Cold fingers closed around my throat.
I choked, feeling the burning pain as hands pressed down on my wind pipe.
My body jerked awake, and my eyes snapped open. Eyes watering, lungs burning, I could just make out the dark outline of my attacker. His silhouette was superimposed against the canvas flap of my tent. I clawed at his hands, kicking and twisting to escape.
I tried to cry out, but nothing except a helpless mew escaped my constricted windpipe. I swung my fist against his ear — hard — and I heard a muted yell of pain.
There was a shimmer of gold in the weak light, a soft gasp, and the fingers relaxed.
Finally freeing my leg from the straightjacket of my sleeping bag, I aimed a forceful kick into the gut of my attacker. He flew backward, falling through the tent flap and into the morning light.
It wasn’t a him; it was a her.
“Oh god,” Logan breathed from the floor.
I gasped for air, trying to catch my breath as I pieced together what had happened.
“What — the — hell?” My voice was raspy from the dry air.
Logan was splayed on the ground, her golden curtain of hair fanning out around her. Her face was ashen.
Gingerly, I felt my throat where her hands had choked off my airways. It was on fire.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I think I had another nightmare.”
We both had. I looked down to see my own sleeping bag twisted around to the middle of the tent beside hers. I’d been thrashing in my sleep again, and I must have jerked right into her.
I couldn’t remember my dreams, but if I had to guess, they involved the blood on my mother’s pillow, the look in Amory’s eyes as I fell through the air, and Max suspended in slow motion after the PMC filled his chest with bullets. These images had been on a constant loop in my head for the past few weeks, and I could only imagine how awful it was for Logan.
She had seen him die. We all had, but Logan was in love with Max. I knew from the way she woke up screaming or sobbing that she could not shake that horrible final image. This wasn’t the first time I’d awoken with her hands wrapped around my throat either, but it was better than the alternative. I didn’t want to sleep alone.
I tried to laugh, but it sounded hollow and forced. “Maybe I should bunk with Greyson,” I said, watching her face carefully. “He’s not much of a snuggler, but at least he doesn’t know Krav Maga.”
Logan’s huge green eyes quivered, and I felt a pang of guilt. It was too soon for humor.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I don’t know why I —” She broke off, putting a hand to her mouth to muffle a sob threatening to escape. Her eyes were swimming with tears.
“Shh. It’s okay.” I crawled over to where she lay and pulled her into my arms. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry?” she cried. “I almost strangled you.”
“You didn’t. I’m fine.”
She let her head fall against my shoulder and started to sob. I squeezed her and rested my chin on top of her golden head, willing myself not to cry. It had been a horrible few weeks. I carried the weight of Max’s death like a dead albatross around my neck. It was my fault he was there to begin with, and I didn’t deserve to be the one who had survived.
Some days, the thought of rescuing Amory was the only thing that kept me going, and lately, even that seemed so far out of reach. Today would be just another day suffocating under the weight of that sick, helpless feeling that burned my throat and made my stomach ache. It never stopped.
When Logan’s tears dried up, I pulled her to her feet without a word, and we shuffled out of the tent into the early morning sun. Neither of us would mention it again. It was easier to pretend we didn’t feel how heavy a load we carried. Going through the motions was the only thing to do.
The rebel camp was situated at the top of a hill a few miles outside the border of Sector X. Dozens of tents stood in neat blocks among the fir trees, leading to the blazing fire at the center of camp where people gathered to thaw their fingers and warm their bones from the constant bite of cold. We crunched through the snow toward the mess tent, where several groups of people were already huddled over bowls of runny oatmeal, their shoulders hunched against the wind.
Winter was here in earnest — the earliest snow I could remember — and I caught daily whispered concerns that it would be impossible to make it through the season with no permanent shelter. Shivering in my ragged military-issue sleeping bag night after night, I could imagine everyone was beginning to feel mutinous wondering when their mission would finally end.
The rebels gathered at breakfast were an odd, jumbled group of people. There were lots of runaway teenagers, edgy anti-establishment guys with long, matted dreadlocks and gauges in their ears, and now, the camp was overflowing with the influx of prisoners from Chaddock and Waul.
The former inmates were tough to manage. Rowdy and skittish, a fight could break out over an extra dinner roll or the warmest spot by the fire. They trusted no one and fought their orders at every turn, but since they had been arrested in service to the cause, the rebels were reluctant to turn them away. Repeat offenders were brought to Rulon, who doled out his own brand of sick justice in the tent at the end of the block.
Standing in line waiting for the surly, tattooed cook to spoon out my breakfast, I skimmed the large chalkboard that denoted everyone’s duties in a child-like scrawl. I rejoiced when I saw I was responsible for gathering firewood that day. If I worked quickly, it would be easy to slip away to train with Logan. Our secret lessons were the only thing I looked forward to most days.
Logan wasn’t a great teacher, but training me was the only thing that seemed to bring her back to her former self. It was a good distraction for me, too. Doing nothing was killing me, but it wasn’t my choice.
