***SPOILERS AHEAD FOR COLONY ASSASSIN***
I feel the hide-a-bed shift as Alex sits down. She bounces idly on the corner, and my body aches in protest. I pull the covers tighter around me. The room is cold.
“Rise and shine,” says Alex. “It’s time to get up.”
“Maybe later,” I moan. “I’m not feeling very well.”
This isn’t a lie, but it’s more than that. I just want her to go away.
“There’s something in the kitchen that might make you feel better,” she says in a singsong-y voice. “Something weird and chocolatey that you’ve been wanting . . .”
There’s a pause. I’m not sure what she means. It’s too good to be true.
“You got me Ovaltine?” I mumble. When we were on Elderon, I found myself craving Ovaltine bad.
“Better,” says Alex. “The US government got you Ovaltine — taxpayer dollars hard at work.”
I don’t want to admit it, but I’m tempted. “Orange or blue?”
“Is that a trick question? It’s the chocolate malt kind. It was all you talked about for weeks.”
“Well, don’t say I never gave you nothin’.”
I groan and roll over — tempted but unmoved. It’s odd to see Alex trying to cheer me up. She normally has the disposition of a thumbtack.
It’s been nine days since Jonah was killed and New York fell under attack. The national guard moved in to put an end to the terror and killing, but they haven’t been able to stop the attacks.
The bots are indistinguishable from humans, and the strikes have continued all over the city. We listened to the news broadcast from an FM radio, crowded around the living room in a bubble of dread.
According to WITSEC, it’s not safe for us to leave the apartment. I’ve taken the directive as a license to sleep.
Every time I think about Jonah, I get this dull ache between my ribs. Just the thought of facing the world makes me want to throw up, but I kick back the musty sheets and am blinded by sunlight. It’s streaming in through a streaky window in the room that Alex and I share.
The furnishings are minimal — just a twin bed, a pull-out couch, and a beat-up chest of drawers. A lamp with a yellowed shade sits on the floor, but apart from that, there’s nothing.
“I thought that might coax you out,” says Alex, her familiar irritability returning. “We need to talk.”
“We don’t need to do anything,” I say. “We’re supposed to be in hiding.”
“No, you’re in hiding,” says Alex. “Ping and I are concerned that we haven’t heard from WITSEC.”
I sit up quickly and immediately wish I hadn’t. There’s a crick from the support bar in the hideaway bed imprinted along my spine. My body aches all over, and I feel as though I’ve lost all muscle tone.
I’m dressed in a plain white T-shirt and a pair of gray sweatpants that make me look like an inmate. This was the “sleepwear” we were issued, along with sacks full of oddly sized clothing. My hair is a tangled cloud of greasy curls. I haven’t showered since we got here.
I pad out into the main living space, where Ping is cooking at the stove. He’s perched on a barstool with his broken leg stretched out, making some kind of hot cereal. We were only given nonperishables in our initial supply drop. My stomach rumbles as I look around for the Ovaltine. I’ve barely eaten in days.
“Morning sunshine,” says Ping, enthusiastically stirring the gruel.
“Morning,” I say, turning to Alex. “I thought you said there was Ovaltine.”
“I lied,” she says, taking a seat. I should have known it was too good to be true.
The two-bedroom apartment was meant for five people — two in each room and one in the living room. But neither Ziva nor Jonah made it to the safe house. Both of them are dead.
Ping tosses me an apologetic look and hands over a cup of weak-looking coffee. I take a sip and almost spit it back out. It’s instant coffee that tastes like ash.
I blow on the cup out of politeness and watch Ping stir the breakfast mush. If I had no appetite before, I certainly don’t have one now.
He turns off the stove, scoops out a heap, and plops it into a bowl. He slides the bowl across the counter, and my stomach clenches in a knot.
I spoon up some of the whitish mush and let it slide back into the bowl. “I’m not very hungry,” I say with a grimace.
“You better eat it,” says Alex. “That’s all we got left.”
“What do you mean that’s all we have?”
“I mean that’s the last of it. Well, the cereal and the ravioli in the cabinet, but we’re going to need to save that.”
Ping gives me a look that says it’s true and opens the pantry with a flourish. My heart sinks. The shelves are completely empty except for a family-size can of Chef Boyardee.
