We stepped outside and Jane closed the door. The snow had stopped, but wind was rushing across the courtyard, throwing powdery specks of ice through the air like glitter. Jane said there was a meeting we had to go to.
I turned to see Lily coming out of a door on the other side of the fort. She ran across the courtyard, kicking up snow as she went.
“Causing trouble wherever you go, huh?” she asked, grinning.
I paused. “Are you …”
“The real deal,” she said. “I was human there; I’m human here.”
“So you went over the wall?”
She nodded. “Made it a lot farther than you did before they caught me.”
I smiled. “They haven’t caught me yet.”
Lily had been the best paintball player at the school, an expert at camouflage, fast and clever. If anyone could have gotten out of the forest, it was her.
“The school told us you died.” I stepped forward to hug her.
“I know,” she said with a smirk. “I hear it caused all sorts of problems.” She looked at Jane, who smiled quietly.
“C’mon.” Jane nudged me. “Let’s get out of the cold.”
The meeting room was near the front door of the fort. It looked to be about the size of four or five of the bedrooms put together, with heavy timber beams supporting the roof, and eight wooden benches facing a podium at the far end. It reminded me of a church.
We were the first to arrive, and Lily set about lighting the lanterns. Jane adjusted the small drapes that covered each window. They didn’t look to be decorative as much as functional—heavy dark wool to cover each of the narrow slits.
“So what about the others?” I asked, watching them as they worked. “Mouse was back at the school, but what about Birdman? Where’s his dupe?”
“He has one,” Jane said. “It just isn’t active. A lot of people are like that. The school has dupes of everyone here, but they only use them when they need them.”
I sat down on one of the benches, exhausted. I still hadn’t slept. “I bet you’re glad to have it out of your head.”
Jane exchanged a quick look with Lily.
Lily plopped down beside me.
“It’s not like that,” Lily said, her voice hushed even though we both knew Jane was listening. “They say it sucks when your dupe dies. It’s like you die.”
Jane looked over with a slight smile. “Well, it’s not exactly like that. But it sucks.”
Lily put her foot up on the bench in front of us. “You have to understand—you feel everything they feel. When your dupe is afraid, you’re afraid. When it’s sad, you’re sad. And you can’t do anything about it.”
“That sounds awful.” I rubbed my hands over my tired face as Jane came over and sat in front of me.
“It’s not always bad,” she said quietly.
There was a pause. She wanted to say more, and I could guess what it was.
Lily jumped in. “Someone told me it’s like a drug.”
Jane laughed—finally, a real laugh. “It’s not like a drug. But it’s like … I don’t know. You have this other life, where you have other friends, and whenever you’re with them things are really intense. And then, suddenly, it’s all gone. It’s over. You’ll never see—” She looked at me and stopped.
“I’ve only seen dreams so far,” Lily said.
I looked over at her, and I was surprised to see a tear in her eye. She rubbed it away and made a face.
“There’s a dupe of you?”
She nodded. “Yep. I told you, they don’t keep you here unless they’ve made a dupe of you.”
“So where is it? What’s it doing?”
Before she could answer, the door opened. Cold air blew into the room and people began to walk in.
I recognized a lot of them. Mason looked at me long enough to open his mouth like he was going to say something, but then passed my bench and moved up to the front. Joel actually waved before moving on, and I wondered whether he knew that I’d been the one who’d killed him—well, killed his dupe after he’d turned on us. I’d stabbed him with a pair of garden shears.
I noticed that several who were coming in were holding gauze on their arms. Someone must have been at the door, checking everyone with a box cutter.
Laura entered the room, and I turned to Lily. “Is that the real Laura? The one who went to detention?”
“She’s true blue, the same one you knew,” Lily said. She lowered her voice even more. “We were in detention together—she showed up the day after I did. The little princess thought she’d get rewarded for what she did to … well, for what she did.”
Laura wasn’t like Dylan. She didn’t look depressed or guilty. Instead, she held her head high as she made her way to the front of the room.
I knew she was goading me, but it was working. Dylan thought he was guilty because his dupe had done something, but Laura actually had—she’d been there. She’d tried to kill me.
Jane put her hand on mine, and I realized it had been clenched in a fist.
“It’s okay,” she said softly.
“I was there,” I whispered, my chest tight.
“So was I.” There was bitterness in Jane’s words, but I couldn’t tell whether it was because of me or Laura.
Lily leaned over. “Don’t worry about Laura,” she said. “Look.”
I hadn’t noticed while she’d walked, but as Laura turned to sit, I saw her wrists were wrapped tightly in chains. Mouse strung another chain from Laura’s shackles to a round metal loop in the wall.
I didn’t have time to ask who had punished her—Maxfield or this town—because Birdman was standing up now, glaring for the room to quiet down.
I glanced around, getting a full look at the crowd. I counted about forty, and I recognized maybe half from the school. I noticed Jelly and Walnut sitting together in the back, which now made, at most, four people who I actually knew from the school—four people who were humans there, not dupes.
“Pipe down,” Birdman shouted, and the room quieted almost instantly. He looked at Harvard, who was standing by the door. “Who’s missing?”
“Carrie. And we’ve got Lance, Chris, Kaitlyn, and Trena out on watch.”
Birdman nodded and scanned the crowd. He laid a large piece of cloth over the podium and pulled a pencil from his shirt pocket.
“You all know Benson Fisher and Becky Allred are here. Let’s get one thing clear: no one is going to say a word about them outside this room. They’re valuable, and anyone who screws that up will regret it. Got that?”
No one said anything, though I saw a few heads nodding.
“Okay,” he continued. “Let’s hear today’s reports, and we’ll see if he can fill in a few gaps. Anyone pop since last night?”
One girl, sitting near the front, timidly raised her hand. I recognized her from the Society—Taylor. She was one of the younger ones. The only thing I remembered about her was that she was always smiling. That was how the Society was—they were either smiling and carefree or scowling with disapproval.
Birdman pointed to her, and wrote on his cloth. “What happened?”
Her voice was small. “It was late last night,” Taylor started. “I saw it all—I was scared. Everyone was getting herded into the detention room.”
Lily whispered, “After the fence last night, they rounded up the survivors and sent them back to school. We figured they were going down to detention.”
“What’s down there?”
Lily smirked. “It’s where the magic happens. You go there and they stick an implant in your head and make your dupe.”
Taylor spoke again, her voice quavering. “Not everyone could fit in the room at once, so they were taking them down in shifts.”
“Who was?” Birdman asked.
“Ms. Vaughn was there,” Taylor said. “And the other dupes who had popped. Tapti, Hog, Mash … and I think Grace? Anyway, everyone had gone to detention and I was in the final group. There were about ten of us. It was … It was scary.”
Birdman was taking notes on all this, and there was no emotion in his voice when he talked. “Then what?”
“One of the dupes went down to detention with each group, so only Mash and Ms. Vaughn were left with us. Four of us—of them—tried to jump the dupes.”
“Me and three V’s,” she said.
It felt like the air got sucked out of my lungs. Jane’s grip on my hand tightened.
“Hector, Anna, and Catherine,” Taylor said.
Birdman wrote the names on the cloth, and then looked up. “And?”
“Anna had a knife. I don’t know where she got it. She stabbed Ms. Vaughn.” Taylor paused. The room was completely silent. “That’s all I remember. That’s when I popped.”
He nodded, jotting down more notes while the room waited. Shelly raised her hand, and when Birdman finally looked up he called on her.
“Hector is dead,” she said.
Lily swore. I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. As far as I could tell, Hector—the Hector who I’d known—had been human. He died for real.
Even Birdman looked shocked. “You’re sure?”
Shelly nodded. Taylor turned, the horrified look on her face obvious. She was wondering whether she’d done it. Birdman spoke before she could.
“You haven’t popped?”
Shelly shook her head. “Not yet. My dupe is still down there.”
“How’d Hector die?”
It took her a long time to answer, and after several seconds Taylor stood and left the meeting.
“It wasn’t really Taylor, though,” I said, whispering to Jane. “It wasn’t even her emotions making the dupe do it, right? She’d popped, so it was just the artificial intelligence.”
Jane nodded. “That doesn’t help much, though.”
“It should.” I could feel the rage building inside me. The school wasn’t just imprisoning people anymore, wasn’t just killing them. It was tearing apart their minds.
Lily responded instead of Jane. “It’s like what we said about losing your dupe. It sucks. Taylor just lost hers last night, and now she knows it killed her friend.”
