty-four of them here, rounded up in a confused circle as the people in the town spoke to them, made my stomach turn. Half the school was gone.
Birdman stood in front of them and talked for a while. More than once I saw him point to his head. He was explaining. No one was freaking out, not like I was expecting. Some were crying, some were hugging each other, but they weren’t scared or enraged—they were tired and defeated.
I could see Carrie standing away from the crowd, shivering in her new short-sleeved shirt. Curtis was staring at her, stony faced.
He thought she’d betrayed him. Her dupe had popped, and the robot Carrie had taken the gun from Curtis and she’d killed Oakland. It wasn’t like me and Jane. Jane had broken my heart and messed with my brain, but I’d known her for only a few short weeks. Carrie and Curtis loved and trusted each other, and maybe this very moment was the first time he realized she wasn’t just a robot—that there was a real Carrie. And Carrie—the real Carrie—was in love with him.
Birdman finished his speech and directed them away from our view, off toward the Greens.
“Twenty Society,” Becky said, setting her journal down. Her voice was pained. “Seven from Havoc. Six from the V’s. That’s all that’s left.”
“A lot of them were dupes,” I said. “I mean, Carrie and Mason and Shelly and all the others.”
Becky sighed and stood up, moving away from the window. “That’s the problem.”
“Look at the names,” she said, gesturing to her journal and walking to the door. “Almost all of the dupes were from Havoc and Variants.”
“So what?” If anything, that meant that more of her friends were just who they thought they were.
“We had the security contracts—the Society,” she said, staring out at the empty courtyard. “We were running the school, and guarding the walls, and enforcing the rules. And it was all voluntary.” She turned her head, looking at me over her shoulder. “When I found out about the androids, I’d almost hoped …”
She didn’t finish. She didn’t have to.
Isaiah had been out there, in the group of tired survivors.
Not that it mattered. Even the dupes got their personality from a human. We couldn’t blame anything we’d done to each other on androids. It was all us. We’d fought and killed each other, and it was all us.
I built a fire in the pit, and Becky and I sat together, a blanket draped around our shoulders. It was snowing again, tiny crystal flakes that weren’t sticking to anything but that seemed to make everything colder and sharper. We were almost the only ones left in the fort—everyone else was out talking to the new arrivals.
With all that was going on, I hadn’t heard anything about the dissection of Iceman. I needed to talk to Harvard when things calmed down.
The heavy door squeaked, and Birdman entered the fort, Mouse and Harvard in tow. Becky was on her feet instantly.
“They’re all clean,” he said, pointing to us. “Come with me.”
He disappeared into his room for a minute and then came back with an armful of old cloth. We all followed him to the meeting room.
“You haven’t been here for a new arrival,” he said. “We have procedures we usually go through. And now we’ve got a ton to process.”
He laid the cloth out on the floor of the meeting room. I recognized some of it as what he’d written on during our last group meeting, but there was a lot more here—drawings and floor plans and lists.
“We keep track of what’s going on in that underground complex,” Birdman said, pointing to what looked like an amazingly detailed floor plan. “Like I was telling you yesterday—one day they’re going to take us out of here, and I want to know what I’m dealing with.”
Harvard peeked out one of the windows, and then turned back to us. “We know you guys want to talk to everyone you knew at the school, and we kind of want to see what they have to say to you. Maybe they’ll tell you something they’re not telling us.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll find out.”
There were six of us seated in the room—me and Becky, Birdman, Harvard, Mouse, and Shelly. She’d been added at the last minute, when the Greens figured out what was going on. Our six chairs faced three empty ones. It looked like an inquisition.
Most of the town was at the windows, trying to peek or listen, but Birdman was fiercely regulating the fort, and no one was allowed in without his permission. The thick curtains were pulled down, and the only light in the room came from the few dim lanterns. The town was on lockdown.
Birdman motioned to the kid at the door. “Bring in the first group.”
I took Becky’s hand, and after a moment she had to make me let go—I didn’t realize how hard I was squeezing.
Isaiah was the first one in. His head was held high, but it was an imitation of the pious confidence he’d always had at the school. There was fear in his eyes.
He took a seat on the bench opposite us and stared straight ahead, a prisoner.
Behind him was Skiver, Oakland’s right-hand man before he was shot. He stopped just inside the door, staring at Mouse. He wasn’t scared—not like Isaiah—but something was going on in his head.
“Sit down,” Mouse said. It was an order, but there was no edge to her voice. It hardly sounded like her at all.
The third to enter was Gabby. Becky stood up, wanting to run to her, but Birdman held up a hand forbidding it.
We’d thought Gabby was dead or dying. The last I’d seen of her, she was lying on the ground, covered in blood and screaming. But even though there was obvious pain in her face as she crossed the room to the bench, she was walking and breathing and alive.
Birdman was slouched a little in his chair, the kind of casual stance of someone who knew he was in complete control. His calm was a show. It was a threat.
“You’re representatives of the three gangs at the school,” he said. “And—”
Gabby immediately protested. “I wasn’t in charge. You want Curtis.”
“Neither was Skiver,” Birdman said flatly. “This isn’t a leadership meeting.”
Gabby looked to me for help, but I just shrugged. I didn’t know what Birdman wanted. I didn’t care, either. Becky and I were leaving. I needed to talk to Harvard about the dissection, and I needed to see what help Shelly could offer, but then we were leaving.
“You’re here now,” Birdman continued. “I need to know everything you know. I need to know who is trustworthy and who could be working for the other side.”
Gabby’s face contorted. “Working for the other side? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Maxfield has tried to bribe students in the past. We checked to make sure that you’re not duplicates—androids—but we need to know if Maxfield gave someone something in exchange for spying on us.”
“No one here would spy,” Gabby said, but as soon as the words were out of her mouth a sudden look of understanding appeared on her face, and for just an instant she glanced at Isaiah.
If Birdman caught it, he didn’t react.
“We need information,” he continued, gesturing to the cloth maps. “We’re going to talk to everyone, but we’re going to start with you.”
Gabby protested again, and Birdman ignored her.
“Tell me what happened after the fence,” Birdman ordered.
There was a pause for a moment, and then Skiver spoke. He pointed at me and Becky. “After they abandoned us, there was—”
“We did not abandon you,” I snapped.
“Ran away when people started dying?” he said. “What do you call that?”
“We were trying to get help,” I said, anger boiling up inside of me.
“That was days ago,” he said. “And you’ve made it all the way here? What is that? A quarter mile a day? So you’ll make it to the highway sometime next summer?”
“We had to stop,” I said, and gestured to Becky’s arm. “She was going to die.”
“Going to die?” Skiver said, almost laughing. “Do you know how many people died at the fence? Do you know how many died back at the school?” He turned to Gabby. “Show him what they did to you.”
Gabby was obviously uncomfortable.
“Show them,” Skiver screamed, his eyes crazed, and grabbed at her shirt.
She pulled away and shot us all a dark look. Slowly, she pulled up her shirt to show us her stomach, wrapped completely in white gauze. “I don’t know what they did,” she said. “I was in surgery longer than all the others, even longer than Curtis.”
“Artificial organs,” Isaiah said, speaking for the first time.
Gabby lowered her shirt and turned her face away from us.
“She was the worst of them,” Isaiah said, harsh judgment in his eyes as he stared back at me. “The worst of the survivors. The students who helped her said they could see she was going to die—it doesn’t take a doctor to recognize torn intestines and mangled organs.”
“I’m okay,” she said, but her words seemed to enrage Isaiah.
“You could have died, like the others. Like Oakland, and Hector, and Rosa. And for what? So that Benson Fisher could get to this town.” He pointed at me, his hand shaking with anger. “This is your fault. You stirred everyone up. You got them mad. You led them to the fence.”
I wanted to stand up and break his jaw.
But I couldn’t. It was all true. They were dead, and it was because of me.
“Stop it, Isaiah,” Becky said, her voice stronger than it had been since we’d left the school.
“I tried to stop you,” he continued, ignoring her. “I tried to make you understand what we needed to do to survive, but you just couldn’t let it go. You had to be a tough guy and fight and run, and look what it got you.