“Did you try the number for WITSEC in the packet?” I ask. Colonel Sipps gave us everything we would need — including the number of a handler.
Alex nods. “It just rings and rings.”
“And Colonel Sipps?”
“Hasn’t been in touch. There isn’t a number for her in the packet, and I can’t very well get on my Optix to find a number for her office at Vandenberg.”
She’s right. All of our devices were confiscated before we were relocated. Even if we had one, logging in would be like sending up a beacon broadcasting our whereabouts to Mordecai.
I look over at Alex. For a moment, it’s as if we’re back in the newsroom, speaking a mile a minute. Alex and I have a shorthand. She was never just my editor. She was the person I looked to for insight and guidance. The woman is resourceful.
“The way I see it,” she continues, “we only have two options. Stay here and starve safely in our bunker, or risk an outing to get our hands on some food.”
I nod. I have no idea why WITSEC isn’t answering our calls, but it can’t be good. We’re going to have to fend for ourselves.
“I’ll go with you,” I say, immediately regretting my decision to leave the protective cave of the safe house.
I don’t want to leave. I just want to sleep. Getting dressed — going out — means I have to face reality.
“Great. Get dressed. We’ll leave in ten.”
I sigh. Alex already had a plan. She had it when she woke up this morning. Alex knows how to get people to do her bidding, and I fell right in her trap.
I go back to the bedroom and poke around for some clothes. All of them are still brand new. The T-shirts are folded in plastic packaging. The jeans are too big and scratchy. There are jackets and sweatshirts and socks and shoes, but none of it feels like me.
I jump in the shower at Alex’s insistence and spend ten minutes washing my hair. The warm water feels good — as though I’m washing off a fever — but I still feel weak and sick.
My brief moment of bliss is interrupted by a knock, and I know my time is up.
“Hurry!” barks Alex. “We need to leave now!”
I groan and rinse out my hair. I’m not ready to face my city in a stranger’s clothes. I’m not ready to acknowledge that things aren’t the same.
Jonah is dead. Ziva is dead. Mordecai is residing on Elderon. My home has been ravaged by bots, and there’s nowhere for me to go.
I pad back to the bedroom and pull on some clothes, wincing at the rough new fabric. I hate the feeling of unwashed new underwear, but it’s that or go commando.
I put on the jeans someone else picked out and a T-shirt I never shopped for. I miss my old clothes. I miss my old life, but I’m never getting it back.
Finally, I’m dressed and ready to go. Alex is standing out in the kitchen wearing a baseball cap and scarf. She tosses me a pair of sunglasses and another hat.
I cram it reluctantly over my curls and pull the ends of my hair into a braid. The sunglasses feel like overkill, but I need to hide my face. If Mordecai is still after us, he’ll be running a facial-recognition program.
“Good luck,” says Ping, eyes crinkling in concern. I know he wants to go with us, but we can’t take him in his wheelchair. I’m not sure what might be waiting for us out there, and we need to be fast on our feet.
“We should be back in an hour,” says Alex. “But don’t come looking for us if we don’t show up.”
I shoot Ping a funny look to downplay Alex’s gloom and doom. She has always been too blunt. It’s a side effect of the job. I’ve grown used to it working with her, but there’s no sense in leaving Ping worried.
We duck down the building stairs, hoping to avoid our neighbors. The WITSEC packet was very explicit about not making unnecessary connections. Loose connections can be dangerous. Loose connections blow your cover.
Luckily, no one else is out and about. There’s no one by the mailboxes. No one so much as sticks a head out of a doorway. The building is eerily silent.
We reach the ground level and step out into a morning that’s overcast and gray. The sidewalk is sparsely populated with a few people walking nervously toward the subway.
A blond woman in a red coat passes us on the sidewalk, her hands tucked into her pockets. Her head is bowed against the wind, and she keeps it down as she passes.
There’s a chill in the air unrelated to the weather, and I feel a sudden prickle of paranoia. The bots could be anywhere — hiding in plain sight. We’d have no idea if one passed us on the street.
Alex looks to me to lead the way, and I set out toward a corner market I know. Alex follows right at my shoulder, and I sense that she is feeling uneasy.