“Hector wasn’t her friend,” I said angrily. “She was Society.”
Jane’s look was dark and cold. “You can drop that crap right now,” she hissed. “The gangs don’t mean a thing here.”
She was wrong. No matter what Jane said, this town was divided. Birdman kept the people he could trust in the fort with him, and didn’t believe anyone was human unless they proved it with a blade. Maybe there weren’t gangs, but this wasn’t a utopia.
Birdman tapped his pencil on the cloth again. “Who else is still active?”
Seven people, including Shelly, raised their hands. I knew who they all were, though none of them well. Only one was a V. Most were Havoc kids.
“Anyone want to report?”
Mucus, a fat Havoc kid, raised his hand. “We’re all underground now. I was in the second group sent down to detention, and they took us to the cells.”
“Individual or group?” Birdman asked without looking up.
Harvard spoke from the back of the room. “I don’t think there’re enough individual cells to handle that many people.”
I turned to Lily. “How do they know that?”
She smiled. “That’s the whole point of these meetings. Everyone who’s in this town has gone down the detention elevator and into the big underground complex beneath the school. When I got here they grilled me about it. They’ve made a whole map.”
“What’s the point?”
Lily shrugged. “Knowledge is power, I guess. Gather as much as you can. In case we ever get taken back there.”
Birdman was still interrogating Mucus. “What’s happening there now?”
He shook his head. “Don’t know. My dupe is sleeping, I think.”
“Anyone gone to surgery yet?”
“Not that I know of.”
Birdman looked around the room. “Anyone else seen something different?”
Stephanie, the final active V, spoke. “They treated the wounded, but it was there in the cell block.”
This was what I wanted to know—what I needed to know. “Who died last night—the humans, I mean?”
All eyes in the room turned on me. Birdman looked down at his cloth.
“What about Curtis?” I continued. “And Gabby?”
“Curtis is alive,” someone said. “He’s bad, though.”
Birdman spoke loudly, quieting the room. “Sixteen died.”
No, that couldn’t be right. I stood up, but my legs were shaking. “Not dupes,” I said. “Not people who popped.”
“I know,” Birdman answered. “Sixteen humans died at the fence.”
He read the names. Seven from the Society. Six from Havoc. Three V’s. I knew those people. They’d listened to me. They’d all been there in the foyer when we decided to take a stand.
“They’re thinking Curtis might lose his leg,” Shelly said quietly. “No one’s expecting Gabby to make it.”
“No,” I said.
Jane stood and tried to take my hand, but I shook her away.
“You’re wrong.” I pushed my way down the row.
“Benson.” It was Birdman calling me, but I didn’t care. Harvard put up his hands to stop me, but I shoved him into the wall and threw the door open.
Sixteen dead. Soon Gabby, too, and who knew how many others.
I ran across the snowy courtyard to the other side of the fort and threw open Carrie’s door. She jumped up from the bed.
“She’s sleeping,” Carrie warned, but I ignored her. Curtis’s face stared down at me from half the drawings in the room. Carrie’s dupe had been with Curtis for how long? Years? And Carrie felt every emotion twice as strongly as the dupe?
Did Carrie know what her dupe had done after it popped?
I climbed on the bed, pulled the panel out of the wall, and scrambled inside, my exhausted muscles pumping with adrenaline and guilt.
I let the cloth picture fall into place behind me, blocking Carrie out.
Becky was quiet, eyes closed tightly in a painful sleep.
I took her hand, kissed her damp forehead.
“I’m sorry,” I cried, hiding my face in my hands. “I’m so sorry.”
It had been dark for hours when I heard Harvard enter Carrie’s room.
He pulled out the panel and peeked in. “Ready?”
I’d been lying beside Becky, watching her breathe. I’d forgotten I had somewhere to go.
“I guess.” My muscles screamed as I sat up. I had no idea how Becky could sleep on these boards, loss of blood or not.
I pulled my Pittsburgh Steelers sweatshirt back on, and retied my shoes. At some point I was going to need a change of clothes and a shower.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“Just after midnight,” Harvard said.
He moved away from the opening and I crawled out. A very groggy Carrie stood in the corner in a worn pair of blue pajamas.
“You have a coat?” Harvard asked. He was bundled up in a thick, well-worn parka and wool hat, and he had on leather work gloves with the fingers cut out.
“Just this,” I said, pulling the hood of my sweatshirt up.
“We’re gonna be out there for a while. Let’s go check Dylan’s room. No one’s cleaned it yet.” The idea of wearing Dylan’s clothes didn’t appeal to me at all, but as I stepped into the cold night air I realized it was probably smart.
Lily was waiting for us.
“Ready to stick it to the man?” she asked. Her breath came out in white puffs.
“Sure,” I said, and followed Harvard.
“A couple things on the schedule for tonight,” Harvard said, seeming remarkably cheerful. “First a coat. Then we’re going to the Greens to talk to Shelly; then we’re going out to the perimeter.”
“Glad I can help,” I grumbled.
“Man, I’ve been waiting for you for years.”
Harvard stopped at a door. It hung open a few inches.
“Kid, you don’t have one of these things in your head.” He struck a match and lit Dylan’s lantern. “You’re gold.”
“I thought Dylan moved out of the fort.”
“He wandered,” Lily said. “We always hoped he’d come back.” Dylan’s room was blank and empty. The bed was made, but rumpled, and Dylan’s few belongings were in a cardboard box by the window. Unlike every other room I’d seen, there was nothing painted on the walls. In fact, they looked recently whitewashed.
“They always said detention meant death back at the school.”
Harvard smiled. “It can mean death if you’re stubborn and fight them. It probably would have meant death for you. But nope, they just take you down the elevator, give you an implant, and ship you here.”
“We’re a freak farm,” Lily said.
I found a windbreaker. It was thin, but new and sturdy, and it was big enough to pull over my sweatshirt.
“I didn’t recognize half the people at the meeting today,” I said. “Why aren’t all their dupes active?”
“Science,” Harvard said, relishing the word like it was just as exciting to him as escape. “You don’t want to load a school full of robots if you’re testing the robots. Our assumption is that the whole point of the robots is to meld into the real world—to interact naturally with humans. If the school was mostly robots, then it would be a lousy experiment.”
He pulled a pair of thick wool socks from Dylan’s box and stuffed them into the pocket of his coat. Lily blew out the lantern.
“Where’s your dupe, then?”
“The last time I was aware of him, he was in a dark room somewhere in the underground complex. It looked like a closet.”
I looked over at Lily. She nodded. “Me, too.”
We left the room and headed for the massive front door. Harvard knocked on a door and got a kid I didn’t know to follow us out and lock the gate after we’d left. Lily pulled my sweatshirt hood up to cover my face. They were still searching for me, after all.
“They’re just waiting to use your dupes? Saving them for later?” I asked as we trudged out onto the snowy road. The mud was frozen solid now, and it seemed petrified, like the tire ruts were dinosaur tracks preserved in stone.
“I guess,” he said. “There are a lot of us like that. And the implants do more than just connect us to the dupes. They trap us here in town, and they can disable us, too, like they did today—”
“Or kill us, like with Dylan,” Lily said.
“So we all have implants,” Harvard said simply. “I’m only aware of mine once or twice a month. I’m hoping they’ll use it when they repopulate the school.”
Lily didn’t seem nearly as excited as Harvard. “It’s empty now. Everyone’s underground getting chips in their heads. If the experiment continues, they’ll need a new batch of dupes—and humans.”
I didn’t want to think about that. More innocent kids at the school. More screwed-up kids in the town.
I couldn’t see the other buildings of the town yet—they were on the other side of the creek and through the thick stand of cottonwoods—but the smoke from their fires was hanging in the sky. I’d watched that smoke from the school. It was what had led us here.
“So what’s the deal with Fort Apache?” I asked, glancing back at the moonlit adobe box we’d just left. “Jane said something about that being where it all started.”
“It’s a guess,” Lily said with a shrug.
“A guess that makes a lot of sense,” Harvard added enthusiastically. “Picture the whole complex. The oldest is the fort, probably built in the mid–eighteen hundreds. Then we have the washroom and commissary—maybe built in the thirties?”
“A guess,” Lily added.
“It’s all guesses,” Harvard said, ignoring her. “Then the Greens’ barracks, which are maybe forties or fifties?”
