Jonah

The fog of drugs starts to lift after my fourth or fifth day in the infirmary. There’s no clock in the room — no way to tell time — so I measure the days by my meals. I don’t know how long I was here before they decided to feed me, but it can’t have been more than two days.

As soon as the drugs wear off, there’s nothing in this world that could make me sleep. My body has taken a serious beating, but that pain is the only thing keeping me sane.

Because of the pain, I can’t focus on how badly I fucked up. I can’t focus on Jade lying motionless on the other side of the curtain. I can’t think about Jared or Maggie or . . . him.

Just the thought of Mordecai makes my heart race with fury. My chest gets tight, blood heats my face, and I feel as though I could rip off the cuffs restraining my left wrist to the bedrail.

It’s the worst sort of torture being trapped in bed with nothing to think about except my own failure. It’s my fault that Jade is lying there being pumped full of drugs. It’s my fault that Jared is hurt and that Mordecai is still alive.

My only consolation is that Maggie escaped, but even that victory is crowded out by worry.

Mordecai claims to know where she is. I don’t know how, but he got to Sipps. Colonel Sipps knew where Maggie and Ping went, and now Mordecai knows, too. He’s going to use that information against me — I’m just not sure how.

Time passes at a crawl as I wait for my next meal. The only sound is the beep of machines and the persistent blow of air through the ducts. Normally I wouldn’t even notice these sounds. But lying here alone, the blowing sound is deafening. The beep of Jade’s monitors grows shriller by the second. The lights in my room stay on twenty-four/seven. If the constant drip of rage wasn’t enough to keep me awake, the lights would do the trick.

Every few days, two bots come in to change my clothes. At least they’ve given me sweats and a T-shirt instead of that paper-thin gown.

The humanoids that bring my meals are always cold, gorgeous, and silent. They set down my tray, raise up my bed, and return after I’ve eaten to take my tray. My right arm is free so that I can feed myself, but so far I’ve only been allowed a spoon. Maybe Mordecai thinks I might try to off myself or stab a bot with a fork.

By day five, I think I might lose my mind. That shrill beeping noise is starting to get to me. I feel it like a tiny knife to my temple. My eardrums ache with the relentless sound. It’s driving me insane.

The bot breezes in with my dinner tray as usual. This one is a pale brunette with unnaturally blue eyes. Its hair is long with a very straight cut, held back by a single bobby pin. The bot sets my tray down on the table and bends over to adjust my bed.

Dinner is a block of tuna-noodle casserole with a cup of canned peaches and two slices of bread. The casserole looks next-level disgusting. The smell alone would kill a small dog. Elderon’s new food is a special form of torture. Mordecai wages war every meal.

I stare down at the congealed gray muck and tap at the edge of it with the side of my spoon. The lump of casserole wiggles like Jell-O. I peel open the cup of peaches. I eat the bread and down some water, leaving the casserole untouched.

I hate it here. It’s making me crazy. I would almost rather be dead.

I’m still stewing in my own puddle of misery when the door creaks open and the bot reappears. The bot is here to take my tray. It moves with machine precision. The whole dance is choreographed down to the second. I’ve witnessed it enough times to have the whole process memorized.

The bot moves the tray table away from the bed. I see it check for the spoon. It moves just a few inches to my right and leans forward to adjust my bed. For three seconds, the bot is close — just close enough to touch.

In that moment, I see my chance. I don’t think — I just take it.

Just as the bot bends down to push the button, I shoot out a hand and grab a fistful of hair. The hair is slick and fake like a doll’s, and I give the bot’s head a yank. It would be enough to cause a human agony, but the bot doesn’t make a sound. Its whole body seems to freeze as it processes what’s happening, and its torso wiggles against me.

The bot starts to fight, but I tighten my grip. I catch an elbow to the mouth. A surge of pain shoots through my teeth all the way to the back of my skull. I taste blood in my throat, but I don’t let go. Then I catch a blow to the face.

I release my grip, and the bot stands up. I’m breathing very fast. Blood is streaming down my face. I think my nose is broken. The bot’s eyes are bright with ruthless efficiency as it shoves the tray table back.

A second later, it turns on its heel and closes the door behind it. My head is spinning. My mouth is bleeding, but I know that I got what I wanted.

I wait several minutes to make sure it’s gone before unfolding my clenched fist. A single black bobby pin is nestled in my palm. That was all I needed.

Keeping an eye on the door, I start to bend the pin into shape. I know I don’t have much time. If news of my violent rebellion gets back to Mordecai, I might just lose my chance.

Once the bobby pin is bent into shape, I stick the end into the keyhole and begin working on my cuffs. It takes me less than five minutes to release the lock, and once my left arm is free, I can untie my legs.

I get up out of bed, and the blood rushes to my feet. Every part of me is stiff and sore. I stumble over to the other side of the bed and pull back the curtain dividing the room.

Jade is lying motionless in bed. Her eyes are closed. She’s hooked up to an IV drip. That drip is pumping poison straight into her veins, but the dose is controlled by a keypad box.

I follow the clear tube to where it’s stuck in her arm and find the needle carrying the drugs to her veins. There’s a tiny sensor wrapped around the tape that will trip an alarm if the drip is removed.

Bastard.

I can’t remove Jade’s IV without alerting the bots. I don’t have a plan, but I’m not getting caught, so I just turn around to go.

I don’t owe Jade anything. I did what I could. It’s her plan that got us into this mess.

Moving slowly and with care, I crack the door an inch. I look out into the hallway. There’s not a bot in sight.