“And you,” he continued, turning to Becky, a cruel smile creeping onto his tired face. “You knew what happened to people who run. Don’t you think that people followed Benson because they saw you join him? People trusted you, Becky, and you led them to their deaths.”
She stood, and I thought for a moment she was going to storm out. Her chest rose and fell with painful, angry breaths.
Isaiah grinned. He opened his mouth to speak, but she didn’t let him.
“You’re wrong,” she said. Her voice was quiet but firm, and it rose with intensity as she spoke. “Every single person who followed you had a death sentence the moment they joined the Society. If they’d listened to you, they’d sit in that school until they died or got hauled here. And then they’d sit here until they died or got hauled somewhere else. People got killed during the escape, but at least they died fighting.”
He barked back, spreading his arms wide. “Are you seriously saying that everyone in this room would be better off dead?”
“Everyone there knew what they were getting themselves into,” she yelled. “They went willingly.”
“They thought he”—Isaiah jabbed a finger at me—“had a plan.”
Gabby was on her feet now, her hand clutching her stomach as she shouted. There were calls from the windows, too, from behind the curtains, and more bodies pressed in at the door. Becky’s face was pained and straining, but she was closer to Isaiah now, her voice drowned out by the chaos.
I stood and reached for her arm, but she ignored me and kept on yelling.
Birdman clapped his hands and called the room to order. No one paid any attention. It was only then that I noticed that the other leaders—Harvard, Mouse, and Shelly—were quietly staying out of things.
Birdman stomped his feet and clapped his hands once more. “Quiet,” he bellowed.
Becky pulled away from me and slapped Isaiah. For a moment he reeled back, only to come up fighting. He threw a punch and I stepped in front of it, his fist deflecting off my shoulder.
There was a tremendous crash.
“Shut up,” Birdman yelled again, standing over a long wooden bench he’d just toppled. “Shut the hell up, all of you.”
I wanted to hit Isaiah—just one punch to punish him for everything he’d done. But it wouldn’t be enough. It couldn’t ever be enough.
Birdman seethed. Isaiah glared back, his face reddening from the slap.
“You were the big man at the school,” Birdman said, motionless.
Isaiah was standing firm, but silent.
“I don’t know if you’ve figured out how this place works. But we can see what’s going on inside people’s heads.” He reached out with one arm and touched Shelly’s hair. She shook his hand away. “Shelly was part of your gang. Every time her dupe saw something important over there, Shelly saw it here.”
Isaiah’s voice shook. “I kept the peace.”
Someone at a window swore, and Mouse laughed. Shelly looked uncomfortable, like she didn’t want to be mentioned—or even to be in the room.
Birdman bent and whispered something to Harvard, who nodded and pushed his way out the door.
“You kept the peace,” Birdman said, crossing his muscular arms and taking a step toward Isaiah.
“If you saw what was going on then you know about the war,” Isaiah said. “I led the truce. I fought for peace.”
Skiver scoffed and started to speak, but Birdman gestured for him to be quiet. The wave of his hand was hardly noticeable, but there was something about it so menacing and powerful that the color drained from Skiver’s face.
“I think the key word there,” Birdman said, “is that you fought for peace. You and your boys killed people until the rest were too afraid to fight anymore. That’s peace?”
“I didn’t—” Isaiah said, and then stammered. He broke eye contact with Birdman, and his eyes shot all around the room looking for help. All he found was anger and fear.
“We saw what happened,” Birdman said, taking another step toward Isaiah. “We know who you talked to. We know the orders you gave.”
“I was stopping the war.”
Birdman was now directly in front of Isaiah, inches from his face. Harvard appeared at the door, pulling Jane by the arm.
My stomach dropped. I guessed what was coming next.
She resisted Harvard, straining against his tight grasp, but she didn’t fight him. She must have known there was no way to stop it.
Birdman broke into a fake smile. “Hey! Jane’s here. Isaiah, you remember Jane, right?”
Isaiah’s head hung down, his face to the floor.
“Look at her,” Birdman said.
Jane’s eyes met mine for an instant.
“Look at her!” Birdman grabbed Isaiah’s face with one hand, and his shoulder with the other. Isaiah fell to his knees and stared, terrified, up at Jane.
No one moved.
Birdman’s voice was quiet again. “Dylan lived here until a couple days ago. He told us how you pulled him aside at the dance, after Jane made a toast to Lily. He told us what you ordered him and Laura to do.”
Isaiah moaned—weak and soft, like an animal.
“Laura’s already been on trial. She’s not here right now, because she’s spent the last few weeks in chains. And she was only the pawn. Now we have the king.”
Birdman’s mouth was inches from Isaiah’s ear, but I could hear every word in the dead silence of the room.
And now Birdman was grabbing Jane, shoving her down so she was eye level with Isaiah.
I stepped forward and Harvard shot me a look of frightened caution.
“Say you’re sorry,” Birdman said, a hand on each of their shoulders as he spit at Isaiah. “Tell her what you ordered, you damn murdering bastard, and look her in the eye and tell her you’re sorry.”
Jane pulled away, but Birdman’s grip was iron. She winced as his fingers dug deeper.
“Birdman,” I said. The name came out in a dry whisper.
“Say it,” Birdman barked. “Tell her.”
Harvard motioned for me to step back, but I couldn’t. This wasn’t right. It wasn’t even clear who Birdman was punishing anymore—Isaiah or Jane.
“Let her up,” I said.
Jane’s eyes met mine again, and there was nothing but fear in them.
And then they were both thrown to the ground and Birdman was in my face, screaming.
“Hey,” I said, backing up, hands raised. “I’m not looking for a fight.”
“You’re a pansy-ass coward,” he yelled. “You use your traitor girlfriend as an excuse to hide in a hole.”
Becky pulled on my arm. “Don’t.”
Birdman threw his arm back and pointed at Isaiah, who was slowly picking himself up off the floor. “She worked for him! For a year! Because she was a coward, just like you.”
Becky jumped in between us. “Stop it! Yes, I was scared.”
She looked me in the eye, her expression hurt and desperate. “I was scared. I’m still scared.”
We stared at each other. She hadn’t done it because she was scared—she’d done it because, unlike everyone else at that school, she was genuinely concerned about other people. She didn’t want anyone to get hurt. She’d seen too much death. It wasn’t fear that made her join the Society. It was courage.
I should have said that, but Birdman was looking at me over her shoulder, derision in his eyes. All I wanted to do was fight.
I took a step to get around Becky, and Birdman shoved her toward me.
She screamed, first from fear and then from pain as I caught her, and her injured arm slammed into my chest.
“You can go to hell,” I shouted over her shoulder, cradling her shaking body. She gasped, gulping at the air as she fought the pain.
He turned away. “Back to business.”
Birdman slumped down into his chair and gestured toward the door. Harvard hurried away.
“Mouse,” Birdman ordered, tossing her a roll of cloth that had been lying beside his chair. “Tell the man what he’s won.”
Isaiah stood alone against the wall. Jane was gone—slipped out of the room when I wasn’t watching. Shelly was gone, too.
Mouse smiled and took a long breath. Whatever she was about to say, she took great pleasure in it. The cloth was laid out on her lap, but she wasn’t reading from it. She knew what was there without looking.
“Isaiah. You ran the Society for a year. Before that, you led the most brutal gang at the school.”
“Shut up and listen,” Birdman whispered, sharp and cold.
“We know about four murders,” Mouse continued. “Three during the war, and Jane.”
“Jane didn’t die,” Isaiah said. “She was a robot.”
Birdman leaned forward, but his voice was steady and controlled. “Shut your damn mouth or I’m going to rip your tongue out.”
“She didn’t …” Isaiah’s voice trailed off.
Mouse continued, tapping the cloth. “Four that we know of, but several murders weren’t accounted for. There are also those you sent to detention.”
She paused, like she was waiting for him to protest, but he didn’t. He could feel what was coming.
I was worried that I knew what was coming. They couldn’t do this.
Mouse smiled at him—a twisted, evil smile, like she was slowly pulling the wings off a fly. “Do you need me to give you that number, or do you remember them?”
Isaiah’s face was totally white now, and he looked younger than he was, and thin and fragile. He wasn’t arguing; he was pleading. “What was I supposed to do? We had the security contract.”
“Eight,” Mouse said. “You sent eight to detention.”