The shallow creek was partially frozen over, though I could see the smashed ice where the truck had driven through it. The layer of snow over the ice gave us plenty of traction—I didn’t slip once as we crossed.
“We’re not sure how old the school is,” Harvard said. “But I have a theory about the history of this place—”
Lily cut him off, plainly tired of Harvard’s long explanations. “The experiment started in the fort way back two hundred years ago. Then it moved to the school, and the humans stayed here to control the dupes.”
“So when the experiment was here—when the dupes were here—where were their humans?”
Harvard paused, looking down the road.
“We have extra guards on duty tonight,” he whispered, his mind suddenly elsewhere. “They’re going to be looking for you.”
Lily leaned closer to me. “We don’t think they had humans before.”
Harvard put his finger to his mouth, watching something, and then motioned for us to follow him down the dirt road toward the barracks.
“We think Iceman and Ms. Vaughn are older models of androids,” he finally said. “Straight AI, no humans attached. But the AI wasn’t good enough, so they couldn’t fit into society—they couldn’t blend in.”
We stopped again, pausing in the shadow of the commissary while Harvard watched.
“I think we’re good,” he said, and started moving forward. “Keep quiet, though.”
I didn’t know what he was looking for, but I was glad Dylan’s windbreaker was dark blue to cover up the white-and-yellow logo on my sweatshirt.
One day I wasn’t going to have to watch over my shoulder, afraid for my life. Paranoia had become normal life, and I was sick of it.
We left the road. The untouched snow gave me confidence that we weren’t walking into an ambush as Harvard directed us around the back of the buildings. Steam was pouring out of the washroom’s broken windows, and I could hear the running water of showers.
I followed Harvard to the last of the barracks. The green paint was flaking off, exposing the bare old wood underneath, but it seemed sturdy enough.
He motioned for us to wait along the side of the barrack, and went around the front.
“Why do we trust this guy?” I whispered to Lily.
She smiled. “I don’t trust anybody. I like Harvard, though. He’s in charge of escape.”
“I thought that Birdman was in charge.”
“Birdman’s in charge overall,” she said. “Mouse is in charge of something, too, though I haven’t figured out what. I get the feeling that she just latches onto whoever is in charge. That’s what her dupe did.”
Harvard’s head appeared around the edge of the building and he waved to us. “We’re clear,” he said, louder than I’d expected. Whatever he was worried about, it wasn’t here.
The inside of the building wasn’t what I was expecting, either. I’d pictured tidy rows of cots, like an army barrack, but it was much nicer. There were rows of soft beds heaped with blankets and pillows, each with a dresser and lantern. Three overstuffed couches surrounded a community fireplace. The fact that anyone chose to live in the fort instead of the barracks was a testament to how paranoid Birdman was about security. Maybe Maxfield made the barracks more pleasant to entice people out of the relative safety of the fort.
Only a few lanterns flickered, and the fire on the hearth had burned down to coals. Harvard guided me to the couch, where Shelly sat wearing a pink hoodie and flannel pajama pants. Lily stayed by the front window, watching the road.
“First things first,” Shelly said. “I won’t say a word until you unchain her.”
Harvard glanced at me. “You’re going to make a big deal about this in front of Benson?”
She ignored me. “That has nothing to do with it. If you want my help, you unchain her.”
Harvard glanced to the far end of the room, and I stood to see what he was looking at.
It was Laura, her hands wrapped tightly in heavy chains that were padlocked to the wall. She was staring back at me, quiet. Her eyes looked black in the darkness.
Harvard sighed, but lightly. Nothing seemed to really concern him. “She’s a murderer.”
“I don’t want to get into it again,” Shelly said. “Let her get off the floor or this is over.”
Beds creaked as other kids rolled over to watch what was going on.
“Birdman won’t like this,” Harvard said, his smile eerily glued to his face.
Shelly cocked her head. “Do you think that carries any weight with me?”
“She stood trial.”
Shelly laughed coldly.
“Fine,” he said. “But only her hands, not her feet.”
I watched him walk the length of the room, all eyes on him as he bent over Laura and loosened the chains from her hands.
She deserved to be in those chains. I’d been there. I’d seen what she’d done.
Obviously in pain, Laura stood, her fettered feet clanking against the wooden floor as she took the few steps toward her bed. Harvard kicked her in the butt and she stumbled to the mattress.
As she lay down, she flipped Harvard off, and then looked at me. “Looks like you chose your friends as well here as you did back at the school.”
My muscles tensed. She was small, frail, and chained, and I wanted to punch her in the teeth. She deserved everything she got.
Harvard plopped onto the couch, grabbing the poker and jabbing at the fire.
Shelly finally looked at me. She was tense, uncertain.
“Alive,” I answered, sitting down.
“Shelly has some interesting news,” Harvard said, sitting on the edge of the couch and slapping her knee. “Since you’re the most recent to come from the school, we wanted to run it past you.”
“It’s probably nothing,” she said, obviously annoyed with Harvard, “but something seems weird.”
“Everything seems weird,” I said, and she heaved a sigh.
“We”—she gestured around the room, but I assumed she meant the whole camp—“try to keep track of exactly what’s going on at the school. Like the meeting today—Birdman gets us together every day and we write down what’s been happening with our dupes.”
I nodded. “So, what’s the weird stuff?”
“Two kids,” she said. “They’re in the cells in the underground complex. It seems like they were there before my dupe got there.”
“Isn’t the underground complex full of kids?” I asked. “Everyone from the school?”
“I’ve never seen these two before,” Shelly said. “I’ve asked around. No one who still has an active dupe has seen them before. We were wondering if you knew anything about them.”
“How would I know?”
She scowled. “We only see snippets. You were there—you saw everything.”
“Unless you can draw a picture of them, I have no idea how I’m supposed to know who they are.”
Harvard poked the fire again. “No new students came after you, right?”
Shelly ran her fingers through her hair and sighed, tired. “They’re sisters.”
That didn’t sound right. “I never knew any sisters. No one at Maxfield had any family.”
“These girls don’t talk much—they’re in the cell across from my dupe—but they’re obviously related. They look almost the same, both blond, same face, same mannerisms; one is just older than the other. They’re terrified, and the younger one clings to the older.”
“Maybe thirteen and sixteen? I don’t know. My dupe has tried to talk to them, I think. But they almost seem to have a pact of silence.”
I shrugged. “I have no idea. Maybe they were scheduled to come to the school before we all tried to escape.”
“We’ll know them soon enough,” Harvard said with a smirk. “They’ll end up in the town once Maxfield gives them implants and makes dupes. But that’s not the point. We can’t figure out why they’re bringing in new people and taking them straight underground. It seems like they have plenty of us humans already. Why would they need more dupes? And why sisters?”
That did seem weird. “So we’re assuming that everyone in the school—everyone who tried to escape with me—is getting an implant and coming here?”
“That’s probably why they’re having us build more barracks,” Shelly said, and stood. “Speaking of, I need to go to bed. We’ll have to get to work tomorrow morning.”
She looked down at Harvard, something in her eyes. Annoyance? Disgust? “I hope Birdman will be sending us some help this time.”
“I haven’t heard,” he said with a carefree shrug.
From the back of the room a voice called out sarcastically, “Well, you can count on Benson to help. He’s always thinking about everyone else.”
I jumped to my feet and took a step toward the bed. “Excuse me?”
Shelly grabbed my arm. “Don’t.”
“You’re actually claiming that I don’t care about people? I tried to get everyone out.”
Laura sneered. “Nice job, too.”
“At least I tried. I’m not a killer.”
“I was trying to prevent deaths,” she snapped.
I laughed, because I wanted to break her jaw and I had to force myself not to. “You were trying to prevent deaths by beating Jane to death with a pipe?”
She paused, but her face only got colder, more vicious.
“How many died at the fence? Sixteen? And I’m the bad guy?”
I jumped at her, but Lily was in front of me in an instant.
“Slow down, big boy,” she said. “You’re gonna hit a girl?”
Laura was on her feet. “That Jane was a robot.”
“You didn’t know that!” I shoved Lily out of the way, but Harvard caught me from behind.
“Let it go,” he said. “She’ll get hers.”
Shelly had moved to Laura’s bed, standing between us.
“This isn’t over,” I said.
“No, it isn’t,” Laura snapped. “You’re not the only person who lost friends yesterday.”