The mood in the city is somber and nervous. There’s a faint plume of smoke dissipating on the horizon, left over from a subway attack that killed twenty-four people. Not a day’s gone by without some incident. The city is on its knees.
We reach the market five minutes later, and my heart sinks to my feet. The inside of the building is dim and dark. The market isn’t open.
I try the door handle. It does not budge, though the hours on the door say it should be open. I step up to the window and peer inside, but there’s no one in the store.
The market shelves are completely empty — looted, by the looks of things. Pieces of packaging litter the floor. The aisles are bare and gray. One of the windows on the other side has been broken — covered with a piece of cardboard.
“Shit,” says Alex.
I rack my brain. There’s another supermarket three blocks down and a Chinese grocery close by, but I’m starting to feel uneasy. There are way fewer people on the street than normal — probably because they’re scared. Each bot attack has been followed by violence — riots, looting, and beatings.
Nowhere in the city feels safe right now, and people have retreated to their homes.
“Come on,” I say, leading the way to the supermarket where I used to get my favorite coffee.
Alex follows me down the sidewalk, looking furtively from side to side. I keep thinking that she’s attracting attention more than she’s ensuring our safety. She looks like a woman on the run.
When we reach the second supermarket, I know that we’re too late. Broken glass litters the sidewalk below the faded green-and-yellow sign. The store is dark, the windows are boarded, and there’s a ribbon of clear tape trailing out the door.
The front door isn’t boarded, and the lock is broken. I enter the store, and the little bell dings, though there’s no one inside to hear it.
“This is unbelievable,” says Alex, looking around. “You think this happened after nine eleven?”
“I don’t think there was a threat of anarchy after nine eleven.”
Our voices echo off the empty shelves, and I get a sinking feeling as I take in the ravaged store. The floor is covered with broken glass, cardboard boxes, and the merchandise that no one must have thought worth stealing: a mostly eaten donut, cream-cheese frosting, and a bag of sour-dip candy.
Alex takes the aisle next to mine, and we walk toward the back of the store. The place is much darker than I’d expected without the comforting fluorescent lights. I hear the crunch of glass underfoot as Alex and I chart parallel paths. I feel my hope diminishing.
“Store room?” says Alex when we meet at the back.
I nod. We might as well. There’s nothing out here.
As it turns out, the shopkeeper had enough sense to lock the store room, but Alex lets herself into the employee break room instead. In the middle of the room is a long beat-up table and chairs with peeling plastic cushions. It still smells like old coffee and burnt microwave food.
“Jackpot,” says Alex, her gaze locking on the vending machine tucked in a corner.
The vending machine is still completely full of potato chips, Little Debbie snacks, and Hershey’s candy bars. My mouth automatically starts to water.
I pull the envelope of cash out of my jacket pocket, hoping we have some ones, but Alex picks up a brick they’d been using as a doorstop and hurls it against the glass.
The front of the vending machine shatters with a crash, and she gingerly knocks a few shards loose.
“Why did you do that?”
“Like anybody is going to notice. Have you seen this place? Besides, all we have are twenties and hundreds, and I’m not going to starve because of your scruples.”
I roll my eyes. Clearly Alex has no scruples. Maybe I don’t either. I certainly don’t stop her from emptying the food into paper shopping bags. We fill two big sacks with our haul, leaving only the Tic Tacs and orange-flavored gum.
We make our way back to the front of the store and stop just inside the doorway. It looks like rain. I check both ways to make sure the coast is clear, and we slip out of the store.
We walk back toward the safe house weighed down by our bags, and a light rain starts to fall. I lean my face into the bag to block the wind, but I nearly drop it when someone reaches out from a stairwell.
“Miss . . . Miss!”
I look down, heart racing — ready to run for my life.
A homeless man with a gray beard and an army jacket is looking hungrily at our bags. “You got some food?”
“Yeah . . . here,” I say, feeling uneasy as I reach into the bag. I hadn’t seen the man at all, and my nerves are still jarred. But I fish out some snacks and hand them over. It seems like the human thing to do.
“What are you doing?” Alex hisses, standing as far away as she can while still remaining on the sidewalk.
I give her a sidelong look. I’m not sure what to do. Back when I lived in New York, I rarely gave money to panhandlers, but giving this man food hardly seems like something to argue over.