“But they got sent here, right? They didn’t die in detention.”
Harvard reappeared at the door. “They don’t all die, no,” he said. “Only two of them did. They must have fought back, or the implant didn’t take, or—”
Mouse sneered. “You didn’t have any idea what happened in detention, and you didn’t care—death, torture, whatever. You just did what Maxfield told you to do.”
Birdman motioned for them both to be quiet, and then he stood.
“Isaiah,” he said. “I’m not you. I don’t lead a gang. I’m not working for the school, and I don’t have any contracts to fill. Instead, I run this fort, and I keep my people safe.”
Tears began to flow down Isaiah’s face. “Just let me go.”
Mouse laughed again, and Birdman smiled. “That’s actually exactly what I had in mind.”
Becky shuddered. We couldn’t do anything but watch.
“So,” Birdman said, motioning to Harvard. “You can live down at the Greens, and I’ll see you in the commissary, and we can tell stories about the good old days.”
Isaiah almost looked like he believed it.
“Even better,” Birdman said, looking toward the door. “I have a peace offering.” A few more people started filing into the room. I knew two of them. Walnut and Jelly.
Isaiah began to convulse, sobbing loudly and falling to his knees.
“I’ve arranged an escort for you,” Birdman said.
Walnut and Jelly had been sent to detention. I’d watched Walnut dragged on his back down the floor of the school, Isaiah leading the procession of attackers. The six of them standing in the room looked like they were eager for payback.
“You can’t do this,” I said.
“Do what?” Birdman asked innocently.
People at the windows began shouting, some calling for Isaiah’s blood and others screaming for mercy.
“Mouse,” I said. “Aren’t you better than this?”
She smiled and raised her hands. “I’m not doing anything.”
“Come on,” I protested. “Walnut—you can’t.”
He stared back at me from across the room. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to.
“Isaiah,” Becky said, tears on her face. “I’m sorry.”
He looked at her. There was no snide comment. No “I hope you’re happy.” No accusations of hypocrisy. Only fear.
Walnut stepped forward, one of the hammers from the work site tight in his fist. He stared down at Isaiah.
“You gonna walk, or do we need to carry you?”
Becky and I were the only ones left in the room, and neither of us spoke. Screams and laughter echoed around the heavy adobe walls, and arms reached through the narrow windows as those outside fought to get in. Mouse and Harvard had taken the lanterns with them when they’d gone, leaving the two of us in darkness.
I didn’t want to go outside. I couldn’t stop them, and I didn’t want to watch anyone—even Isaiah—being beaten to death.
Becky’s jaw was clamped shut, her teeth gritted against the pain in her arm.
Someone called from a window, “Open the fort! They’re killing him.”
“There’s nothing I can do,” I said, too quiet for them to hear. There were too many of them. They were armed.
“Benson!” another voice shouted. “Help him!”
“I can’t!” I shouted, standing up now. “There’s nothing I can do.”
Something clattered across the floor. It was too dark to see what.
Becky grabbed my leg, and I crouched back down next to her. Blood was oozing through her shirt. Her arm had been healing rapidly, but her fall had reinjured the muscle.
She fought against the pain. “We have to try.”
Something else was flung into the room, smacking into the far adobe wall and knocking plaster to the floor.
I put my arm around her shoulders to coax her up, but Becky didn’t budge. It wasn’t stubbornness—it was pain.
“Come on,” I said.
“I’m okay,” she said, more to herself than to me. “I’ll be okay.”
The noise at the windows subsided for a moment, and then I heard the yells and grunts of a fight. The entire town had exploded. Those still loyal to the Society were fighting to save Isaiah, while those who had hated him were eager to see justice done. And some, it seemed, were just going crazy—settling old scores and letting the madness of the mob sweep over them.
Something crashed into the fort wall, shattering.
“We have to go,” I said, pulling Becky’s good arm over my shoulders and lifting her to her feet. She didn’t fight it this time. I helped her put her oversize coat back on.
When we stepped onto the boardwalk, I froze.
The only light in the courtyard came from a dying campfire, sputtering red and yellow across frozen ground. A dark figure lay on the earth, next to the well. His leg moved, so I knew he was alive. A dozen people stood around him, laughing and jeering.
Someone stepped forward and kicked. Isaiah’s back slammed into the stones of the well and he screamed.
I looked up and down the boardwalk, searching for help, but no one was there—just closed doors. Everyone was hiding or, worse yet, pretending to not know what was going on.
Another guy—someone tall and heavyset—jumped and landed with both feet on Isaiah’s chest, and three more started kicking.
I’d seen this before, on the streets of Pittsburgh, when one gang found a lone enemy late at night in the wrong place.
“Benson.” The word sounded almost like a gasp, like a cry. She wasn’t trying to get me to help him now—there was nothing we could do, and we both knew it.
I had to get us out of there.
I stepped out onto the boardwalk and slid along the wall, trying to stay in the shadows as I inched us closer and closer to the gate. It would be guarded—it always was—but we had to leave.
“This is for Cookie.” We were halfway across the courtyard from them, but I could hear the crack. I wasn’t watching—my eyes were on the boards below me, trying not to make a sound—but Becky must have been.
“They killed him,” she whispered. “They killed him.”
I didn’t look up. The boards were old and broken, and a misstep would mean noise and attention. I crept farther, remembering everything I’d been taught back at the school playing paintball—my heel touching first and then rolling my foot forward slowly, walking sideways and crossing my legs instead of walking forward. It was harder for Becky—she wasn’t steady on her feet, and I was trying to keep her from falling.
The front door was getting close. I didn’t know where we could go—Becky probably couldn’t run, and I didn’t know of anywhere else to hide than the Basement. We could go to the barn for now, or maybe get help from the Greens or some of the V’s who’d just shown up. It wasn’t much, but it was our best shot.
At least we had our coats.
I didn’t stop to look. I hurried to the door.
“They’re coming,” Becky whispered.
I ran, stumbling across the uneven boards.
The voices were louder, close behind us. “Where do you think you’re going?”
I turned the corner to see Mouse at the door, a small lantern hanging on the wall beside her. A box cutter was in her hand, the blackened blade extended.
“Let us go,” I said, but before she could answer we were surrounded.
“You were Society, too,” said the guy in the front. I didn’t know him, though I’d seen him in the fort before. Isaiah must have sent him to detention before I’d gotten to the school.
“Leave her alone,” I said.
“Like she left us alone?” A chain was hanging from his hands.
“I didn’t do security,” Becky said with a wheeze. She was standing on her own, but bent slightly at the waist, and cradling her bad arm with her good one.
“You had the contract,” another said. “You joined the Society even though you knew what they were doing.”
Walnut took a step toward us. His hammer was wet with blood.
My legs felt weak. I hoped they couldn’t see my hands shaking.
“Leave her alone,” I said again. There was no threat in my voice anymore—I couldn’t fight them, not all of them, not unarmed.
Someone pushed through the group, and as he moved into the light I could see his face. Skiver.
“You’re with these guys?” I asked. “You’re a jackass, Skiver, but you’re not a murderer.”
He smiled. “You’ve been asking for it for a long time, Fisher.”
Without waiting, he threw a punch. I couldn’t move—I had Becky next to me and Mouse behind me—and the best I could do was try to deflect it. His fist skittered up my arm and into my shoulder, and I punched back. I hit his chest, but weakly.
Becky shouted something, and the rest of the guys poured over us. I fought as hands and arms tried to wrap around me, tried to hold me down. I elbowed a guy in the neck, and kicked another in the knee—hard—but it was like fighting a tidal wave.
Bright lights exploded in my head as someone hit me, and something got me in the stomach—I don’t know whether it was a fist or a foot, but it felt like a freight train and I doubled over, falling to my knees. I waited for the next blow—the hammer, or the chain, or whatever else. But it didn’t come.
“Pick him up,” someone shouted, and an arm instantly snaked around my neck, pulling me to my feet and blocking my air.
The group was standing back a little, a small circle formed in the tiny alcove in front of the gate. Becky was on the ground, struggling to sit up. Skiver stood over her.
“Hi, Becky,” he said, a low giggle escaping his lips. The laugh rippled back across the group.