I threw Harvard off my back, but didn’t move toward her. “Everything you did,” I said, stabbing my finger at Laura, “every kid you hauled to detention, everybody you stopped from escaping, every rule you enforced—that didn’t matter to the school at all, did it? When they hauled you underground—when they drilled into your head and crammed a bomb into it—they didn’t give a damn who you were. Did they?”
Laura didn’t move, didn’t answer.
“Did they?” I screamed.
She looked shaken. “No.”
“I hope it was worth it.” I turned and stormed out.
Lily and I stood outside the barracks, in the shadows, while Harvard scouted ahead.
“Laura was on trial?” I asked, taking deep breaths to calm down.
“If you want to call it that. Everyone here knew what she’d done before she even arrived. She got to say something in her defense, and then they locked her up.”
“She deserves it.”
Harvard was close to the tree line, talking to another kid. He’d said there were always guards out there, day and night.
“Why don’t you just run?” Lily asked, her voice low but intense. “You don’t have the implant. They’re already searching for you, and if they don’t find you out there, it won’t be long before they tear this town apart looking for you.”
“I have to wait for Becky.”
“We can take care of her. You go for help.”
“Becky’s one of the worst,” Lily said. “Don’t you remember? She was in the same gang as Laura. They were roommates. Besides, I thought you and Jane—”
“Things changed after you left.”
Lily crossed her arms. “Apparently.”
A few minutes later Harvard trudged back through the snow, smiling like it was Christmas morning.
“We think there are beacons,” he said, motioning for us to follow him into the field. “Some kind of transmitters arranged all around the town, kinda like an electronic fence. That’s why, when we get too far out, the implants hurt.”
I shrugged. “I didn’t see anything out there.”
“It was dark this morning,” Lily said.
“It’s dark now,” I snapped.
“You weren’t looking before,” Harvard said.
“Those kids in the school—the sisters,” I said, changing the subject. “Why do you care? Just another couple of prisoners.”
We had reached the trees, and Harvard stopped and fished in his pockets, eventually producing a spool of twine. He handed one end to Lily, and then measured ten paces to her right.
“Because it’s weird, you know? It’s not the way the school does things. Everyone starts as a human student at the school, and then they either try to escape or get sent to detention and wind up here. But those two went straight underground.”
He pulled the twine tight between him and Lily.
“What am I supposed to do?” she asked.
Harvard’s voice was excited, and he stared at the forest like he was a few steps from freedom. “My thinking is this: there’s a series of transmitters somewhere out there, and they radiate their signal in a circle—well, a sphere, if we’re being accurate. So you and I will walk toward a transmitter, and we’ll each stop when we feel the pain. Presumably that means we’ll both be the same distance from the transmitter.”
Even in the dim moonlight I could tell Lily was rolling her eyes. “So?”
“So if we’re each the same distance from the transmitter, then Benson will go to the center of this string, and then walk at a perpendicular direction straight into the forest. He should walk right into the transmitter.”
Neither Lily nor I said anything. It didn’t make any sense to me, though I admit my mind was elsewhere.
“It’s geometry, folks,” Harvard said. “Some of us paid attention in school.”
Lily just looked at me and shrugged as Harvard began slowly walking toward the woods. She did the same, trying to stay in a straight line and keep the twine tight despite the underbrush and muddy snow she had to navigate around.
“What if the transmitter isn’t out here?” I said, watching them. “What if it’s in the center of town, and your implants hurt when you get too far away from it?”
Harvard paused. “Thought about that. But I can’t find anything in town.” He began again.
After a moment—he was standing only a foot from the first tree—he stopped. “I can feel it.”
Lily kept walking, taking a few steps into the trees and climbing over a rotted log before stopping as well. “Me too.”
“Hold it tight,” Harvard said, and motioned for me. “Stand in the middle and look perpendicular to the string—that’s ninety degrees.”
“I know what perpendicular means,” I said, peering into the dark forest. Even the slightest amount of camouflage could hide a transmitter in this darkness. And I wouldn’t know what one looked like in full daylight—an antenna, maybe? “I’ll be back.”
I entered the woods, my aching body fighting against me as I clambered over the thick growth here. I wanted to help them—of course I did—but this seemed like such a waste of time. We didn’t even know whether anything was out there to find. Maybe the best plan was just for Becky and me to get supplies and run.
I was only ten feet into the trees when I heard Harvard swear. I turned back to see him looking somewhere over to my left. Lily was crouched down and alert, like we were playing paintball again. I dropped to my knees, shrouding myself in the brush.
For a moment there was only silence, and then I heard boots in the snow. I was so stupid. Of course they’d come looking for us again, and here I was tromping through an open field. How could I have left Becky back at the fort with only Carrie to guard her?
Something moved in the brush.
I tried to peek out between the tangle of sticks and briars, but it suddenly felt much darker than before—darker and colder. I was a sitting duck out here. I wanted to get back to the Basement. I needed to get back there.
“Deer,” Lily whispered, much closer than I thought she’d been.
“They watch us,” she continued.
“I know,” I said.
Lily scanned the trees, her eyes smart and vigilant. She was good at this—the best paintball player at the school. Most of the tactics the V’s used had been hers, and her tiny frame hid her surprising athleticism.
But they’d still caught her. She was still a prisoner here.
Lily ducked back down. “I don’t think it saw us.”
“I should have waited a couple days before I came out of the fort.”
“We’re okay,” she said. Whatever she’d seen—or not seen—had eased her tension. She wasn’t on lookout anymore.
“We don’t know that until the deer is gone.”
The forest was cold and claustrophobic; every twisted pine and tangled bush seemed to surround me like bars and chains. I wanted to run out into the trees, toward freedom, but I needed to get back to Becky. Right now I felt like I couldn’t move either way, like I was trapped. I didn’t want to listen to Harvard’s geometry or Lily’s trivia. I didn’t care. I—
“Hey,” I said, grabbing her hand and looking her in the eye. “What are you doing out here? What about the implant? The pain?”
She smirked. “That’s why this is a waste of time.” She tried to stand, but I didn’t let go, and she fell back to her knees.
“What is going on?”
“It hurts, sure. Kind of like a vibrating headache. But how do we know that my pain threshold is the same as Harvard’s? Even if there is something out there, there’s no way to tell what direction it’s in. And I know my geometry, too—it could be twenty feet away or a hundred. This is pointless.” She glanced back again for Harvard, and then stared at me. Her smile was gone. “You need to get out of here.”
“I told you already: I’m not leaving without Becky.”
“Damn it, Benson,” she said. “I’ve only been here a couple weeks, and I’m already going crazy. I heard about Becky’s arm—that’s going to take a while to heal, and every day you spend waiting is another chance to be caught.”
I peered through the bushes. Harvard wasn’t far away, talking to a guard. He didn’t seem to be paying attention to us.
“But I’m helping you,” I said. “That was my deal with Birdman. That’s what we’re doing right now—trying to figure out where these transmitters are.”
“This is all Harvard, not Birdman,” she said, frustrated. “Birdman’s not trying to escape. He’s waiting.”
Lily shook her head. “Listen, I don’t know all the politics of this place, but I’ve learned there’s one subject that no one here talks about: you get too old and they take you away. This whole place exists as a training facility for teenage robots. If you get to be twenty or twenty-one, you don’t fit anymore.”
“Where do they go?”
Lily shrugged. “No one knows. But Birdman is getting close to the deadline, and he’s scared.”
“Then he should be trying to escape.”
She shook her head. “He thinks they’ll take him back underground. That’s why he holds the meetings and makes the maps. He thinks that’s his best shot.”
Harvard was walking toward us.
Lily dropped down into her old hiding place by the tree line, disappearing into the dark shadows.
“It’s gone,” Harvard said, out of breath, his voice hushed. “I don’t know if it was a real one or a camera.”
I stood and fought my way through the brush. “I’m going back.”
“We made a deal,” he said.
My eyes weren’t on him as I spoke—I was watching for the deer. “The deal was that I help you if you help Becky. If they find us because I’m out here on some wild-goose chase, how does that help Becky?”
“You’re going to have to search for it sooner or later,” he said.
“Later.” I started across the field, and he had no choice but to follow.
Jane came to get me the next morning. The sun was already climbing—it was later than I’d thought.
A dozen people were outside. They were all heading to build the new dorms—on Birdman’s orders, Jane told me. No one seemed to be protesting, even though I couldn’t have been the only one who wished I was still asleep.