I slumped down onto the log next to Greyson, feeling the frustration and boredom wafting off him. Doing the rebels’ laundry wasn’t exactly how he’d imagined his role in the revolution.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I breathed.
“I know.” He was spooning out his watery oatmeal, letting it slide back into the bowl twice before bringing it to his lips.
“Her nightmares are getting worse.”
He sighed, and I could see the exhaustion in his eyes. “Saving Amory isn’t going to bring Max back, Haven.”
“But we have to try.”
“We have tried.”
I stiffened, thinking of our botched rescue attempt the day after the riots. I’d roused Greyson in the middle of the night to help me sneak back into Sector X, but we’d only gotten to the edge of camp before we were spotted by the rebel guards and hauled back to await Rulon’s punishment.
I’d expected Rulon to torture or threaten us when we were caught. After all, I had disobeyed his orders twice, and breaking back into Sector X was more of an emotional decision than a rational one. But he hadn’t punished us. He’d just brought us into the leaders’ tent, where a map of Sector X lay spread across the table.
After so many rebels infiltrated the city, security measures had been tightened, he explained. Sector X was on lockdown. The PMC had called in all available reinforcements to round up any illegals who had been freed during the riots. Rebels were killed on sight. It was too dangerous to attempt an extraction until the dust had settled.
Rulon’s explanation made sense to me, and that day he’d treated me with uncharacteristic kindness — even if his goons had hauled us back to camp like disobedient children.
I knew it would be nearly impossible to infiltrate Sector X without the rebels’ help, so I’d resolved to be a good soldier. Rulon ran a tight ship with a strict hierarchy where soldiers waited for their orders. If I wanted them to take me into Sector X, I had to play by their rules and hope they would help once the PMC’s operations had returned to normal.
“It’s been three weeks,” I said, feeling edgy. “I can’t wait any longer. They’re torturing him, and once they get the information they need . . .”
“So what’s the plan?” he asked, rolling his eyes indulgently. “Come on. I know you’ve been formulating a plan for days.”
I grinned. He knew me so well. “Time’s running out. We have to find out how to get into Sector X and where they’re keeping Amory.”
“Rulon said it’s on lockdown.”
“The rebels have to be getting in somehow. I know they’re stealing food from the PMC. How else could they be feeding this whole camp?”
Greyson nodded, looking down at his bowl of slop. “So we find out who’s going inside and tag along.”
“How are we going to get him out once we find him?” Logan asked, making me jump. I hadn’t heard her coming up behind me. “Amory’s bound to be locked up in some maximum-security prison.” She swung a leg over the log and scooted in until her shoulder brushed against mine, as though she wanted to remind me she was still there.
“Somebody here has to know something. They go into the city all the time.”
“When do they make supply runs?” Greyson asked.
“Early in the morning.”
We sat in silence for several moments. Finally, Logan spoke again. “They’ve got someone on the inside.”
I nodded, feeling impatient. “We already knew that.”
“No. I mean really inside,” she said, sneaking a furtive glance at the people eating nearby. The rebels must have a mole who’s at the top. Otherwise . . .” She broke off, deep in thought.
“Otherwise they never would have gotten those CIDs we used to get past the rovers during the riots.”
“They must have taken them from officers,” I said. “Cut them out.”
Logan shook her head. “That wouldn’t work! I should have remembered before. If you remove a CID, in the system . . . you’re dead.”
“They can still track you, but your other information dies with you. They do that so no one can cut open your arm to steal your identity. You can’t remove your own CID unless you want your money, your social security number, and everything else wiped.”
“So that means . . .”
She nodded. “Those were fake identities. Every one of those CIDs was uniquely created by someone working inside the PMC.”
“Do you think the mole is someone here?”
“It would be really stupid if they were!” said Greyson. “Can you imagine what the PMC would do to them if they found out everything they’d done? They’re probably the reason the rebels knew that big meeting was happening at the base. I guarantee the PMC didn’t broadcast that.”
“Well, whoever it is, he knows how we can get inside and find Amory.” I stood up. “I need to talk to Rulon.”
Logan and Greyson looked surprised but did not argue. Rulon didn’t like us much, but he was the only person I knew for sure would be able to get us into the city if he wanted to.
The rest of the day passed in a blur. I restocked the firewood near the mess tent, the massive bonfire in the center of camp, and the supply tent. On my last trip, I doubled back into the woods to find Logan in the clearing where we sparred. It was far enough from the edge of camp that no one could hear my yells when we practiced throws, and most of the snow had been packed down to a deathtrap of ice and mud from our constant scuffling.
That afternoon, I was hitting the ground more a lot more than I should have. When Logan flipped me onto my back for what seemed like the hundredth time, she let out an exasperated cry, holding me to the ground with her forearm pressing down on my windpipe.
“What’s your deal?”
“Sorry,” I panted. “Just distracted.”