I fought against whoever was holding me, kicking backward, my feet searching for his knees, but I was losing air.
Skiver bent down, closer to her. “Re-bec-ca.”
I reached back, uselessly trying to grab my captor’s face, trying to gouge his eyes. I couldn’t.
“Always so innocent,” Skiver said. “Always telling everyone else what to do.”
Becky pushed her back to the wall and gingerly stood.
Calmly, Skiver reached to her arm and squeezed her wound. She shrieked and slid back down the wall.
“Stop,” I tried to say, but I couldn’t force out the air. I felt my body growing weak.
Skiver touched Becky’s face, and with an anguished scream she brought her knee up into his crotch. The mob howled in cruel amusement as Skiver reeled back. But it was only a moment, and he was on top of her, grabbing her by the neck and shrieking that she’d regret it.
And suddenly he was silent.
Mouse had stepped from the shadow by the door, her box cutter under his chin.
“You’re done,” she said. “Get back.”
Skiver was motionless, his body frozen as his eyes darted from Becky’s face up to Mouse’s.
Mouse’s words were quiet, but sharp and clear. “You get off her, or I gut you like a fish.”
Slowly, carefully, he crawled backward. Mouse kept the razor tight against his skin until he was out of reach of Becky.
Becky’s eyes were locked on mine, her face flushed and tearstained as she scrambled along the base of the wall toward the gate.
“You’re done,” Mouse said again, fearlessly staring down a dozen guys with only the small box cutter. She stepped back to the gate and pulled a rope. The warning bell clanged once, then twice. She pointed at me. “Let him down.”
There was a pause, and then the arm around my neck released and I collapsed to the ground, sucking at the air. My lungs burned, and as I tried to move over to Becky I almost blacked out and had to stop.
She rang the bell again. “Birdman! Get out here!”
I heard the heavy clunk of the door being unlocked, the squeal of rusty metal as Mouse pushed it halfway open.
“What the hell is going on here?” It was Birdman’s voice, somewhere behind all the guys.
We didn’t stay. Regaining my composure, I helped Becky to her feet.
She touched Mouse’s arm as we stepped out the door. “Thank you.”
Mouse just shook her head without meeting our eyes, and then motioned for us to leave.
The fights outside were over. A few groups mingled together, picking one another up and wandering back to the Greens. As we walked away, three Society guys made a dash for the gate, likely to get inside and save their leader. I ignored them.
“Are you okay?” I asked her, crossing the road and walking slowly out into the field.
Becky nodded. “You?”
“I’m fine,” I said. I stopped and pulled her scarf up over her mouth and nose. She stared back at me, her eyes showing more pain than she’d ever admit to.
I covered my face, too, and then steered us toward the stream. In a moment we were walking beside it, in the black shadows of the tangled trees.
“You’re going to get better,” I said.
“Of course,” she said, and it sounded like she meant it. She was good at lying.
I looked back at the fort, now maybe a football field away. The gate was hanging open. I didn’t know whether people had gone in or come out. No one was there.
Except … there was a kid standing on the roof, half-lit by the single small lantern. There was no way he could see us—it was too far, and it was too dark.
I thought it was Mason. I couldn’t tell.
“Where are we going?” Becky asked. She was moving so slow it could hardly be called walking.
“The forest,” I said. “They can’t get us out there. The implant won’t let them.”
“They can’t, but Iceman can,” she said.
I stopped at the stream and picked her up. I finally felt like I had the strength to not pass out and drop her, and keeping her dry seemed like the least I could do.
Her heavy coat was deceptive—she didn’t weigh much at all, maybe even less than when we got to the town.
“Let’s go to Shelly,” Becky said.
“Skiver—all those guys—they’ll find us.”
“What choice do we have?”
I kept walking, past the commissary and the washroom, past the barracks, and stopped at the work site. “Can you walk?”
She smiled. “I’m not an invalid.”
I set her down, and she did her best to hide the wince as she slipped out of my arms. I stepped into the construction site and tore a heavy sheet of plastic off a pallet of siding.
“Where are we going?”
“You grew up on a ranch,” I said, directing her down toward the end of the road. “I’m going to ask you to tolerate a stinky night.”
She shook her head. “Don’t they check the barn? It seems too obvious.”
I stopped and pointed at the tiny red structure beside the road. “I’ve never seen anyone check the chicken coops.”
Becky stared for a moment, then laughed and leaned into me. “If I get bird flu, I’m blaming you.”
The coop wasn’t much smaller than the Basement. The birds were sleeping and hardly made a sound as I laid the heavy plastic on the floor and helped Becky down. I folded the plastic back over her like a taco, and then lay next to her, my arms around her to keep her warm. I listened to her breathing as she fell asleep.
The night was silent, and I strained at that silence, terrified of hearing a sound. A deer or a raccoon or another robot could stumble upon us while we slept, and there would be nothing I could do. We knew the chickens and cows were real—Birdman checked the cows the same way he checked the rest of us, and the chickens laid real eggs, and Jane said they’d occasionally cook one.
There wasn’t much I could do if someone found us anyway. I had no weapons. Becky still carried Ms. Vaughn’s Taser in the pocket of her coat, but it had already been fired and couldn’t help us anymore. The hatchet I’d used on Iceman was back up in the Basement.
On the other hand, maybe Maxfield knew exactly where we were, and how sick Becky was, and they didn’t care. None of the dupes were active anymore, so it wasn’t like there was a high demand for teenagers with implants in their heads. Maybe they were waiting for us to kill ourselves here in the town before they started anything new.
I was cold. My face stung. Frostbite was a real possibility, and I didn’t know what to do to stop it. I fiddled with the hood of Becky’s coat, pressing it down over her face as much as I could. It would have to do.
When the sun finally started to come up, I bent over Becky and checked her face, and I was relieved to see there was no frostbite. Her nose, mouth, and chin looked sunburned—the skin rough and splotched with red—and her lips were chapped and cracked, but it could have been a lot worse.
I felt some of the sting of frost burn on my face, but I had been better off than Becky. I was able to nestle my face into the back of her hood while she slept.
There was a tiny tap on the plywood door of the coop.
“Fish,” the voice said again. “It’s me. Mason.”
Slowly I peeked out the door. Mason was crouched beside the coop. He was alone.
“Hey,” I said, not moving.
I didn’t like that he knew where we were, even if this was all perfectly innocent. If Mason had seen us, who else had?
“Got a minute?” he asked.
He was standing by himself, his coat off, and wearing only a flannel shirt, the sleeves rolled up. He looked tired.
“What’s up?” I asked as I stepped out of the coop and scanned the tree line.
“I know what they did last night,” he said. “It’s not right, man.”
I thought for a moment. “Which of the not-right things do you mean? There were a lot.”
“I mean about the fight,” he said. He paused, looking past me, and then off toward the horizon and the rising sun. “Is she okay?”
“I’m sorry, Fish.”
I stared back at him, but didn’t say anything.
“It’s not right,” he said again.
Becky stirred, moving in her sleep and softly moaning at the pain in her arm. I closed the door and motioned for him to keep his voice down.
Mason was older than his dupe had looked. A little stockier, and he needed a shave. So did I.
“I don’t know what happened,” he said, still staring at the coop like he could see Becky through the wood. “At the fence.”
I shook my head. “We don’t need to talk about it.” I wasn’t trying to spare his feelings—I just didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t want to hate him, but I did.
“I need to know,” Mason said, finally looking at me. “What did I do?”
“Nothing,” I said. “You didn’t do anything.”
“What did my dupe do?”
I ran my hands over my face and looked up at the brightening sky.
“You hit her,” I said. “That’s it. You chased us, and you hit her, and she fell.”
“Hitting someone doesn’t make them that sick.”
“What do you care?” I said, suddenly angry. I took another step toward him. “What’s it to you? You popped. The dupe wasn’t taking orders from you.”
“I care because it’s important,” he said. “I know what she … what she means to you.”
I raised an eyebrow. I didn’t even know what she meant to me. “Really? And what is that?”
Mason exhaled, frustrated. “What’s your problem?”
“My problem? Someone got murdered last night, and then they tried to … Well, we’re prisoners here, and Becky’s sick, and you want to stand around and talk about feelings. You know what she means to me? She told me that she trusted me. No one trusts me—no one should, as you can see by all the people who got killed at the fence, and the next day, and last night, and probably tomorrow.”