Jane insisted I pull the hood of my sweatshirt up to conceal my face as much as possible. She even brought me a knitted scarf that I wrapped around my nose and mouth.
“Did you find anything last night?” she asked as we walked.
I shook my head.
“I didn’t think you would.”
“It was too dark,” I said. “And I wouldn’t know what a transmitter looked like if I saw one.”
“If they’re even out there.”
“Well, something’s messing up your brain.” As soon as I said it, I felt embarrassed. “I mean—”
“It’s fine,” Jane said. “You’re right. There’s a transmitter somewhere. I just don’t believe it’s in the forest.”
“Where else would it be?”
We entered the shade of the trees along the stream. “I don’t know much about science, but I do know that there are better ways to stop us from leaving than putting transmitters around the town.”
“GPS. If they’re going to all the trouble to put an implant in our brains, don’t you think they’d make sure it could track us no matter where we went?”
She took a step onto a rock dotted with frost. I followed her lead, and we hopped from stone to stone across the stream.
“GPS makes sense,” I said, kicking myself that I hadn’t thought of it first. It was so much simpler.
“Harvard’s just looking for something to do,” she said. “We’ve talked about GPS before, but if that’s what it is, there’s nothing we can do about it.”
I wanted to keep holding her hand. Her skin was warm in the cold morning air, and something about it just felt comfortable, like I wasn’t so alone.
Before I could think about what that might mean, Jane stuffed her hands into the front pockets of her cotton jacket, and gave me a quick, uncertain smile.
I could see the others now, all gathered in the field beside the commissary. The stacks of lumber sat uneven on the frozen ground, and several people were already digging the foundation for the new dorm with old, square-ended shovels and heavy picks.
“Don’t worry,” said a voice behind me. “We have guards out.”
I turned to see Mouse.
“I hear you had some problems last night at the tree line?” I couldn’t tell whether she was upset with me or with Harvard, but something had ticked her off.
“Just a deer,” I said, and turned back to watch the digging.
“Should Benson even be out here right now?” Jane asked.
“We have extra guys at the perimeter,” Mouse said. “They’ll keep out the animals.”
She was gone before Jane could reply.
It didn’t make any sense to me, either. Any help I could give building this dorm was only going to be negated by the several guys who had to leave and guard the tree line.
The construction was moving quickly but with precision. These were teenagers, not construction workers, but they seemed to know what they were doing.
“What’s the point of this?” I asked, watching the guys dig. “Why make us build the barracks when they could just bring in robot labor? For that matter, why were you milking cows when the school sends food?”
“Keeps us busy,” Jane said, and she actually sounded like it didn’t bother her. “It’s not nearly as strict as at the school—the cows and chickens are here because Maxfield offered and we accepted. We can grow fresh vegetables. But most of the field is for games—soccer and football and whatever else. It’s not a terrible place.”
“They keep you just happy enough that you won’t end up like Dylan.”
Someone shouted something, and I looked up to see Shelly staggering in the road. A girl ran to her, grabbed her around the waist, and helped her sit.
“Feedback,” Jane said, and tapped her head. “Shelly still has an active dupe.”
“And that makes it so she can’t stand up?”
Shelly was sitting cross-legged now in the dirt, her face in her hands. She was sobbing, loudly enough that we could hear it thirty feet away.
“Like I said,” Jane answered, taking a deep breath and turning away, “if the dupe is feeling a really strong emotion, then it’s all you can see. It takes over.”
“She’s crying,” I said stupidly.
“Her dupe’s been down in the underground complex for two days,” Jane said. Her voice was quiet, somber. “She probably thinks she’s going to die.”
I sat on the edge of the newly dug trench, next to an enormous mound of gravel, and watched Joel and Walnut mix concrete in an old wheelbarrow. The cold earth under me felt good—my muscles were tired and sore, and I was sweating despite the winter air. I wanted to take the scarf off my face, but didn’t dare.
Maybe the reason Birdman wanted me down here was just because he didn’t want to shovel out the foundation himself.
“You got a minute?” Without waiting for a response, Shelly sat down beside me.
“Sure. Feeling better?” Despite her earlier episode, she looked completely normal.
“I’m fine,” she said. “Totally used to it.”
“That makes one of us.” Shelly had a Southern accent, something I didn’t remember her dupe having. Then again, I didn’t know her dupe well.
“You should have seen what this place was like before.” She leaned back on her hands and turned her face to the sky as though she were trying to get a tan. “You saw what just happened to me—imagine that happening to everyone, five or ten times a day each.”
“Sounds dangerous. What if it happened when you were crossing the stream or something?”
“We have the buddy system. You know when Birdman cuts your arm if you’ve been alone? That’s his paranoid take on a rule I started with the Greens. He uses the buddy system to make sure we don’t have dupes infiltrating the town, but I started it to make sure no one falls down the stairs or drowns in the stream because they’re getting feedback.”
Mouse was watching me from across the field, her face still a massive bruise. I couldn’t help but notice that a lot more Greens were working on the barracks than kids from the fort.
I turned to Shelly. I wanted answers. “Someone told me you Greens are cowards.”
Shelly’s face didn’t change noticeably. She picked up a handful of gravel and began tossing the rocks into the dry grass one by one.
“We’re not like Birdman,” she said, her voice even and emotionless. “Or Mouse or Harvard or Jane.” On Jane’s name Shelly glanced at me for just an instant before throwing rocks again.
I folded my arms. It was surprising how quickly I’d gone from overheated to freezing. “I’ve seen what they do with the maps and the lists,” I said. “At least they’re trying to escape. What do you guys do?”
“We’re not cowards,” she said with a cold smile. “Who’s more paranoid? The people who hide in a fort and slice arms open, or the people who live out in the open?”
“If you’re not paranoid, you’re stupid.” I stood up and offered her a hand. Walnut was pushing the heavy wheelbarrow toward us.
“What do I have to be afraid of? I’m not breaking any rules, and I don’t know anyone who’s breaking any rules.” She took my hand. “Except for the people who are hiding you.”
Shelly brushed dirt from her jeans. Walnut heaved the wheelbarrow up, and Joel scraped the cement into the trench.
“So what’s your strategy, then?” I asked as they pushed the wheelbarrow back to mix a second batch. “You’re just waiting for someone else to solve your problems? Birdman’s right—you are cowards.”
I was goading her, making her mad on purpose. If there was any truth to what Lily said, I didn’t want to waste my time with Harvard’s crazy midnight hunts and Birdman’s useless meetings. I wanted to get out of here.
She paused, and then looked right at me and spoke. “First things first: we aren’t anything, because there isn’t a ‘we.’ You’re not back at the school. There aren’t gangs.”
“No, listen. I want to escape. Tapti wants to escape. Some others do, too.” Shelly started pointing around the field at other kids. “But Taylor’s suicidal right now. Hog wants to sit and wait it out. Brendan thinks we should negotiate. And Eliana, well …”
“She’s human, but she thinks she’s a robot. They’ve screwed with her brain so much that she doesn’t even know who she is. So if you want to show up here without knowing any of us at all and tell me that we’re all cowards, then fine. Hooray for you. Go play with Birdman and flirt with Jane and get out of my way.”
She gave me a final look and then walked away.
I had no business interrogating anyone. Old habits die hard.
Someone shouted, far away, and then someone else.
The bell at the fort rang. I shot a look at Jane just to see her collapse to the ground. Everyone around me was going limp, dropping violently onto the frozen earth.
I jumped, instinctively running toward the fort. But it was too far. I could hear the sharp buzz of the four-wheelers’ engines—they sounded like they were all around me.
One came speeding out of the forest, not following any path, just smashing through the brush and into the open field. I fell to the ground, my face against the cold, slick dirt. I may have looked like one of the other kids from a distance, but I couldn’t stay here. They were looking for me.
I crawled on my elbows, not lifting up more than a few inches, and worked my way between two pallets of lumber. In the narrow space I couldn’t make out the direction of any of the engines—the sounds were all around me, both near and far.
This wasn’t a permanent solution, but I didn’t have any other ideas. I was out in the open, fifty yards from the nearest building. Worse, I didn’t know which direction I could run—I had no idea where they were. I couldn’t see a thing.
I took a deep breath and risked a peek around the edge of the lumber. One of the four-wheelers was racing down the dirt road toward the barn. It passed me without slowing. Iceman was driving.