I slip through the door and out into the hall. I know exactly where I am. The last time I was in the infirmary, I was with Maggie. She was almost killed by a humanoid doctor. That was the beginning of the end.

Floating down the hall in total silence, I see the door to the waiting room. I keep waiting for a bot to step out and catch me, but the hallway is deserted.

I’m just a few yards from the waiting area when I reach an open door. A familiar beeping noise jars my senses, and I glance over my shoulder into the room.

A young man is lying in bed with a plastic brace around his neck. The skin under the bruises is a deathly grayish white. His face is swollen beyond recognition. He’s hooked up to half a dozen machines. His chest rises in a predictable rhythm. He must be on a respirator and who knows what else.

I stumble into the room, feeling very dizzy. I didn’t know it was this bad. I knew he’d been hurt in the battle at BlumBot, but I’m looking at a broken man.

Jared doesn’t stir when I approach the bed. He must be heavily sedated. He has no idea I’m even here. He could be brain-dead, for all I know.

I shake his foot, but he doesn’t respond. His chest inflates with a robotic sucking sound. I feel tears burning in the back of my throat as I stare down at his swollen face.

I clench my jaw. If I let myself feel, if I give in, I don’t know how I’ll survive. The only way forward is to push past the pain, and that means I cannot feel it.

“Wyatt?” says a voice.

I wheel around with a start.

Greaves is standing in the doorway. He’s dressed in his usual Space Force blues, but his face tells me he hasn’t slept. His eyes are sunken. His cheeks are gaunt. He looks as though he’s aged ten years.

“You up and about?”

“Not supposed to be.”

“I was wondering when you’d escape.”

He’s staring at me with a look I don’t recognize — a mix of surrender and despair.

“What the hell happened?”

“You don’t know?”

I sure don’t like the sound of that.

“Know what?” I ask, afraid of his answer. I can tell by his face that it’s serious.

He shakes his head. “Maybe it’s better. I wish I didn’t know.”

“What the hell is going on?”

Greaves lets out a sigh, and his whole body seems to sag. He’s exhausted and defeated. His face tells the story of everything we’ve lost. That expression fills me with dread.

“Come on,” he says. “You have to see for yourself . . .”

My chest clenches with fear as I follow Greaves out, still looking around for the bots.

I have no idea what Greaves is doing here. It’s not as though we’re friends. But then I realize I’m one of the few sergeants left. Many of us were killed in battle. Greaves came to visit because he needs me. He needs to rally the troops.

He leads me out of the infirmary and back to the defense sector. The hallway is eerily quiet. I get a shiver as we approach the war room. It feels surreal being back here.

Without the dead soldiers lining the hall, it’s as though the battle never happened. If it weren’t for the oppressive silence, I might believe it was all a bad dream. But then I catch a glimpse of a fellow sergeant walking down the hall. He carries himself with wounded pride, and I know we lost the space station.

Greaves leads me into the war room, and I get a jolt of déjà vu. I can picture Callaghan bleeding out on the floor and the shattered humanoid skull.

At first I think Greaves might act all official and scold me for the assassination gone bad. But then he turns toward the cabinet and produces a bottle of bourbon. He pours two stiff drinks and hands one to me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Greaves drink.

He slumps down into a high-backed leather chair and touches his Optix to turn on the screen. It lights up as I sink down beside him. The newscast is playing on mute.

They’re playing footage from Capitol Hill, and the headline hits me like a punch to the gut: 3 Confirmed Survivors in Nerve-Gas Attack — State of Emergency Declared.

“He planned this,” says Greaves in a gravelly voice, taking a swig of bourbon.

“Who?”

“Who else? Mordecai. He wanted them dead. He wanted the world in chaos.”

I open my mouth, but no words come out. I don’t know what to say.

The image on screen switches to the White House and the tall fence around the grounds. The walkway is littered with posters and flowers. Mourners have gathered at the Washington Monument. American flags stand at half-mast. The screen switches to a candlelight vigil.

“The VP called an emergency joint session in the aftermath of the president’s death. They’ll never prove it was him, but it had to be him — Mordecai and the bots.”

“How did this happen?”

“I don’t know. We’ll probably never know for sure. They’re gonna bury this, Wyatt. Not now, but eventually. The economy will collapse. We’ll hold an election. The new Congress will pass some laws. Then they’re going to pretend that this never happened. This is exactly what he wants.”

I shake my head. “No one is going to forget an attack like this. America is going to war.”

“With who? The bots?” Greaves kills his drink and pours himself another. “The American military is no match for the humanoids. We’ve never fought an enemy like this. I’m not going to get in his way, and I suggest that you don’t either.”

“What the hell is wrong with you? He attacked our country! He killed our leaders! We have to go to war!”

“No, we don’t. We have to fall in line. Otherwise we’ll be dead, too.”

“You’re a coward,” I growl, getting to my feet.

“We don’t have a choice anymore.”

“There — is always — a choice!” I snarl, staring at Greaves in contempt.

“The only way to have choices is to stay alive, Wyatt. Once you’re dead, that’s gone.”

As I stare at Greaves, I’m overwhelmed by disgust. I can taste his fear. In that moment, we’ve already lost. Greaves has surrendered to Mordecai.

“How many are dead?” I ask. But I don’t want to know. I don’t think I can take any more.

Greaves turns to me with a blank expression. I’m not sure if it’s shock or the alcohol. “All of them,” he says. “All but three . . . Mordecai killed them all.”

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