He started to speak, but I cut him off.
“Becky trusted me to get everyone out of the school, and now look at her. I need to make good on that trust. That’s what she means to me. And I don’t need you to come around here trying to apologize or whatever it is you’re doing.”
“But it’s my fault,” he said. “If she hadn’t gotten hurt, you would have escaped.”
I shook my head and turned back to the coop. “Too late for that.”
“No,” he said. “It’s not too late.”
I wanted to crawl back under that plastic and put my arms around her and wish we were somewhere else.
“They’ll come take Isaiah’s body,” he said, speaking with more urgency. “They always do when someone dies, because they want the implant back.”
I was going to have to hide—going to have to find a better place for Becky to recover. But I could tell that wasn’t what Mason was thinking about.
“I’m going to help you get out,” he said.
“Yes, really. Last night those guys left the body out in the road, but I moved it. It’s in the stream.”
I glanced over at the ford, but we were too far away to see anything. “Why?”
He spoke nervously, but with a glimmer of enthusiasm. Whatever he’d done, he was proud. “It’s a trap. I got the idea about it the day you got here and Harvard hauled you into the forest. This is the first time we’ve had the bait to make it work.”
“What did you do?”
“The body’s in the stream, under some brush that overhangs the water. Iceman’s going to have to climb in, jostle those branches. I ran some cables from the washroom lights, frayed them. I worked on it all night. He fights through the branches, the cable falls into the water, he’s toast.”
“He’s a robot, right? I bet he can still be electrocuted. Pop some circuits.”
I paused and then gave a tired smile. “That’s how we got you. Your dupe, I mean. Becky hit you with a Taser.”
Mason looked uncomfortable, but laughed. “Then it works.”
“What good does it do to fry him, though?” I asked. “There are more guards than him.”
“He comes in the truck,” Mason said. “He gets zapped; you take the truck and burn rubber to the highway.”
I paused. It wasn’t a bad plan. I peered off where the dirt road disappeared down into the stream. “Do we know where that road goes?”
“It has to connect somewhere,” he said. “It’s not like they built the truck here. Listen, it’s getting light and he could come anytime.”
“Becky can’t go,” I said. “She couldn’t get to the truck fast enough.”
“I’ll take care of her here,” Mason said. “We’ll put her back in the Basement.”
I felt panic boiling up inside of me. “I don’t trust Birdman. Not anymore.”
“I have to take care of her,” I insisted.
“I’ll do it,” he said. “Now come on. I’ve got to get away from here so I’m not disabled right next to her.”
He started walking backward down the road to the stream.
This was too much, too soon. I wasn’t ready. I couldn’t go without Becky.
“Do they have any other trucks?”
“Do they have any other trucks?” I repeated. “How long will it take for backup to get here?”
He nodded. “I’ve seen three. There’s the flatbed they brought the lumber on, and two pickups, one white and one red. And we know there’re at least four four-wheelers.”
“So I could be driving back straight toward them, and they’ll have two trucks. They could chase me, or block the road.”
Mason shrugged. “You’ll have to be better than them.”
I looked at the road again. I’d bounced through foster care with poor families all my life; aside from driver’s ed, I could probably count the number of times I’d driven a car on one hand. I’d never driven a truck.
“Do you know if it’s a stick?”
He shook his head. “Don’t tell me you can’t drive.”
“I can drive a little.”
“You have to do this.”
We were halfway down the road, and I turned to look at the coop. Maybe I could hide there with her and get her to the truck. But how would I know when Iceman got zapped? And the bigger problem: what if he parked on the wrong side of the stream? I’d have to pass him, through the stream, to get to the truck.
Maybe I could bring Becky with me now, across the field, and we could hide in the fort and wait.
The warning bell rang, breaking the early morning silence of the town.
We were running out of time.
I turned back to Mason, but he was nowhere to be seen. He couldn’t have made it all the way back to the fort, and he couldn’t be in the trees.
No, he was on the ground, face-first in the dirt.
Dread seized my whole body, pain running through my chest like a heart attack. I turned and ran.
They were coming. I could hear the truck now, its old unmaintained engine rattling through the trees.
Becky’s head was sticking out the low coop door, watching me in confusion. She waved her arms frantically, urging me to go faster.
I stumbled with almost every step, tripping on the uneven ground, the knots of grass. I felt like the adrenaline and panic coursing through my veins were making me drunk, like I didn’t know how to run anymore.
And then I was inside, and Becky and I dropped to the floor, collapsing onto the plastic.
I scrambled to look at the road, the coop entrance only open a crack.
I couldn’t see anything, but I could hear the engine. It sounded like it had stopped on the other side of the stream.
Becky pushed the door open.
“Wait,” I said, grabbing her coat.
“Mason set a trap,” I said.
She started to get up. “I know. I was listening.”
“Where are you going?”
“To the truck,” she said, her words punctuated with a wheeze.
“We don’t know if the trap worked.”
“There’s only one way to find out.”
“But what if it didn’t?”
She looked horrible—her face burned by cold, her skin pale and sickly, dark circles under her eyes.
“We have to go now,” she said. “Before someone else comes.”
I stammered, trying to find a way to say no. I just wanted to stay here, for her to get better—completely healthy—before risking anyone’s life again.
“You can’t run.”
“I’m not as bad as you think. And you can help me.”
I looked back at the empty trees. Was the trap going to work? Would we just meet him face-to-face at the stream?
“Bense,” she said, “we have to go.”
“But …” We were going to die. She was going to die.
“We don’t have time.”
“I can’t drive a stick.”
Becky’s cracked lips turned up in a grin. “Is that all? Do I have to do everything?”
She took my hand and coaxed me up, walking unsteadily. “You do?”
She squeezed my hand. “I told you. I grew up on a ranch. I’ve been driving old trucks since I was eleven.”
I took a deep breath, and then pulled her good arm over my shoulders. We couldn’t run, but we strode out onto the road, brazenly into the open.
I was moving as fast as I could, but it didn’t feel like enough. It was taking too long, and the seconds were ticking away. We weren’t going to make it.
I hedged my bets, leaving the road and heading for a thicker cluster of brush south of the ford.
“Where are you going?”
“He’ll be heading for the ford,” I said. “That’s where the trap is set. I want to cross the stream somewhere else in case it doesn’t work.”
Becky nodded and pulled her arm away from me. “I can walk by myself. It’ll be faster.”
“I can carry you faster.”
She took a breath to say something, but didn’t.
There was still no sign of anything. I’d expected to hear a big electric crackle, or a pop, or anything. Maybe the trap didn’t work—the wires didn’t fall in the water. Or maybe they did, and he was built to resist electric shock. Or there was too much water and the electricity dispersed and didn’t incapacitate him.
“Go without me,” she said.
“No.” We were almost at the stream.
“You don’t have to protect—”
“Yes, I do,” I said sharply. If she’d heard me talking to Mason about his plan, she’d heard me talking about her.
Her fingers dug into my shoulder. “Down!”
I was falling to my knees before she’d even said it. Iceman was on the road.
He wasn’t looking at us—he was glaring down the road toward the barracks. He was dripping wet, and pissed off.
Becky was trying to pull herself with one hand toward the cover of the stream. With Iceman facing the other way, I risked it and jumped to a crouch. I grabbed the shoulder of her coat and pulled her into the bushes.
Without talking, we crawled farther, sliding down the stream bank to hide. We were still fifty yards of twisting river from the ford—from where Isaiah’s body was. This felt safe. Relatively.
“Come to the fort!” Iceman bellowed, his voice unnaturally loud.
I darted across the stream, splashing through the icy water that was deeper here, and peered through the bushes at the fort. He was back on the fort side now, walking past his white pickup. We were too late. He was still closer to the truck than I was, and he had to be faster than me anyway.
Becky caught up with me just as a crack broke through the morning silence like a gunshot.
Iceman had punched through the old wood of the fort’s heavy door like it was glass. He reached between the shattered boards and unlatched it.
“This isn’t good,” Becky breathed.
“We need to get out of here,” I said.
She looked back upstream, toward the truck.
“We don’t have time,” I said.