Without waiting, I darted out from my hiding place and jumped down into the freshly dug trench, landing on the congealing cement. It was still wet, but too dense for me to sink into, and I lay on my back about a foot below ground level. With one hand I tried to scoop from the gravel pile, to create an avalanche that could hide me, but instead of covering myself I only made a lot of noise.
I peered aboveground again. The engines, wherever they were, all sounded like they were idling now. I couldn’t see any of them.
I reached for the nearest person—Walnut. “If you can hear me, sorry. I won’t enjoy this either.” I grabbed his coat by the back of the neck and pulled him toward the trench. He was bigger than me—taller, and his coat was unbuttoned and loose—and when I pulled his body on top of mine it seemed like he hid me pretty well. It was a long shot—my legs could have been sticking out—but it was the best I could do.
I heard voices. Iceman, either talking to himself or to another copy of himself.
This was idiotic. What was I doing out in the open anyway? If Iceman had just stood at the tree line with binoculars instead of swooping into town he could have easily picked me out. I wasn’t going to make this mistake again.
I was going to get Becky and me out of this town. And if Birdman and Shelly were no help, I’d figure it out myself.
It was nearly half an hour before everyone regained consciousness. There were no speeches this time, no announcements that the kids needed to hand us over. Instead, they just searched. I heard doors open and rustling brush. I heard footsteps near me, walking all through the construction site, but they never paused or called anyone over. Eventually the engines revved and disappeared into the forest.
Walnut moved, scrambling up and cussing at me.
“Sorry.” I shrugged, clambering out of the slippery cement.
“What if they found you and thought I was hiding you? Did you ever think of that?”
I didn’t bother to answer. I was running for the fort before he’d finished. I slipped across the wet rocks of the stream, sinking one foot in the icy water, and darted up the far bank.
I ran the hundred yards to the fort, my soaked shoe heavy and cold, my sweatshirt plastered with wet cement, and I pounded on the old wooden door. No one answered, and I pounded again, yelling for someone to open it.
A few long seconds later I heard the latch, and a guy’s face appeared. Since I was alone, he had his box cutter out, ready to check my arm.
He started to ask me what the hurry was, but I grabbed him by the jacket and shoved him out of the way, knocking him to the ground and launching the box cutter from his hand. He yelled something after me, but I ignored him, running for the Basement.
Lily sat on Carrie’s bed, a bruise swelling up on her cheek. She took a look at my clothes and smiled.
I breathed a sigh of relief. “Everything okay?”
Lily nodded and scooted the chair over to me so I could climb up into the Basement. Before I could, the door flew open. The sentry was there, and a bigger kid behind him. They both had box cutters out and ready, and the small one looked pissed.
Lily grinned at me. “Didn’t let them cut you?”
“You’re new here,” the sentry said, his arrogance ten times stronger now that he had backup. “So I’ll cut you some slack.” He grabbed me and drew the razor roughly down my arm. Blood spilled from my skin and dribbled onto the floor.
He spread the skin, checking the bone underneath, and then tossed me a bandage. “Do that again and I’ll kill you.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said, rolling my eyes and climbing back onto the chair. “It looked like you were really restraining yourself back there while you were lying in the mud.”
He took a step toward me, and Lily laughed. “Boys, boys. We’re all friends here.”
“Tell that to him,” the big guy said, and shuffled toward the door.
I ignored them all and pulled myself up into the Basement.
The two vents were closed, and a lantern was burning, filling the room with a warm yellow glow. Becky was still asleep, but she looked more peaceful somehow. I knelt beside her and touched her face—it was damp, but cool. Her fever was gone.
“How is she?”
“She’s Becky,” Lily said, peering in the opening after me, “which means that this time tomorrow she’ll be smiling like an idiot.”
Her joking made me tense up, but I tried to push my anger away. “You were here when Iceman came looking?”
“I jumped out when I heard the bell,” she said, and touched her bruise. “Landed bad.”
“She’s okay, though?”
“See for yourself,” Lily answered. “It’s not in the school’s best interest to let people die. They give us good medicine.”
I twisted the handle of the lantern, raising the wick and filling the room with bright yellow light.
I moved slowly, peeling back the gauze that wrapped Becky’s bare arm.
With the gauze removed I saw the thin silver patch Jane had laid over Becky’s gaping, jagged wound.
I didn’t even recognize what I saw underneath.
What had been a tangle of torn and infected muscle was now reassembled into what looked like an almost healthy bicep. I moved the lantern closer, searching for stitches—for anything that explained this—but there was nothing. Her entire upper arm was coated in something clear and thick, and—
No. It couldn’t be.
I stared at the wound—the wound that had been infected and festering—and saw new skin growing. Like delicate spiderwebs, tendrils of skin were creeping across the exposed muscle.
It’s a fort?” Becky asked, peering out the tiny vent onto the courtyard. The sun was just coming up, but she’d been awake for hours.
“Yeah. It was the first Maxfield.” I was exhausted, but too happy to sleep. She was almost back to her normal self. It was a miracle.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” she said, and left the vent to come back and nestle next to me, her good arm against mine. “So they’ve been kidnapping people for what? A hundred and fifty years?”
“I guess,” I said.
“Well, they couldn’t have been making robots back then,” she said, a smile in her voice. “Would they run on steam power?”
Our situation was ridiculous, but Becky didn’t seem concerned at all—just happy and curious. I was sure the worry would set in soon enough. For now, she just seemed glad to be conscious.
“The pipe,” she said excitedly. “Steffen Metalworks, 1893. Remember?”
I nodded. An inscription molded into an old pipe coming out of the foundation of the school. She’d shown it to me the night before we left.
“So,” she continued, “Maxfield started here, and then around the turn of the century they upgraded to the school. A change in the experiment?”
“That place can hold more people,” I said. “And that leaves this town for humans who have dupes.”
“There wasn’t anything like that school out here back then.” Becky had grown up not far from Maxfield—on a ranch in Arizona. She knew a lot more about the history of the Southwest than I did.
I took her hand, and she laced her fingers with mine. “What was there?”
“I studied Arizona history, not New Mexico,” she said. “But there would have been Spanish settlements, Pueblo tribes. Navajos and Apaches. There wouldn’t—well, there shouldn’t—have been giant Ivy League–looking private schools with walls around them.”
“What do you think it means?”
Becky shrugged, and winced at the movement of her arm. “I wish I knew.”
It felt good having her back. She was far from healed, but talking to her—seeing her irrational cheerfulness—filled me with the hope and happiness I hadn’t felt since she’d been hurt.
“What do you remember?” I asked. “From the last couple days.”
“Not much. A lot of bad dreams.” She looked up at me. “When I get sick I have math dreams.”
“I do math in my dreams,” Becky said with a small laugh. “I can always tell if I’ve got a fever, because in my dreams I’ll be trying to solve some math problem, and it’s impossible. It’s just the same thing, over and over, and I try different solutions and nothing ever works.”
“That sounds awful.”
“It is,” she said, and squeezed my hand. “You had it easy out here in the real world.”
We sat there quietly for several minutes. I’d already told her all that had happened since we got there.
Her voice was softer now. “You’ve met everyone here?”
I nodded. “I think so. Unless they’re hiding someone else.”
Becky rested her head on my shoulder. “So you know who all the robots were back at the school?”
She was quiet, waiting. I could only guess how much it would hurt her. She’d been at the school a lot longer than me, and she’d cared more about the other students than I had. I’d been watching out for myself since the day I’d started at Maxfield, but Becky had been watching out for everyone else. She’d helped start the Variants, and then she’d joined the Society because she couldn’t handle watching people die.
I swallowed. “There were twenty-two.”
She opened her mouth to say something, but stopped.
“By my count, there were sixty-eight of us back at the school when we tried to escape. Twenty-two of those were robots.”
Becky didn’t make a sound. For a long time, I couldn’t even hear her breathe. When she finally spoke, her voice wasn’t even as loud as a whisper. “Who?”
I recited the names. I’d made the list, and I’d looked over it a dozen times. I knew them all. Jane, Mouse, Carrie, Mason, and on and on.
She was silently crying by the time I finished.
“It gets worse,” I said. “Sixteen people died when we went over the wall—humans. And there’s reason to think that at least a few more died after. We’ll find out.”
I could feel her body tense against mine as she stifled her cries.
“There’s a little good news,” I said, knowing it wasn’t much. “Lily’s here. And Jelly and Walnut. And Laura. Anyone who got sent to detention. They weren’t killed.”