“You’re a mess.”
I bit back the urge to remind her she was the one who tried to strangle me in my sleep.
“Just working out what I’m going to say to Rulon.”
“I don’t care,” she growled. “Don’t bring that in here. Your head needs to be in the fight.” She shoved off me looking annoyed, and I fought back a grin.
Logan was a stickler for focus when we sparred — a rule that was in place as much for her as for me. Here, she didn’t have to be the sad girl who’d lost Max. She was in her element, and she was a machine.
We went again, and this time she didn’t hold back her fury. I blocked her first few hits but stumbled when she lurched, and she seized the opportunity to grab me and aim a knee jab into my gut at full force. I doubled over, fighting the urge to puke, and she sighed.
“We’re done for the day. Come on.”
She already had towels and a change of clothes for both of us, so I followed her down to the creek to wash up for dinner. It was a miserable ritual that involved breaking a thin layer of ice and splashing ourselves with the frigid water until most of the sweat and grime was gone. We changed, shivering, and I contemplated dunking my whole head in the water. It was guaranteed hypothermia, but my hair was filthy. I desperately needed a real shower.
I had purposely waited until dinner time to broach the subject of breaking into Sector X with Rulon because the rebels were more relaxed when they had plenty of beans, bread, and whisky in their bellies. If Rulon’s guards were inebriated, they’d be less likely to bother me. I wandered around the mess tent, pretending to look for a place to sit, scanning the crowd for Rulon.
I didn’t have to look far. He was sitting close to the fire wrapped in an enormous fur coat. The firelight was dancing in his cold eyes, and his dark skin was glowing with heat. He had an intricate dragon design shaved into his short hair that wound around the back of his head, making him look even more intimidating.
“What do you want, runaway?” he asked, taking a swig from the cup in his hand. The smell of whisky made my stomach turn.
“I need your help.”
“You’ll have to be more specific.”
“I want to break into Sector X and rescue my friend Amory. He’s been there for three weeks now.”
He nodded. “Captain Elwood’s boy. We’ve already had this conversation.”
“Yes, but I know they’re torturing him to find out what he knows. He’s much more of a liability in their hands.”
Rulon looked at me with those hard eyes. “That may be true, but we cannot risk infiltrating the facility where he is being held. I know what he means to you, and I’m sorry. But I must lead in a way that is best for the group as a whole. One person does not outweigh the needs of many.”
“We can’t leave someone behind just because it’s dangerous!”
“We can.” Rulon’s tone was short and clipped. “And we have. I was lenient with you and your friends after the riots, but I have not forgotten that you disobeyed my orders . . . twice.”
“It won’t happen again,” I said. Even I could hear the desperation in my voice. “Please. I’ll do it alone, and I’ll do it on your terms. But I have to try to save him.”
“It’s a suicide mission,” he said. “And it’s not an option. I won’t discuss this again with you.”
“But I know you’re breaking into Sector X!” I felt my voice wavering with anger despite my best efforts.
“You know nothing,” snapped Rulon. “Do not make the mistake of believing I overestimate your capabilities the way your friends do. The others may mistake your recklessness for courage, but I don’t.”
His words felt like a sharp slap. Three weeks of cold helplessness and fear turned to molten hatred in my gut, and I felt my tongue sting with the toxic accusations I longed to hurl at him. My hands curled into fists.
“What would you know about courage?” I spat. “You get people to run this camp and do whatever you want, but that’s only because everyone thinks you have a plan. They think this is part of something bigger — for the greater good — but people go off, and you won’t tell anyone what’s happening out there. The riots in the city killed hundreds of officers, and the PMC has already rebounded twice as strong. I came here because I thought we would actually be doing something, but you all just sit here getting drunk every night in the PMC’s backyard.” I stood up. “This revolution is pathetic.”
Several nearby rebels had turned to stare at me, but I didn’t care. Somebody ought to call Rulon on his bullshit. Godfrey was watching me out of the corner of his eye, too. It was hard to tell in the dancing firelight, but I thought I caught the flash of a grin.
Rulon’s face looked as though it was carved from stone. He betrayed no emotion, but I knew my words had touched a nerve. I wanted to knock the whisky out of his hand, but instead, I stormed off into the woods.
I heard two pairs of feet crunching over the frozen underbrush behind me and felt Greyson’s worried hover in the darkness before he even spoke. He and Logan had been sitting nearby, and I knew they had heard everything.
“What the hell was that?” Greyson hissed. “Are you trying to get us all killed?”
Feeling the anger ripple through me again, I refused to look in his direction. “I know you like these people, but the whole point of joining forces with them was to rescue Amory. They were nevergoing to help us. It’s time to try something else. I don’t need Rulon or his men.”
He stopped, grabbing my arm and spinning me around. “You think I like these people? I was in that closet when they were torturing you, remember?”
In the darkness, I could just make out the whites of his eyes. I swallowed. How could I forget? The three rectangular chemical burn marks on my arm were a constant reminder. They wouldn’t heal like regular burns.