“I know,” she snapped.
Becky stood, hunched over in what was probably just as much pain as it was stealth.
“Here,” I said, reaching for her arm. “Let me carry you.”
“I’m fine.” She stepped from the bank into the stream, the frigid water rushing over her shoes and up to her calves. She paused to steady herself, and I reached for her again.
“Stop it,” Becky said, her voice firm. “I’m fine.”
I turned back to look at the fort. The gate was hanging open, and I heard the sound of something else breaking.
Becky was moving downstream, heading for the forest in short, unsteady steps. Our clothes weren’t camouflage, but they were dark and we were still in the early morning shadows. Iceman had other things on his mind, too, but I had no idea how that would affect a robot. Could he get distracted?
The water was numbing my feet, but there was no other way to get back to the forest without climbing the bank and leaving the cover of the brush.
Becky moved slowly, constantly stopping to keep from slipping. She could only stretch out one arm for balance, and I heard her heavy breathing. The fast recovery she’d seemed to be making after Jane’s help had reversed in the last twelve hours.
“Come to the fort!”
We both jumped, and she grabbed my shirt so she wouldn’t fall. I looked back, but couldn’t see anything—there was too much brush in the way.
“Come to the fort right now,” the metallic voice bellowed again, sounding almost like a bullhorn, but deeper and louder. “Or I will fry your brains one by one.”
Becky stepped back to the bank and knelt in a stand of scrubby willows.
“They’re not looking for us,” I whispered, dropping to my knees and crawling up the frozen muddy bank. He had to be talking about their implants.
She tried to stand, using the thin willow branches as support, but one snapped. We both fell, lying as flat against the earth as we could.
I couldn’t see anything—not the field, or the fort, or Becky, or anything. The only sound was the burbling of the stream behind me. But I didn’t dare move. My heart was pounding, thumping in my chest like a bass drum.
“Gather in front,” the voice ordered, its deep, inhumanly loud sound seeming to rumble around the trees and town for several seconds before dissipating.
I rolled onto my side, and I could see Becky again. She was farther down the bank, kneeling and hunched over. She was cradling her bad arm with her good one, but the look on her face was one of determination, not pain.
I mouthed the words keep going to her, and motioned for her to head for the forest. She nodded, but it didn’t look like she agreed with me.
Two cottonwoods grew ten feet upstream, their trunks almost touching at the bases. I slid back down the bank and crawled toward them. Crouching, I could see through the two-inch gap between them, my body still hidden almost completely.
Everyone—there had to be almost eighty with the new kids—was standing in the field. They were in groups, huddled together for warmth. Almost no one wore a coat, and one guy didn’t even have a shirt. They’d been asleep when Iceman had come.
Mason was there, in the back. He looked like he was trying to stay out of sight, but Iceman must have suspected him. He’d been the only student outdoors.
Iceman stood by the gate, his back to the wall of the fort. I couldn’t tell whether he’d been hurt by the trap. His clothes dripped and stuck to his body, but there were no obvious burn marks or mechanical problems. He looked as cold and evil as ever. And he was angry.
“We have exactly two rules for you,” he said. He wasn’t shouting, but his voice must have carried for half a mile. It was like he was talking into a microphone. “First, you’re supposed to stay out of trouble. We haven’t felt like it was important to elaborate on this order, because in the past you’ve all done a pretty decent job of this. It’s been almost three months since one of your suicidal escape attempts, and it seemed like you’d managed to keep the peace.”
I heard Becky moving toward me. I wasn’t surprised that she’d ignored me and come back.
“We’re constantly impressed by the new ways you idiots find of killing each other,” Iceman continued. He was hardly moving—no hand gestures or even big facial expressions.
“Can I see?” Becky whispered, and I moved to let her peek through the trees.
“It’s this new batch,” he continued. “All you who tried to escape at the school. We worried that bringing too many at once was going to be a problem—you were too riled up after that disaster at the school. But I had sincerely hoped that your time in surgery would have let you cool down.”
Becky slid back against the tree.
“He’s not going to hurt them,” she said, though it sounded like she was trying to convince herself. She wasn’t looking at me, but staring straight ahead.
I peered through the trees again.
“You’re kids, and you don’t care about these things,” Iceman said. “But what we’ve just done was not easy. Thirty-three students who needed implants. A dozen more who needed lifesaving surgeries. We have limited resources.”
Someone shouted, “Screw you!”
Iceman stopped, scanning the crowd. “Who said that?”
No one made a sound.
He took a step toward them. “It would be better for you if someone answers my question.”
The crowd started to stir, a few murmurs and hushed words.
Iceman folded his arms. “Fine.”
The field erupted in screams as every student clutched his head and fell to the ground.
“We have to do something,” Becky said, her voice quavering. There was nothing controlled or brave or tough about the noise—no one was gritting her teeth and fighting the pain—it was pure, anguished shrieking.
The screams stopped as abruptly as they began, replaced with soft moans and sobs as the tortured people lay on the cold earth.
“When you’re ready to continue,” Iceman said, “please stand. I can wait.”
Becky looked at me. “Do you hear that?”
I turned back to the road. The students were slowly climbing to their feet, their faces red and tearstained. Some didn’t look like they were even going to bother.
“Get up,” Iceman said calmly. “I believe I’ve made it more than clear what happens when you disobey me.”
The other truck appeared—a red one, speckled with rust and mud—and stopped in front of the fort.
One by one everyone stood, many standing together, holding one another up. Those who were alone looked unsteady, swaying drunkenly as they tried to regain composure.
Iceman walked to the truck and talked to the driver for a moment. Then he strolled back to the group. “As I was saying, this is all difficult. We’re on a tight schedule, and frankly we don’t have time to come out here and stop you disgusting larvae from killing each other.”
The truck door opened and Ms. Vaughn stepped out. Her voice had the same amplified quality that Iceman’s did. A chill ran down my body as I heard her speak—the last time I had, my knife was at her throat and she was laughing at me.
I wondered whether this was the same Ms. Vaughn, or another android version of her.
“Now,” Iceman said, wiping his hands on his pants, “where were we? I believe I was talking about rules, and the first one was that you guys are not to cause trouble. That dead student there? That’s what I would call trouble. The attack on one of your guards two nights ago? Trouble.”
He scanned the crowd, waiting for a reaction, but no one stirred.
“We did surgery on that boy, and that takes time and resources, and you have all wasted that.”
Ms. Vaughn spoke. “Malcolm King, please come here.”
I didn’t know who that was, but the only person who moved was Birdman. He strode to the front with as much bravado as he could muster.
Iceman still spoke to the group, not to Birdman. “We’ve given you only two rules because we thought it was best. The lack of restrictions increased your morale, and it required less oversight. However, it seems we will need to micromanage a little further.”
He turned to Birdman. “You appear to be the de facto leader of this camp.”
Iceman faced the group again. “There are going to be changes. We don’t like your meetings and we don’t like your gangs and we don’t like your secrets. From now on, there are no clubs or cabals or gangs or cliques or factions. You now have a third rule, and that’s it: no more secrets. If we have to tear down every building in this complex and put you all in one big warehouse, we’ll do it.”
Birdman nodded again, a little more nervously.
Ms. Vaughn laughed. “Kid, what are you agreeing to? You were in charge when everything went to hell.”
Birdman dropped out of sight, but the gasps and screams made it obvious. They weren’t torturing him. Birdman was dead.
There was a shout, and the crowd split, like the parting of the Red Sea. Suddenly Mason was running from the back, screaming as he charged Iceman and Ms. Vaughn with a long kitchen knife.
They watched him come, not even turning to fully face him.
Mason fell ten feet in front of them. It was like he’d been shut off. He skidded on the hard mud, face-first and limp and dead.
“Oh …” Becky said, but couldn’t get out any more than that. They’d killed him, but it was worse than that. It was suicide. He knew what would happen—he had to know. He’d screamed, which warned them. He’d charged from the back of the group, not trying to sneak forward. He’d wanted to die.
Blood trickled out of his ear, dribbling in a dark thin line into the mud.
Becky turned and scooted back down the bank. I watched as Iceman and Ms. Vaughn cleaned up the mess, each slinging a dead teen over a shoulder as casually as if they were putting on a backpack to go to school. The two bodies were tossed into the back of Ms. Vaughn’s truck. Someone yelped and sobbed.