“They came here?”
“The school recycles.”
Becky smiled and wiped her eyes. “So, what is there to do for fun around here?”
“A lot of sitting around and talking,” I said. “We’re building a new barrack. I saw some guys with a Frisbee. Jane milks cows.”
She looked up at me. “I assume you’ve been getting into trouble?”
It wasn’t snowing, but the clouds were dark and low. It had to come soon.
The second day of the construction hadn’t gone very well. The concrete wasn’t setting in this weather, and none of us really knew what to do about it. Shelly had said they’d move forward anyway.
I helped out for a while, but there wasn’t much to be done. Some of the supplies were missing—the heavy bolts we needed for attaching the support beams to the piers apparently hadn’t come in with the rest of the lumber, and the board count was off. There was an elevator in the commissary—like the supply elevators back at the school—and Shelly left a written message there requesting the missing materials.
I spent most of the day back at the fort, and in the evening Becky finally felt well enough to leave the Basement. The heavy wooden door to the fort was closed and locked, and there were guards on the roof—Mason was up there, and three others. We were safe for the time being.
I sat on the boardwalk, looking across the courtyard at where Becky sat with Carrie, laughing quietly and talking. “You’re lucky,” Harvard said.
I nodded, my eyes still on Becky. Her arm was in a sling, but I couldn’t see it now, hidden under the heavy parka made for someone a foot taller and a hundred and fifty pounds heavier.
“If you can call this luck,” Birdman said, leaning forward to warm his hands over the campfire that we’d built on the ground. “So she’s getting better. Big deal.”
“She almost died,” Jane said.
Birdman shrugged and shoved his warmed hands inside his pockets. “Great. Now she can get caught and have an implant jammed into her head. Or she can get killed trying to escape.”
I couldn’t say the same thoughts hadn’t been going through my head, but it still hurt to hear them out loud.
“Or they’ll escape.” Jane’s tone wasn’t very convincing.
“We will,” I said. “That’s what we’re here for.”
Becky glanced over and smiled.
I didn’t turn my head as I spoke. “I have a question.” Becky was getting better, and an escape attempt seemed more of a certainty. It was time to figure out whether Lily had been right.
“There are always new people showing up at the school, right? And more people keep trickling in here. And it’s been going on a long time. So why aren’t there any adults here?”
Harvard turned to me, excited. “Here’s my theory. Someone is trying to create hyperrealistic androids, right? Well, we’ve speculated on a million reasons for them to do that, but no one can think of any reason they’d only want hyperrealistic androids of teenagers. I mean, can you?”
The thought had never really crossed my mind.
“Maybe they … I don’t know,” I stammered. I couldn’t think of a reason. “Create an army of robot teenagers and release them on the population because no one would suspect kids?”
Birdman laughed at the suggestion.
“That’s part of my theory, though,” Harvard said. “We know they’re making androids of teenagers, and we know that doesn’t make sense, so I think we can assume this isn’t the only android training facility.”
“What do you mean?”
Harvard started to answer, but Birdman talked over him. “It means that we’re screwed.”
“Depends on how you look at it,” Jane said, staring at the fire.
Harvard nodded. “When you get too old, they take you away. It’s happened a dozen times since I’ve been here.”
“Really?” I said. “That’s weird. Maybe they just take them away to kill them.”
Harvard scoffed. “You’re still stuck in the mind-set that this place is some evil torture chamber. No, I think they have to have a reason for what they’re doing. We’ve seen them kill plenty of people here—you saw them kill Dylan—so if they just killed adults, then why wouldn’t they do it here? No, they take adults away. I think it’s to another training facility. For adults.”
“So it never ends.”
“That’s bad and good,” Jane said. She flicked a sliver of wood into the fire and watched it burn. “We don’t get out of here. But we don’t die, either.”
Birdman stood up and turned his back to the fire to warm himself. “And what’s so bad about this place?”
I shook my head. “I’ve heard that crap before.”
Birdman’s response was sharp and fast, like he’d been waiting for me. “It’s time you listen to it. You’re not going to lead a rebellion here.”
“I thought the whole reason I’m here is to help you escape.”
Birdman looked at Harvard, who answered in his usual excited tone. “We have a lot of things we want you to do—like look for the transmitters—but most important, we want you to escape. It’s not that we don’t want to get out of here. We just don’t want to put our necks on the chopping block.”
“So you’re putting mine.”
It was Birdman who answered. “We already took our risk by hiding you here.” He pointed to Becky. “And it looks like we fulfilled our part of the bargain. Now we want you to escape so you can get us out of here.”
“It’ll still be a while before she can travel,” I said.
“You don’t have to leave yet,” Jane said quickly.
I looked at her, but she refused to meet my eyes.
Back at Maxfield, I’d thought she’d been giving up, that she was scared. Now I realized it was because the real Jane, the Jane here at the fort who was giving that android her emotions, was resigned. She’d rather face the unknown of adulthood in another prison than risk her life in an escape.
Lily was right. No one was trying to escape. Jane had given up; Harvard was crazy; Birdman was only planning for when he got too old and had to leave.
I’d been wasting my time.
We sat in awkward silence for several minutes watching the flames flicker and pop, leaving a trail of sparks winding up toward the dimming sky. I didn’t think I’d ever sat around a campfire before. Back in Pittsburgh we’d occasionally started a fire in a metal trash can in the winter, but this was the closest I’d ever come to camping.
“Want to know how it works?” Harvard said, breaking the silence and changing the subject.
“How what works?” I glanced at Birdman and he rolled his eyes.
“How Maxfield works,” Harvard said.
That surprised me. “You know?”
Birdman answered, his voice annoyed and tired. “He guesses.”
“I hypothesize,” Harvard corrected. “So, here’s the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question.”
Jane laughed a little, but it wasn’t annoyed, like Birdman. It almost sounded relieved. “One thing you’ll have to get used to. Every conversation with Harvard ends up with this question.”
“Because it’s the most important thing we need to figure out,” he said.
“Why we’re here?” I guessed.
“No, no, no! We know why we’re here. We’re here so they can test the androids. We’re here because of the neural link, and you guys at the school are props.”
“Yeah,” Harvard said, seeming to ignore the callousness of his statement. “Maxfield needs something for their robots to interact with. One of the big goals, I assume, is to fool the humans at the school.”
Birdman shot me a cruel look and winked. “You and Jane know something about that, right?”
Jane shot him a quick look, then stood and walked away.
“No, the question isn’t why we’re here,” Harvard said. “That’s been answered. The question is: who is Maxfield?”
“Well,” he said, “what do we know about them? Three big things. First, we know they started out here with this fort, and we know this fort is old—at least a hundred and fifty years.”
“You assume,” Birdman said.
“These are all assumptions,” he said, unfazed. “We know that at some point they expanded out of the fort. Benson, you told me about the pipe that Becky found—that school is old. Maxfield has been here a long time.”
He stood up, gesturing while he talked. “Second, this level of technology is ridiculous. Just think of all the crazy things they had to figure out. They had to build a robot that, structurally, was a perfect match for a human. Then they had to figure out the artificial intelligence—not only to make the robot act like a human, but to think that it’s human, that it’s real.”
I nodded. “And they had to make them look real.”
“Yes!” he said, pointing at me. “And it’s more than just looking real—the dupes have real skin. They bleed. They eat and sleep and breathe and think. They’re more than just robots that look human—they’re like artificial humans. How does that work?”
Birdman tapped on his forehead. “And there’s the implant.”
Harvard spun to face him. “The implant is crazy. And what about a power source? What’s keeping those dupes running for years? They don’t plug themselves in at night.”
“I get it,” I said. “They’re high-tech.”
“They’re more than high-tech,” Harvard exclaimed. “They’re impossibly high-tech.”
Birdman shook his head and sighed. “This is where you start taking things with a grain of salt.”
Harvard was indignant. “What?”
“You’re smart,” Birdman said with a laugh. “But the last grade you completed was what? Eighth?”
“Ninth,” he said. “And that doesn’t matter. You don’t have to go to college to know that a jet is more high-tech than a biplane.”
“What’s the third thing?” I asked. “They’ve been here a long time, they’re high-tech, and what’s number three?”
“Money,” Birdman said, standing up. He kicked one of the logs, rolling it toward the center of the fire. “They built this place and the school, and they own all this land, and they feed us all, and they pay for whatever makes the androids work. They have a lot of money.”