Miles, the rebel who tortured me, had been killed on the bridge by the PMC. The man who had stood by and watched had gone AWOL. Nobody at the camp ever talked about the rebels’ interrogation methods, but I could never pretend it hadn’t happened under Rulon’s command.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But I just can’t sit here doing nothing if there’s even a chance of saving Amory.”
Greyson’s smile stood out in the darkness. “When do we leave?”
I sighed. No matter what had happened to him in prison, at least the important things about Greyson hadn’t changed. He was still my most loyal friend. “Whenever we can find out how they’re breaking into the city and where the PMC might be keeping Amory.”
We stopped walking. Greyson fidgeted, chewing on his words. The silence hung between him and Logan, and I knew they were both dancing around something they did not want to say to me. That wasn’t like Greyson.
He took a deep breath. “Haven . . . if they think he has information about the rebels, he’s not going to be in good shape when we get him out.” He swallowed, as if trying to keep his next words down. “If he’s still alive.”
My stomach clenched. Even though the horrible thoughts of what the PMC might be doing to Amory were on a constant loop in my head, hearing Greyson say it made it real.
“I know. But I won’t leave him.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to.”
I paused, mulling over Rulon’s words. “Rulon said ‘facility,’ not prison.”
“I don’t think they’re holding Amory in prison.”
Greyson snorted. “Well, the rebels destroyed all the prisons. They’ve just been killing all the illegals they find.”
“Why would they hold onto Amory then? The other rebels left in the city would have more information.”
“His father doesn’t want him killed.”
“No. His father wouldn’t want people thinking he was being soft on his son. How would that look? Amory defected. He’s a traitor.”
“What does Amory have that the other defectors don’t?”
I thought back to something Amory had said in the rebel bunker — how his father used him as one of the first test subjects for the CID.
“There was something different about his CID,” I said. “They tried to modify his behavior. It obviously didn’t work very well because they haven’t tried that with anyone else.”
“That we know of.”
“I know where he is,” said Logan, startling me. She looked pale in the anemic glow of the moonlight filtering through the bare trees, and the dead look in her eyes gave me a chill. “They’ve got him in Isador.”
Greyson and I exchanged blank looks, and she continued.
“I never thought it was a real place, but they sometimes talked about it when I was in training.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“No place you want to be. It’s off the books, but it’s where the PMC runs tests on people to develop new technology. At least that’s what I’ve heard.”
“How do we get there?”
“I don’t know where it is. Just that it’s somewhere in Sector X.”
“Rulon knows,” I said through gritted teeth, feeling the hatred boiling in my veins. He had the information we needed to rescue Amory, and still he did nothing. He would let him die.
“We need those maps,” I said, thinking of the ones Rulon had shown me in the leaders’ tent. “They had all the safe routes marked.”
“Tomorrow,” said Greyson. “We’ll wait until Rulon and his guards leave camp, and then we’ll sneak in and steal them.”
The thought of letting yet another night pass while Amory was in the hands of the PMC made me sick, but we couldn’t go running into Sector X without a solid plan again. That was what got us into this mess.
We felt our way back through the trees, stumbling occasionally over exposed roots and underbrush hidden in the snow. I began to wonder how far we had walked into the woods. I could no longer hear the sounds of laughter and slurred conversations.
Finally, I saw the flickering light of the fire through the trees, but something was wrong. It was too quiet.
Someone shouted, and I heard the sounds of heavy footfalls crashing toward us. A hulking shape emerged in the darkness, and I took an automatic step backward, bumping into Greyson. An enormous hand closed over my arm, jerking me forward and almost yanking my arm from its socket.
“Found her!” the man shouted.
I twisted reflexively, bringing my elbow up to knock the man on the side of the face just as Logan had taught me, but he was too fast. A huge, muscular arm twisted around my throat, pressing down against my windpipe. I choked as I was lifted off my feet and dragged through the trees. I smelled sweat and alcohol on his breath, and I started to panic.
We emerged into the clearing where the fire was still burning, but no one was drinking or laughing. They were all staring at me with anger and distrust. Rulon stood alone in the middle looking smug.
“We have a traitor among us,” he said loudly to the watching crowd. “And traitors must be punished.”
A hiss rippled through the crowd. Rulon took a step toward me wearing an expression of cold disgust. “Take her in.”
I tried to look for Logan and Greyson, but I couldn’t move my head. My captor’s arm was still wrapped around my throat too tightly, and he continued to drag me through the camp as all the rebels watched. Whatever was happening, no one was going to stop it.
We passed down the rows of tents, and I felt the dread burning in the pit of my stomach. We were heading to the large black tent at the end of the block. It stood apart from the others in shadow, as if no one wanted to be that close to it.
The man tossed me inside as if I were a bag of trash. Caught off-guard, I fell forward — knocking my head against something hard as I hit the ground. The pain radiated through my skull, and I squinted through the darkness to the man who had grabbed me. I didn’t know his name, but I recognized him as one of Rulon’s closest guards. He followed him everywhere.