The city is being terrorized by an army of bots. It feels cruel not to share just a little.
The man takes the food from me with a grateful nod, and we keep walking toward the apartment. Alex is still muttering under her breath, but before I can even cut her off, I hear a yell from behind.
It isn’t the homeless man. He’s disappeared down the stairwell, desperately trying to stay out of the rain. Two men are coming down the sidewalk behind us, bundled up in baggy coats.
“Are they talking to us?” Alex whispers.
“I think so,” I breathe.
“You shouldn’t have given that homeless guy food. I think it sends the wrong message.”
“And what message is that?”
“That we’re open for business. It makes us a target — a target with food.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I’m not being —”
“Hey!” yells one of the men from behind.
This time, I don’t turn around. They’re not far off. I can sense them closing the distance between us, and it’s making me anxious. I want to get home.
As much as I hate to admit it, Alex is right. Things aren’t the way they were a month ago. This isn’t my New York. Giving that man the food was a bad idea. It did attract unwanted attention.
I can hear the men clomping behind us, calling at our retreating backs. They’re angry that we won’t answer them, but I’m too terrified to see what they want. I can feel my heart beating against my ribcage. We’re still four blocks away from home.
“This way,” I say to Alex, turning down a side street.
I’m hoping the men will give up and decide not to follow, but I get a sinking feeling when they turn down the same street.
“Fuck! They’re following us.”
“Yeah, no shit.”
Alex’s voice is low and calm, but I know she must be panicking.
“What do we do?”
“Didn’t you learn how to kill people in the Space Force? With your bare hands and shit?”
The situation has definitely escalated if Alex is asking me if I know how to kill a man. I don’t think we’re there yet, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared.
I quicken my pace, but the men walk faster. They’re bellowing angry catcalls at our retreating backs, their voices loud and vulgar. It’s clear what they’re after now, and it isn’t just our food.
“We should run,” says Alex in a single breathless whisper.
“No,” I hiss. Running is a bad idea.
“Run!” says Alex, breaking into a sprint.
My heart stutters as she starts to run, and I move my feet faster. Alex is slow and clumsy, running with the bag. Our pursuers seem to take her change in pace as a challenge, and I hear their feet slapping behind us.
I break into a run, too, hardly able to see. My whole body is thrumming with adrenaline, but my feet seem slow and sluggish.
I shift the bag in my hands and try to run faster, but I feel the paper slipping through my panicked hands. I try to grab hold of it as I run after Alex, but I hear a loud ripping sound as the bag tears in two.
Bags of chips, instant ramen, and candy bars spill out. I try to stop the cascade of food, but I only manage to save a little.
Alex is already a hundred yards ahead, and I have to sprint to catch her. The men are huffing along behind us, but I know that they are faster.
Alex whips around a corner and then another, and it’s all I can do to follow. She seems to be moving in a zig-zag pattern, ducking down an alleyway and up the next street. I’m not convinced that she knows where she’s going — she’s already taken us two blocks out of our way — and soon I’m clutching the stitch in my side.
I fly out of the alleyway and come around the corner, but Alex . . . Alex is gone.
My chest is heaving. My brain is scrambled, and I have a sinking feeling in my gut. Alex could be anywhere, and the men are only a few yards behind.
I whip my head back around and keep moving in the direction I think she went, but then a hand shoots out of nowhere.
I open my mouth — lungs primed to scream — but then a hand clamps over my mouth. I stumble, nearly losing the rest of the food, and a hand yanks me back into the dark. Terror seizes me as I’m yanked into a doorway.
I can’t breathe. My heart is spasming. But then I smell a familiar fragrance.
Deep in the shadows, I see the fearful shine of her eyes. She managed to keep a hold of her groceries. The men rush past without a second glance, and I hold my breath in my chest.
I wait until their footsteps fade before letting out a huff. “Never do that to me again.”
“Would you rather I let them catch you?”
“You could have gotten us killed just then.”
“I’m not the one who was giving out food.”
I shoot her a dirty look and then decide to let it go. My heart is still racing, and I can’t catch my breath. The city has become a dangerous place, and we are pitifully unprepared.
We make our way back to the safe house in fearful silence. Alex still has her bag of groceries, but this junk food isn’t going to keep us from starving. I shouldn’t have given some of mine away. That was stupid pre-Mordecai thinking.