Ms. Vaughn drove away, leaving the field full of horrified students to stare at Iceman.
Iceman walked back to his truck and pulled a sledgehammer from the bed. All eyes were glued to him as he walked back to the fort’s gate and smashed the hinges off the wall. With every swing he shattered the wood, pulverized the adobe, and mangled the steel. The gate was broken, but more than broken—it couldn’t be hung again. The fort wouldn’t be safe anymore.
Not like it was safe before.
Without a word, Iceman dumped the sledgehammer back in the truck, hopped in, and drove off toward the barracks. I had no doubt he’d be doing the same thing to those dorms.
I turned to look at Becky. She was crouched next to the stream, her knees to her chest as her good hand dangled in the icy water.
“I think we’re safe,” I said.
She nodded, not looking up.
“I don’t think he knows we’re here.”
She nodded again.
Somewhere in the distance I heard the sharp crack of breaking wood. Smashing the doors was just symbolic for Iceman, but it was going to be awful for the people who had to live in those barracks.
“You cold?” I asked.
Becky sat back, tucking her hand into her coat pocket. She stared at the water for a moment and then looked at me. She was good at putting on an optimistic face, but there was no pretense here. Her eyes were hard and hurt.
“You should have run.”
I shook my head and looked away. “I couldn’t.”
“You should have left me in the coop.”
She could be as brave as she wanted, but I knew the truth. She was cold and sick and unprotected. If I’d failed, she’d have been on her own. If I’d succeeded in stealing the truck they’d know that I’d been in the town and they’d come back looking for Becky. I just couldn’t risk it either way.
The truck engine restarted in the distance. Iceman was leaving.
“Bense,” she said. “I heard what you said to Mason. I can take care of myself.”
I laughed, quiet and humorless, and looked at her. “Do you even remember what happened last night?”
“Do you?” I said, raising my voice a little more. “You’ve got an infection, and you’re trying to heal, and now you’ve got Skiver and whoever else to worry about.”
“I’m glad you’re helping me,” she said. “I really am. But you have to quit babying me. If we don’t get out of here then everything that’s happened is a waste.”
“Do you think I don’t know that?”
I stood up and walked back to the trees. No one was in the field anymore, and Iceman was nowhere to be seen.
“When we were at the fence,” Becky said, “and we ran, we knew we had to leave people there. They told us to run. They knew it, too—that it was the only way to escape.”
I turned back to her. She looked so small below me, down at the bottom of the bank, crouched in a ball to stay warm.
“So what do you want me to do?” I tried to temper my voice, tried to sound calm, but days of frustration couldn’t be held back. “The truck’s gone. Mason’s dead. I did the best I could.”
She looked back at the stream, and then struggled to her feet. Her coat and pants were black with dirt.
“I’m not going to just head into the forest,” I said. “Not until you’re better.”
Becky looked up at me, the hardness in her face replaced with something else—I wasn’t sure what. She stepped into the stream, shuddering with cold as the water filled her shoes.
She just shook her head and kept her eyes on her feet. She waded across and then climbed up the opposite bank. I hurried after her as she pushed through the willows, slowly and cautiously, wary of every difficult step. The long, thin branches whipped back at me as I followed her.
“Becky,” I said again, and she turned.
“Don’t think that I don’t appreciate what you’re doing—what you did,” she said, fighting the tears in her eyes. “I do. You saved my life, and you’ve taken care of me every minute.”
She paused, and I wanted to say something, but I could tell there was more to come. And I could tell I wasn’t going to like it.
“I told you I trusted you,” Becky said, now looking away so I couldn’t see how fast the tears were coming. “But you don’t owe me anything. If you had run for the truck, you wouldn’t have been abandoning me—you’d be helping me. You have bigger things to do. You’re strong and healthy and you need to get us out of here.”
I exhaled, long and drawn-out, giving me time to think. Time to calm down and not just snap back. “I meant what I told him,” I said. “I’m not leaving without you.”
She spun back to face me. “Well, you know what?”
We stared at each other for several seconds as she fought for words.
Becky took a breath.
“There are more people here than me. And I don’t want to be the reason you’re not helping them.”
She turned and stepped through the willows. I followed. The green barracks were visible now, and the back of the commissary. Some of the kids were on the road, but it didn’t look like they’d seen us.
“Just …” she started. “Just … forget it.”
She didn’t stop, but she was still having trouble walking. I stepped in front of her.
“Look,” I said, my voice beginning to shake, “I’m sorry I didn’t run to the truck. But I couldn’t leave you alone. You trusted me.”
Becky pulled her hood off and brushed her unkempt hair from her face. “You’re acting like this is some kind of debt. Like you owe me something.”
I started to speak, and she stopped me.
“I’m going to see Carrie and Curtis,” she said. “They’re going to help me, and you’ll be free to do whatever you need to do.”
“That’s not what I want.”
She shook her feet—they had to be freezing—and then looked back at me. “Well, so what? You can help people—you’re the only person right now who can—and you’re not doing it. And I don’t want it to be because of me.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Let me help you get back,” I said.
“I’ll be fine.”
I tried to take her hand, but she pulled away and shot me a dark look.
“Benson, I didn’t trust you because I liked you. I trusted you because you earned it. You never stopped fighting, and you were trying to help, trying to convince all of us.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but she held up a hand to stop me.
“I’m holding you back,” she said finally. “I don’t need you to take care of me.”
She turned away from me, head down. “I don’t know how else to say it, Bense. I don’t want to say it.” There was a long pause. “I just can’t trust you anymore. Not when we’re together, at least. You’ll do better alone.”
I watched her walk the rest of the way across the field. I didn’t know what had happened. She hadn’t understood, and I didn’t know how to explain myself.
I didn’t want her to have to take care of herself. I wanted to help her.
I sat down on a broken log and waited, making sure she made it to the dorm. There wasn’t a door anymore, but a girl met her on the steps—I couldn’t tell who it was—and took Becky by the arm.
What was I supposed to do now?
Was it time to escape? To pack supplies and brave the forest? Maybe it wasn’t as scary as I’d thought—we’d spent the night outside. Maybe I could do it.
But I didn’t want to do it without Becky.
I was freezing—my feet and legs were shaking. I didn’t have any real desire to go back to the fort, but that was where my dry clothes were, so I headed over. As I got close, I expected to see something, some sign of what had just happened there—blood, maybe. But the only thing that looked out of place was the debris from the gate.
At first glance, nothing looked different inside, either. A few people were on the boardwalk, and someone had started a fire in the pit. But there was complete silence. Harvard was in the courtyard, standing alone, gazing motionless up at the sky. Mouse, still in her pajamas and bare feet, sat on a bench, her legs pulled up to her chest. She was rocking slightly, eyes closed. Walnut sat on the edge of the walkway, and he looked up when I passed. Neither of us said anything.
Lily’s door was closed, and I knocked. The old wood rattled.
I had to do something. And maybe Lily could help. Lily wouldn’t have waited for Becky—she would have run for the truck. She’d have gone for help.
There was no answer. I knocked again.
“She’s not here.”
I turned to see Jane. She wore the same thin coat and jeans as when I’d first seen her in the barn, and her short hair was matted from sleep. She walked up to me, looking closely at my face. “Are you okay?”
She touched my forehead with one finger, gently tracing a line over my eye. “Does that hurt?”
“I didn’t realize anything was there.” I touched the spot and felt a tender bruise. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“You look cold,” she said, and turned toward the fire pit, where a few others were gathered. She nodded for me to join her.
I followed. Harvard was still staring at the sky. I wondered if he was going to lose it. I had a hard time thinking anyone missed Birdman—but it’s not like Harvard was the nicest guy, either. They were a good fit. Mouse, too.
Jane and I sat on the edge of the boardwalk, close enough to feel the heat. I stretched my legs out, edging my cold feet toward the fire.
“Mason liked you,” Jane said. “A lot.”
“He was lonely,” she said. “I mean, his dupe was. But the real Mason felt it. You changed that.”
“I hardly even talked to him since I got here.” I glanced over at her. She’d been watching my face the whole time, studying me. She smiled a little, and then turned to the fire.