Light fell across the trees outside, throwing shadows over Rulon standing in the entrance to the tent, his face unreadable. Someone muttered behind him, but he didn’t turn his head to the speaker.
I recognized that voice.
As Rulon and his companion crowded into the tent after the guard, I felt the sharp smack of betrayal.
Godfrey met my eyes, and there was no remorse in his expression. Although I knew he was a rebel through and through, I’d always thought I could trust him. Godfrey was the only rebel who saw what happened on the bridge. He watched Amory throw me into the water and sacrifice himself to the PMC. He knew why I had to go back.
Rulon hung the lantern on the ceiling and looked down at me with an expression of pure loathing.
“I’m sure you know why you are here.”
Rulon edged closer to me, and I could see the snow melting on his boots. “You’ve been busy, I hear.”
I said nothing. If this was what happened to rebels who spoke out against Rulon, I would have a better chance of walking away unscathed if I did not argue. I took my time rising into a sitting position, trying to decide what I should say.
How had he heard me talking to Greyson and Logan? Did he have spies in the woods?
“Godfrey tells me you have been training others in combat without authorization, and now I hear you are trying to shift the tides against me in my own camp!”
I tried to arrange my face to hide my confusion. If Godfrey had really seen me and Logan practicing in the woods, he would know she was training me. Something was wrong, but I could not tell them about Logan. If they knew she was trained by the PMC, they would think she was a spy.
“We were just practicing,” I said.
“Practicing?” He laughed once, cold and sharp. “For what?”
“To fight the PMC,” I said. “We want to be of use to the cause.”
“You? You and your friends from the farm?” He laughed again. “I have moles embedded in the PMC . . . former marines and snipers at my disposal. How could you possibly help our cause?”
I bit down on my tongue, the anger welling inside me. So it was true that the rebels had people on the inside.
“I don’t know why you would be teaching our comrades to fight in secret, unless you were working against us.”
He continued. “I have been naïve. I probably wouldn’t have believed this treachery until I saw it for myself tonight. Your friend Amory is probably lounging in the PMC barracks as we speak. This was all an act to see what we knew — learn our operations. I have been right to play my cards close. I can see that now.”
Rulon looked at the man who had dragged me here and flicked his eyes to the chair I had hit my head on.
In an instant, the strange man’s hands were on me, pulling me up and shoving me into the chair by the front of my coat. I struggled, kicked, and tried to hit him, but he slapped me hard across the face. My skin stung with heat, and my eyes watered.
While I was subdued, the man stuffed something in my mouth: a piece of fabric. I gagged, but he just shoved it in farther, and Godfrey moved to help him. It tasted like sweat and diesel fuel.
I heard the loud rip of duct tape and felt the sticky adhesive close over my mouth. Someone wrapped it around my face, and it clung to my hair and pulled at my skin. I was too terrified to move.
The larger man held my wrists while Godfrey taped them together and bound me to the chair. I breathed hard against the tape, trying to find air, and I felt myself begin to hyperventilate. My chest seized, and I felt tears well up in my eyes. Where were Logan and Greyson? Perhaps the other rebels had ganged up on them and they were in trouble, too. If they couldn’t save me, no one else would.
I was so distracted by the sudden restraint that I hadn’t noticed Rulon digging in a box on the floor. He retrieved something I recognized: a small white case no bigger than a man’s wallet. He flipped it open, and I tried to scream through the fabric inside my mouth.
Rulon dragged another chair directly in front of mine and sat down, a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. He grabbed my bound arms roughly and twisted my left arm to reveal the three perfect burns.
“Hmm. Last time you got fire.” He licked his lips. “I’d like to try something new.”
You bastard, I thought. So Rulon had been the one who instigated Miles’s torture.
He pulled one of the tiny strips of film out of the case. This one was black. I tried to jerk my hands away, but his grip was too strong. I thrashed around, remembering the fire licking my skin, the smoke and suffocation, and my own charring flesh.
Rulon’s guard had me in a headlock from behind, and for the first time, I saw Godfrey’s eyes flick away.
The piece of film felt cold as it suctioned to the skin parallel with my red burns.
A flash of cold prickled up my arm, tickling my spine as I shivered. But it was not ice as I expected; it felt as though I was being doused in frigid water. The water moved up my body in splashes, freezing and jarring, but not excruciating as before. It lapped at my ankles. I was wading in a cold pool, the water rising quickly to my knees and thighs. Suddenly, it was at chest level, splashing against my neck and chin.
As it rose up my body, the water got colder and choppier. Before I was wading in calm waters. Now I was treading in the middle of the ocean.
Waves splashed against my face, filling my nose and mouth. I coughed and spluttered, but I could not clear my throat. The water was rushing in too fast.
I beat my arms and legs, trying desperately to keep my head above water, but I just sank farther.