We reach the building sweaty and subdued. The climb up the stairs seems to take ages.
When we walk in, I half expect Ping to be waiting by the door with some goofy joke on his lips. Instead, he’s sitting beside the radio with a downcast look on his face.
“The world’s lost its mind,” says Alex, setting her bag on the counter with a huff. I dump the last few items I managed to keep hold of and tear open a package of snack cakes. I wolf one down without really tasting it and hold the other out to Alex.
She wrinkles her nose.
Ping looks up as if he’s seen a ghost. Immediately I know that something is wrong.
“We need a different strategy,” Alex muses, still oblivious to Ping.
“The markets in this part of town are wrecked,” I explain. “I can go back out and try to find one that hasn’t been looted, but —”
“No,” says Alex. “You can’t go alone. It’s too dangerous.”
“What’s dangerous is carrying around giant bags of groceries when people all over the city are panicking.”
“Guys,” says Ping, nearly choking on the word.
“All I’m saying is that we shouldn’t just be wandering around —”
“Guys!” This time, it’s clear that he means it. His eyebrows are rumpled in concern.
“What?” snaps Alex, annoyed at being interrupted.
“The vice president . . . Well, the president — Chaffey —” Ping takes a deep breath. “He was holding a special joint session of Congress to discuss the bot crisis at the Capitol . . . There was an attack. Nerve gas. The VP and Congress . . . All of them are dead.
That statement falls with the weight of a hammer.
At first, it seems too bizarre to be true. I can’t even absorb it.
How could this have happened after everything else? How could the government let this happen? The joint session of Congress was meant to be conducted amid some of the most rigorous security the nation had ever seen.
The Capitol would have been swept for explosives, and bomb-sniffing dogs would have been crawling all over. The Secret Service, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Capitol police would have been involved in checking the chamber for chemical weapons, biological toxins, and anything that appeared suspicious.
How could one of Mordecai’s bots outsmart the nation’s top security experts? That’s assuming Mordecai was behind the attacks.
“The vice president?” I ask. I still can’t bring myself to call him the president.
“Dead,” says Ping. “At least, that’s what they’re saying on the news.”
Alex’s face is slack with shock. She’s no longer thinking about the groceries.
For the rest of the evening, we sit like zombies, gathered around the radio. The reporting is measured, incomplete, and erratic. It’s torture to be on the other end of the broadcast.
Later we learn that some members of Congress were still being taken out when the first report aired. Most were pronounced dead when they arrived at the hospital, but a few were still breathing. Two are alive.
A Colorado democrat and an independent from Maine are the two representatives in critical care.
Dinnertime comes and goes, and still my hunger has not returned. Day fades to night outside the window, and we stay huddled in a circle.
At some point Alex hands me some water, but I can’t even bring it to my lips. I feel weak and lightheaded, but I’m glued to my seat. History is unfolding before us.
Around midnight, Ping falls asleep, and Alex mumbles that she’s going to bed. I stay up after the daily broadcast ends, staring at the wall. There will be nothing new until tomorrow, but my legs feel like lead. I can’t bring myself to move.
Through a crack in the shades, I see an orange glow. The street lights still come on, even though our nation is in darkness. I wonder how long that will last.
Then I think of my mom and dad in New Jersey watching this on the news. I think of Adra and Davis, who probably don’t know yet. I think of Kiran getting up to go to work in the morning, wondering if there will be work at all.
God, I miss Kiran. There isn’t a single soul in this world who could make me feel better, but suddenly I need to see him.
I know it’s dangerous. I know it’s stupid. But right now it feels as though all bets are off.
WITSEC is unreachable. Colonel Sipps is MIA. Tomorrow morning, chaos will descend. I might not get another chance.
Pulling myself out of my chair, I glance at the clock on the stove. It’s already after midnight, but I find that I don’t care. I’m sick of being safe — of staying out of the way. What have I got to lose?
Grabbing my jacket off the back of the chair, I slip out of the apartment and head down the stairs. The temperature outside has plummeted to the fifties, and I pull the denim jacket tighter around my middle.
The street is nearly empty — a rare sight in New York. I count four cars as I make my way down the block, moving slowly up the street as if churning through snow.