“So what does this tell you?” Harvard asked. I could tell he’d rather I ask him to enlighten me, but I wanted to take a guess.
“The technology doesn’t matter,” I said, “because of the money. Anyone with the money could have the technology.”
Harvard frowned. “No, the technology’s still important, because it’s so impossible.”
Birdman smiled. “If you’d never seen that jet, you’d think it was impossible, too. Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s impossible.”
“The time is what’s most important,” I said. “Because we know that whoever is behind this isn’t a single person. It’s a group. Anybody here at the beginning would be long dead by now.”
Harvard looked like he still wanted to talk about the technology, but he grudgingly nodded. “Right. We’re not talking mad scientist, or crazy rich guy. We’re talking about an organization.”
“Government,” Birdman said. “Has to be.”
“That’s my guess,” Harvard said. “This is Area 51 a hundred years before Area 51. Government testing.”
Birdman kicked at the fire again, angrier. “It should be pretty obvious. This is a fort. U.S. military. And who else would be able to keep this huge area a secret? Why doesn’t the forest service come through here once in a while?”
He was right. It should have been pretty obvious. I wasn’t a historian, but I couldn’t think of a group that could fit. Other ideas ran through my head—the Masons or the Illuminati or a dozen other conspiracies—but that stuff was only in the movies. Then again, so were androids.
“It still doesn’t make sense,” I said.
Birdman turned to leave. “Screw sense. C’mon, Harvard.”
Before they left, Birdman looked at me. “Here’s my most important question: If it is the government, do you think we’ll ever get help? Even if we escape?”
He didn’t wait for an answer, but strode off to the meeting room, Harvard a few steps behind him.
I felt frozen. Stuck. Helpless. I’d led too many people to their deaths, and I’d stood idly by while terrible people hurt the innocent. But what else was I supposed to do? Turn myself in? Live here until I got too old, and then be hauled away to an unknown fate? What if they just killed us all?
I looked up at the roof, at the guards who stood watch for animals and androids. They spent endless hours worrying about security. Maybe they could help me sort this out. And it was about time I finally talked to Mason.
There was a ladder, hand-built and rickety, in the corner of the fort for the guards to get up on the roof. I made sure my scarf was in place, and then climbed up.
There were four guys up there, but I knew only one of them.
He looked over at me, quiet and nervous, and then turned back to scanning the fields around us. It was dark, but the snow on the ground highlighted every rock and tree. There was a man walking slowly around the perimeter.
I instinctively ducked, though he was too far and it was too dark for him to recognize me.
“How long has he been out there?”
“You didn’t ring the warning bell?”
“Deer are out there almost every night,” he said. “Today it’s Iceman. But they’re all robots.”
We stood in silence and watched.
“What are punishments like here?” I asked, staring at the shadowy figure in the distance. He was in no hurry, just wandering slowly along the tree line.
“You don’t change,” he said, with a quiet chuckle.
“I don’t blame you,” I said, even though I had to force the words out. “For what happened to Becky.”
He didn’t answer. It was his dupe that attacked her, after he’d popped. He wasn’t in control—it wasn’t even his emotions.
“Punishments aren’t as bad as at the school,” he finally said, changing the subject. “We’re too valuable. They have to keep us happy. You saw what happened to Dylan.”
“Then I’m going to kill that guy.”
He laughed, too loud. “The hell you are.”
“Haven’t you ever wanted to see what’s inside one of those things?”
“Punishments here aren’t bad for us,” he said, emphasizing the last word. “We are important. You’re not. You don’t have a dupe, and you’re a pain in Maxfield’s butt.”
I didn’t care. “Do you have a weapon?”
I didn’t believe him. One of the other guards was very obviously carrying a baseball bat, and another had a claw hammer hanging from his hand.
“Mason,” I said, “I don’t care about what your dupe did. That wasn’t you. But this is you, and I need help.”
“You don’t get it,” he said, suddenly looking older, tougher, as I looked into his face. “It didn’t work. Sixty people tried and only two made it past the fence. What makes you think you can go another fifty miles by yourself?”
“I’ve killed other robots. It’s not impossible.”
I walked to the outside wall of the fort and looked down at the snow twelve feet below. He followed me. “Becky’s getting better,” I said. “And the deal was, they take care of Becky and I help you escape.”
“You’re not doing this for Becky,” Mason said coldly. “You’re doing it for you.”
I turned back to give him one final look. “You’re not the same Mason I knew back at the school,” I said. “I get that. And I’m not the same Benson. I’ve changed.”
With that, I swung a leg over the low wall, and then jumped down to the frozen ground outside the fort.
Shelly answered the door of her barrack, wearing the same pajamas she’d had on the other night. I pulled down my scarf long enough for her to recognize who I was. She looked surprised to see me.
“Can I come in?” I asked quietly, looking past her at the room of curious faces. “We need to talk—privately.”
She nodded, stepping aside to let me in. She closed the door behind me, and then motioned for the rest of the room to get back to whatever they’d been doing.
“Lily told me something,” I whispered. “And I didn’t believe it until now.”
“That Birdman’s full of crap?”
“I don’t trust you, Benson,” she said, her voice firm.
“I can cut my arm for you.”
She shook her head. “It’s not that. You’re human. You’re courageous. And you’re stupid and impatient.”
I paused, surprised. That wasn’t what I’d expected.
“I think you’re trying to escape,” I said.
“What makes you say that?”
“Because you don’t act like you’ve given up.”
“That’s not a lot of evidence.”
“I think it’s true, and I want in,” I said, “but that’s not what I came to see you about. I just need your help.”
She stared at me for a long time. She looked old for her age, tired and strong.
“I need a new coat, one that no one will recognize, preferably white. I’d love a ski mask.” I pointed to the woodpile next to the fireplace. “And I want that hatchet.”
She smiled, uncertain.
“I’m not going to murder Birdman.”
Shelly laughed quietly. “Wait here.”
The fort was silent when I got back, but my breath was heaving, and my heart was pounding out of my chest. They checked my arm when I came in—I was almost getting used to that by now—and I jogged to Harvard’s room, pounding on his door. After a moment he answered. His grogginess dissolved instantly when he saw the blood on my coat.
I panted for air. “How long does it take Maxfield to get here when there’s trouble?”
“About twenty minutes,” he said, already pulling on his shoes. “Depends on how mad they are.”
“Then you have about eighteen minutes to dissect Iceman. He’s sitting on the road in front of the fort.”
A grin broke across his face, and he was out of his room in an instant, banging on Birdman’s door but not waiting for an answer before he ran to the heavy fort door and out into the road.
I was exhausted, frozen to the bone. It hadn’t been a hard fight, but I’d spent an hour facedown in the snow, stalking him. When I finally got close enough, it had taken only two hits—one aimed for his neck, and then another flailing, desperate blow that smashed through his metal spine.
He’d never even seen me. It was over too fast for him to turn around.
Maxfield would be here soon. I jogged back to Carrie’s room. She didn’t stir when I entered, or when I slid a chair across the rough wooden floor to the wall. I lifted the cloth drawing, removed the panel, and climbed in.
Becky was asleep, the short lantern wick just barely holding a trickle of flame.
I took off my shoes and pulled my black Steelers sweatshirt back on. It was filthy and crusted from my time in the cement, but it was dry now, and warm.
I lay down next to her. The room was too narrow for me to avoid touching her, not that I wanted to avoid it. I wanted to hug her, and hold her, and tell her what happened.
“Hey, Bense,” she whispered sleepily.
I did something, Becky. We’re in danger. I wanted to say it, but all I did was blow out the lantern.
Lily had to be right. The Greens were the fighters, not Birdman. I needed to find out for sure.
She reached over with her good hand and touched my arm. “How are things?”
“I don’t know.”
A few minutes later the warning bell rang. I heard the outer door creak open and then slam shut and lock. A moment later, the roar of the truck engine filled the night air.
I’d put people in danger. But maybe it would help. Maybe Harvard would learn something.
I’d definitely learned something. I needed Shelly more than I needed Birdman.
I woke in the morning to the sound of voices. They weren’t shouting, or laughing, or yelling. They were just talking. I sat up, but Becky was faster, peeking out the vent toward the courtyard.
“Are they having another meeting?” I asked.
She shrugged and turned back to me. “I don’t see anything.”
I moved to the other vent.
“Oh, Becky …”