Thrashing desperately, I tried to come up for air, but my legs and arms were too heavy. I could not swim. The weight of my body pulled me down into the dark water, as if I had sandbags strapped to my chest.
The water engulfed my head, beating down on me. Like a whirlpool, the water was churning — forcing itself into my airways. I choked, and my chest tightened as I fought for air. I moved my arms, trying to surface. It was no use.
More water rushed into my lungs. They were on fire. I couldn’t breathe.
Black spots appeared at the edges of my vision.
I was drowning. I was going to die.
Then my body started to feel weak and heavy, as though it were made of lead.
I floated down, down, down, until I finally settled against the bottom of a pool of brackish water.
The rough concrete scraped my skin, but it felt nice resting there. My legs and torso were too heavy to stay buoyant. Everything was so heavy. It was easier down here.
I thought about Amory kissing me up on the cliff. It was strange — like watching someone who wasn’t me being kissed. That seemed so long ago. Amory was so far away. I just wanted the agony to stop.
Something flickered in the back of my mind. I could not sleep at the bottom of the pool.
As my head went light and fuzzy, I felt an urgency stirring in my chest. Raising my head, I tried to remember which way was up. I squinted through the blackness to the bright light refracting off the water’s surface. I pushed off toward the light, feeling the water flowing through my fingers. My head broke the surface, and I felt the cold sting of air against my face. I gasped.
Coming up was awful.
I choked, and the pain in my throat matched other pains I had not felt in the water. I retched, but no water came up. People were moving around me, talking in low voices. I ignored them.
Someone kicked me in the gut. I whimpered and withdrew into a ball but did not move. I just wanted to be left alone.
I couldn’t remember why someone tried to drown me, and I found I did not care. I closed my eyes, willing them to go away. They did.
Then I felt something brush against my cheek like the wing of a bird.
Someone tugged on my ponytail gently. It was such a soft gesture that called back to another time: me, ten years old, being awoken in the middle of the night at summer camp. We were sneaking out to the lake to look for frogs. Only one other person could remember that.
Slowly, I opened my eyes. Greyson was staring down at me, looking horrified. I was lying on my side against the tarp on the ground, still taped to the chair with my right arm wedged painfully underneath me. I must have thrashed hard enough to knock myself over. Someone had removed the tape and fabric from my mouth, and my scalp prickled where bits of my hair had ripped out with it.
“Come on,” he whispered. “We have to get you out of here before they come back.”
He withdrew his knife from a back pocket — the knife I had carried in my bag over a thousand miles for him — and cut the tape binding my wrists. He ripped it off quickly like a Band-Aid and began cutting me out of the chair. As I struggled to roll over into a sitting position, my limbs felt strangely weak, and my head was still spinning.
I looked down at my arm. There were four clear strips of film stuck to the skin there; the color had leeched into my bloodstream with the poison. I tried to peel them off, but my hands shook. Greyson saw me struggling and did it for me. There were new marks there now, these ones shiny and raised as if the flesh had bubbled as it burned. They looked like tally marks ticked off in a row.
Looking down expectantly, Greyson held out a hand to help me to my feet. My gut ached painfully where one of them had kicked me, and I felt other bruises beginning to form along my side where I had crashed to the ground. There was a tender skid mark on my cheek from falling over onto the tarp.
Greyson held on to me as he poked his head outside through the flap. Seeing no one, he pulled me out into the snow and around the side of the tent. We made our way along behind the row, careful to stay out of sight as we moved down the block to the tent I shared with Logan.
We entered through the back flap, and Logan jumped as she heard the rustle of canvas.
“Oh! It’s you,” she sighed. Even in the dark, I saw her expression change immediately when she saw me. “What the hell did they do to you?”
I shook my head, shivering as I sank onto my sleeping bag. My clothes were soaked with cold sweat.
“They tortured her,” Greyson spat. He was shaking with anger. “They used four this time!”
“You got through four?” Logan looked at me in disbelief. “I’ve never heard of that.”
“What are those things?”
“HALLO tags,” she said. “They were developed by the PMC to be a more ‘humane’ form of torture.”
“Humane?” Greyson rounded on her. “There’s nothing ‘humane’ about it! Did you learn how to use those?”
Logan glared at him. “I did what I had to do. I’m not proud of it. It’s not like I enjoyed torturing people.”
He looked taken aback.
“And anyway,” said Logan. “They should never have used that many on you. They could have killed you.” She sat down next to me. “Did they use the fire ones again?”
I shook my head. “It was like I was drowning.”
“Why did he do it? I don’t understand.”
“You challenged him openly,” said Logan in a quiet voice. “He’s weak. Everybody says so behind his back. It’s just that no one’s ever stood up to him.”
“He tortured me because I talked back to him?”
“He has to keep order somehow.”
I turned to look at her. “We can’t stay here.”
“One step ahead of you. Our bags are already packed.”