I took off my damp shoes and propped them on a rock to dry out. Steam rose off my socks as I held my feet up to the heat.
“Mason tried to escape this morning,” I said.
Jane was plainly shocked.
“He tried to electrocute Iceman,” I said. “That’s why Isaiah’s body was moved to the river.”
Jane narrowed her eyes. “Why would he do that?”
“He was trying to help me—kill Iceman, then I take the truck and leave.”
One of the other girls spoke. “You knew about this?”
I shrugged. “He told me maybe five minutes before Iceman showed up. I didn’t have time to do anything.” It was a lie. I knew Becky had been right. I could have done something.
“Iceman wasn’t electrocuted,” one of them said.
“No,” I said. “It didn’t work.” I didn’t even know whether that was true. It might have knocked him out for a minute, maybe more. He was soaking wet—maybe he’d fallen in.
“Did Mason ever tell you where he was from?” Jane asked.
“New York, I think.” I pulled my socks off and laid them on one of the rocks surrounding the pit. My feet were white. I sat on the dirt, closer to the fire.
Jane climbed off the boardwalk and sat down beside me. “He wasn’t from New York,” she said. “He just told people that. He was a runaway. He grew up on a farm. Arkansas, I think.”
“He wanted to get out of here more than anybody,” she said. “He actually has a family somewhere.”
“I thought Maxfield didn’t take kids with families.”
Jane shook her head. “They take people no one will miss. He’d been on his own for a long time—maybe a year—when he ended up here. He was depressed. Before you became his roommate, we all were worried Maxfield would kill him, like Dylan.”
I looked back at the fire. One girl stood and put another log in the center. The fire licked it, surrounding it with bright yellow flames until the edges turned black and the log was just another part of the blaze.
“They can’t keep this up,” I said.
The other girl spoke. “Look where you are. They were here a hundred years before we showed up. And they’re going to be here a hundred years after we’re gone.”
Harvard, who was far enough away that he probably couldn’t hear us, laughed.
The girl pointed at him. “You know what’s happening to him?”
I watched him. He was still staring at the sky, a grin on his face.
“A nervous breakdown?”
She rubbed her hands over her face and stood. “Feedback.”
I looked at her, and then back at him. This wasn’t like when Shelly was getting feedback. She had to sit down, looked like she was fighting a bad headache. Harvard was in a trance, or high.
“They started,” Jane said. “A couple others, too, during the night.”
“The school’s using dupes again?”
Jane sighed. “That’s what we’re here for.”
“I should have run,” I said.
“Mason told me his plan. I should have gone faster.”
Jane didn’t respond.
I stared into the fire. “I’m going to leave.”
Her voice was small. “When?”
“As soon as I can pack.” I pointed over at Harvard. “I need to talk to him, too.” I still hadn’t heard whether he’d discovered anything during the dissection.
“It’s not safe out there,” Jane said.
“Safer than staying here.”
I was trying to convince myself that I was going because I had a duty to go. That this was still about Becky’s trust, about the calls of the wounded at the fence as they urged me to run for help.
But the truth was, I wanted to leave now because everyone would be safer when I was gone.
“Birdman used to say that the point of the fort was for escape,” Jane said, leaning forward and stretching her hands toward the fire. “He’d tell people that we had all the security here because we were planning something. But he wasn’t. He never was.”
“So why did he keep it so secure?”
“Paranoia,” she said. “Whatever else Birdman was, however he acted, he was scared. I mean, he could get in fights and intimidate people, but he was terrified of Maxfield. He hated having them in his head.”
“But …” I said, and then couldn’t think of anything to say.
I watched as Harvard sat down, the otherworldly smile still gleaming on his face.
“Some people like it,” Jane said, noticing where I was staring.
“Like the feedback? Why?”
“Depends on what’s going on. Everyone likes it if it’s good—you can’t help it. But sometimes even the bad stuff is better than being here. It’s like living another life.”
I wondered what Harvard was seeing. Was he back at the school? Was Maxfield repopulating the school with dupes so they could bring in a fresh batch of humans for their tests?
I remembered my first day there—how excited I was as I drove up. It was the nicest school I’d ever been to. Well maintained, everything worked, good food. Looking back, I realized the problems seemed easy. I wanted my freedom, and the gangs were hurting people, but no one was dying. There wasn’t the constant suffering like there was here.
I looked back at Jane.
“You know what I liked about you?” she asked. Her voice was quieter, more guarded. She massaged one hand with the other, gazing at her fingers like they were suddenly very interesting.
“My amazing ability to get into trouble?”
Jane smiled. “I’ve been here a long time, and you’ve seen what it’s like. It’s tolerable, and sometimes it can even be fun, but most of the time it’s just boring and depressing. I loved my dupe. I loved her life, and I looked forward to the feedback. And when you showed up, well … I had a lot of feedback while you were with me. It was like I was always at the school.”
I stared at her. Her eyes were tired and her face bore all the marks of years of manual labor and exposure to the elements. But she was happy. No, it was more than happy. Content. It was an emotion that I didn’t know if I’d ever felt, a state I’d never been in.
I kissed her.
Her lips were soft and warm, and she turned and leaned into me. I touched her face, my hands on her freckled cheeks and running through her hair.
She put her hands around my shoulders, pulling me closer.
I wrapped her in my arms, kissing her cheek and then holding her tight against me.
But when I opened my eyes, pulling back to kiss her again lightly, something was wrong. It wasn’t with her. She grinned back, the happiest I’d ever seen her. The contentment from her eyes was now written all over her face.
But something was wrong with me. Because when I leaned back to look at her, I was almost startled. Like I didn’t expect it to be Jane. Like I didn’t want it to be her.
“If I remember right,” Jane said, our faces only inches apart, “I should probably watch my back about now.”
I smiled, though I could feel my stomach dropping. I looked behind her. “All clear.”
“Good.” She pulled me close and laid her head on my shoulder.
I let out a long, tired breath. “I have to say, I’m impressed. You’re the first person I’ve ever met who can joke about how she was beaten to death.”
She laughed and turned again to face the fire. I put my arm around her waist, pulling her against me as we watched the flames. But it still didn’t feel right, and I knew exactly why.
“I need to ask you something,” I said.
She took a breath. “I wish it could wait.”
“I don’t think it can.”
She put her hand on mine. “Don’t do this again.”
Her tone was serious now, the life and contentment gone. Even her hand felt cold. “When you kissed me before—when you kissed my dupe—it didn’t end well.” She laughed quietly. “And I’m not talking about being murdered.”
“You tried to get me to stay,” I said.
There was a long pause. After several seconds, she finally spoke. “I’m glad you didn’t stay there. I’m glad you came here.”
I nodded, trying to think of what to say next. I liked Jane. I liked her a lot. But she wasn’t Becky.
“So ask me,” Jane went on, a slight edge in her voice.
“I don’t know what to ask,” I finally said.
Lily appeared at the gate, walking into the courtyard carrying a shoe box. As she approached us, she raised her eyebrows and smiled. Then she reached into the box, pulled out something wrapped in cellophane, and tossed one to each of us.
“Cupcakes,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Just came up in the commissary’s elevators. I guess this is Maxfield saying, ‘Sorry we killed your friends. Have a cupcake.’”
It wasn’t a typical breakfast, but I tore mine open. The food in here was much more basic than what we’d had at the school, and I hadn’t eaten anything sugary in days.
“Benson was looking for you,” Jane said.
She laughed. “Looks like he found you first.”
Jane blushed and focused on her cupcake.
Lily’s eyes met mine, and I gave her a look indicating that we needed to talk somewhere else.
“They’re divvying up the food,” Lily said. “You ought to head over there before the good stuff runs out.”
Jane took a bite of the chocolate cake. It was factory-made, mass-produced stuff, but as Jane ate it you’d think it had come from a five-star restaurant. She licked a stray bit of frosting from her lip and smiled at me.
“You want to go?”
“You go,” I said, and leaned forward to check my wet socks. “I’m going to change clothes.”
She took another bite of cupcake and stood. For a moment, a mask of seriousness crossed her face. She knew what I was thinking. She knew what I was going to do to her. Again.
“Don’t go anywhere,” she said, her voice artificially cheerful.