Everyone is cautious tonight. No one knows what tomorrow will bring.
Up ahead, I see a lone figure walking in the same direction, but no one even passes me. The street lamps seem to be spaced farther apart than usual, casting deep shadows over the sidewalk.
Every so often, my eyes play tricks on me, and my heart leaps at the suggestion of movement in the shadows. I’m imagining things, I tell myself. Alex has made me paranoid.
But walking alone at midnight on the eve of anarchy — maybe it isn’t paranoia at all.
My chest swells when I reach my block and all the old familiar sights. I pass the bodega where I used to buy newspapers with its boarded-up windows and sun-faded sign. Raj, the owner, didn’t waste any time. He probably closed up at the first sign of trouble.
My old apartment seems more welcoming and less run-down than I remember. My eyes drink in the crumbling brick facade and heavy mat of ivy with fondness.
I don’t have a key to unlock the front door, but the side entrance to the laundry room is usually cracked. The heat from the dryers makes that room unbearable, but a rock in the doorjamb allows heat to escape.
When I slip inside, I’m hit with that overpowering scent of fabric softener. The window’s still filthy, the tile still grubby. Nothing in here has changed.
I take the steps up to our floor and hover on the landing. Part of me is scared to knock. I don’t even know if Kiran will be here, and I’m terrified what I’ll think if he doesn’t answer.
There’s no reason for Kiran to be dead. I never heard that he’d been hurt or killed. But he is a bike messenger with routes that take him all over the city. He could have been caught in an attack.
Steeling myself for the worst, I knock. I knock so softly that I’m not sure he could have heard, but my heart pounds in my throat. I knock again, more urgently, glancing at Mr. Meyers’s door. If I wake him up, he’ll be mad, and that will put Kiran in danger. Nobody can know I was here — especially not the building busybody.
I try the door handle. It’s locked, and I get a horrible sinking feeling. Kiran should be here. He has work in the morning.
I turn, head spinning, thinking I’ll just sit down for a minute. My legs feel wobbly, and I’m getting lightheaded. My mind is swirling with grim what-ifs. I won’t be able to rest until I know he’s safe.
Thundering down the stairs, I let myself out the front of the building and go around to the fire escape. I count windows until I find our unit, which is completely unnecessary. The ceramic turtle planter I bought is still on the fire escape — probably with my succulents wilted inside.
Pulling a trash bin under the fire escape, I climb onto it and reach for the ladder. At first I’m just able to brush it with my fingers, but then I stretch up and manage to grab hold.
I pull it down with a creak and climb up to the window. The shades are drawn. The room seems dark. But I’ve come this far already, and I’m not stopping now.
The window slides up without any trouble, and I get a shiver of excitement. It would scare the shit out of Kiran if he thought I was a burglar, so I step down carefully and lower the window.
The furniture is exactly as I left it: same ratty couch, same scuffed-up coffee table, same posters on the walls. I can see it all in the orange glow of the street lamps, but then I sense movement deeper in the shadows.
I hear a thump and a huff and wheel around in alarm. Something hits me upside the head, and I let out an agonized scream.
I stumble back, seeing stars, and then I’m blinded by light. I hit the wall, head aching, and hold up my hands.
I brace myself for another blow, but the strike never comes.
Squinting in the lamp light, I see Kiran standing in front of me. He’s choked up on a baseball bat, which he keeps for protection. He’s dressed in a pair of silk boxers and tall white socks. He still has his purple mohawk, and I break into a grin.
“Maggie?” He looks stunned.
“Hey,” I say, rubbing my head.
He drops the bat. “Oh my god. Did I hurt you?”
“Well . . . It didn’t feel great.”
“I’m calling the police!” yells a voice from his room.
“Don’t bother,” Kiran calls. “We’ll never get rid of her.”
Another man stumbles out in underwear and a rumpled Oxford shirt. It’s pocket-square guy — Kiran’s new beau.
“Who are you?” he says, completely aghast.
“This is Maggie,” says Kiran, cracking a wicked smile. “Girl, what are you doin’ here? I thought you went to space.”
“It’s a long story. I’ll tell you all about it.”
“The world falls apart, and here you are.” He turns to Pocket Squares — Brom, I think. “Garçon, break out the bubbly. We got some catching up to do.”