I glanced over to the corner of the tent, where our rucksacks stood ready to go.
“I grabbed some extra clothes and stuff for you, too,” she said to Greyson. “Plus everything from your tent.”
I felt a pang of sorrow when I remembered what few items Greyson had left in this world to call his own. Just the picture of his family and the knife I had brought with me from his apartment after his arrest.
“Where should we go?” I asked.
Logan threw a shifty glance over to her sleeping bag. Looking closer, I could see a map smoothed out over it.
“I stole those while Rulon was busy torturing you,” she confessed. “It’s the only way we’re going to get into Sector X. All their routes are marked. I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but it’s better than nothing.”
Amory. I let out a long breath I’d been holding since Rulon’s tent. “Let’s go.”
Bundled up in all the warm clothes we had, the three of us slipped out the back of the tent. We hugged the line of trees and moved in the shadows to avoid attracting attention. After the commotion at dinner, the last stragglers were returning to their tents, talking in low whispers.
“. . . never thought she was PMC, but I guess it just goes to show . . .”
“You can’t trust a defector. I know it sounds bad, but they’re just not like us.”
I felt my face grow hot with anger and embarrassment. I hated that Rulon had made such a scene.
“Hey!” Greyson hissed, swatting behind him. “Wha —”
Logan clapped a hand to his mouth, and I saw the glint of his knife in her hand. For a minute, I thought she had gone off the deep end, but then she crunched through the snow toward the weapons tent and slipped in through the back flap.
I exchanged a look with Greyson, who had gone bright red.
“What? She just frisked that off me!”
We waited in the shadows, my heart pounding in my throat. Any second now, Rulon could return to the tent to find me gone. It would be impossible to get out of here once the camp was on alert. I was just about to go after Logan when she emerged carrying a serious-looking gun. Two more were strapped to her shoulders, and she also had a bag full of ammunition dangling from her arm.
“They had HK416s and FN SCARs,” she whispered. “I haven’t seen one of these since my dad’s.” Logan ran her hand down the side. “He’s ex-military.”
Greyson eyed her warily. “You’re a little scary, you know.”
She rolled her eyes and shoved one of the rifles into his hands. “Just for that, you don’t get the other SCAR.”
I took the rifle she handed me with numb hands. I never really knew what to do with a firearm.
“We need to get out of here now,” she said.
“So why did you take my knife?”
Logan looked guilty. “I may have used it to threaten the poor kid who was guarding the tent.”
Greyson snorted. “A tent full of assault rifles, and you hold up a guy with a dull knife.”
Making our way down the hill toward the edge of camp, Logan led us deeper into the trees. We still had to get past the lookout who was stationed at the foot of the hill. Peering through the trees, Greyson stopped and pointed.
If I hadn’t been looking for him, he would have been impossible to see. The lookout was perched in a tree, dressed in dark camouflage. With no fire and no protection from the wind, he must have been freezing.
Suddenly, I heard the crunch of heavy boots through the snow and a low whistle. I squinted through the darkness back toward camp. There was a figure ambling down the hill with a gun slung over his shoulder. The scraggly beard and slight limp told me it was Godfrey.
“Hey, Kinsley,” he called. “Go ahead and pack it in. I’ll take over for the rest of the night.”
The lookout in the tree mumbled something in acknowledgment. “I thought Sanders was on this shift.”
Godfrey shrugged. “Bad chili. He’ll have the shits for a week.”
Kinsley gave a low whistle and began his descent from the tree. “Thanks. It’s freezing up there.”
Godfrey nodded and watched him go.
“What now?” I hissed. “He knows.”
Greyson raised his rifle, training it on Godfrey, but I pushed it down and stepped in front of him, forcing him to make eye contact.
“What are you doing?”
“He’s gotta go.”
“No!” I couldn’t believe Greyson was about to shoot someone. “You don’t want to do this. This isn’t you.”
“He tortured you, Haven.”
I shook my head. “It doesn’t matter. We can’t kill him anyway. We’d wake up the whole camp.”
“She’s right,” said Logan.
“You can come out now.” The voice made me jump out of my skin.
I wheeled around, and Godfrey was standing in the shadows under the tree just a few yards away.
Greyson and Logan snapped up their guns, aiming them at his chest.
“You let us tie you to a tree so we can escape, or I’ll put a bullet in your brain,” Logan growled in a low, deadly voice.
“Fine,” said Godfrey. He raised his hands in surrender. “Just thought I might be of help.”
I exchanged a glance with Greyson, but Logan wasn’t having it.
“I’m done letting rebels torture my friends.”
Even with two guns on him, Godfrey looked relaxed. “It had to be done,” he said. “How else were you going to steal Rulon’s maps?”
Logan blinked — something I’d never seen her do when she had her gun trained on a target.
“I had to throw the heat on her so you could get in there.”
“He’s telling the truth,” I said. It all made sense now. “He lied to Rulon and told him I was training you in combat.”
Godfrey frowned. “You really need to tone it down,” he said to Logan.
She looked confused.
“You don’t hide the PMC thing well. I saw you coming a mile away. It’s dangerous.”
Logan lowered her rifle.
“We need to get the hell out of here,” he said. “They probably already know you’re gone.”
“You first,” said Greyson.
Following Godfrey through the woods back in the direction of Sector X, Logan and I kept exchanging nervous looks. It was possible he was leading us into a trap, but we didn’t really have another choice. We had the maps but no definitive plan for getting through the PMC checkpoint. And if Godfrey was lying, we couldn’t leave him alive or kill him without bringing all the rebels down on us.
“So how do we get into Sector X?” I asked finally.
Godfrey smirked. “Are you telling me you three didn’t have a plan? Not even a bad one?”
I felt a sting of irritation. “I was a little busy.”
He shook his head. “I figured as much. Well, your friend is being kept at Isador as a PMC guinea pig. The only way you’re getting in there is if you have someone who is real PMC. Those fake CIDs aren’t going to cut it. You need security clearance.”
“What are you saying?” snapped Logan.
Godfrey turned around, eyebrow raised, waiting for us to figure it out.
“You’re the mole,” I whispered. “You’re helping the rebels get into Sector X to steal food and supplies.”
“Among other things, but yes. That’s the general idea.”
“What other things?” pressed Logan.
“Weapons, ammunition, first aid supplies . . . toilet paper.”
“That’s my specialty.”
“That’s why you weren’t in the riots at all that day,” I said. “You stayed out of the city so you wouldn’t blow your cover.”
He nodded. “The fewer people on our side who know, the better.”
“Did Mariah know?” I asked. I thought back to when Godfrey had left us outside Sector X that day.
“Yes, she did. Everything Rulon knew, Mariah knew. In fact, toward the end, it was hard to tell who was really calling the shots.” His tone was even, but I could detect the undercurrents of resentment in his voice.
“She’s out there,” I said.
“That is a big risk for us, but since she’s infected, going to the PMC would be mutually assured destruction.”
“What if she’s caught?”
“She won’t be. Mariah always had a knack for . . . self-preservation.”
“I don’t understand why you’re helping us,” said Greyson. His voice was still harsh, distrustful. “They’re going to notice you’re gone. Don’t you think they will figure out you helped us escape?”
“I was ready to leave. Rulon’s camp has outlived its usefulness to me, and, truth be told, I’m sick of their methods.” His dark eyes flitted to me. “You want me to blow up a building full of PMC officials? Fine. But Rulon and Mariah always had this way of preying on the weak. The kids they can’t scare into following them into the fire, well . . . you know.”
“So what, you’re a free agent now?” asked Logan.
“I suppose I am. I’ll go where I can put my skills to use. Right now, that is not with Rulon’s division. He’s floundering, and when Haven told him off tonight, I knew it was time to move on.”
“What will they do for food now that you’re gone?”
“They have everything they need.”
We walked in silence for a long while, and Greyson finally lowered his gun. We still had a couple miles before we would reach Sector X, but we were far enough away from camp that he seemed convinced we were not headed into an ambush.
Godfrey still had his gun slung over his shoulder, and he had not made a move to reach for it. He also carried a large rucksack, which made me think he had really packed up his belongings and left the camp for good. Like the three of us, all the rebels seemed to be able to carry everything they owned on their back.
He was dressed for the weather in a bulky black coat with what seemed like infinite pockets, a stocking cap, and enormous combat boots. With the snow sticking to his bushy black beard, he looked rugged and oddly more cheerful.
Logan, Greyson, and I had decent boots, but we were only dressed in layers under our thin jackets. We had been issued hats and gloves from the supply tent, but heavy winter coats were coveted items in the rebel camp.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, Godfrey stopped and turned to the three of us.
“You three need to prepare yourselves for what we’re about to do and what we might find. People who go into Isador don’t come out normal. Most people never come out at all. You need to accept right now that your friend Amory might not be himself anymore.”
I nodded, but I felt sick. I couldn’t stand thinking about what the PMC might have done to him.
“I need to know,” he said. “How far are you willing to go for him? Are you willing to do what needs to be done?”
I shuddered, nodding once.
Greyson pulled his shoulders back and straightened beside me. “I am.”
“Me too,” said Logan. Of the three of us, she looked the most excited for what was about to come.
Godfrey shook his head. “You need to really consider this. If we get in there and he’s too far gone, we have to leave him. We can put him down if it’s the best thing for him, but we can’t bring out someone who’s a liability. Understand?”
Greyson and Logan were looking at me. I bit down on my lip to keep the tears from coming.
“Haven,” said Greyson. “It’s what he would want. It’s what any of us would want.”
I took a deep breath and nodded.
“All right.” Godfrey clapped his hands and reached in his pack. Logan’s hand twitched to her gun, but he pulled out something white and folded. “Put these on.”
He tossed me the white bundle of fabric, and I caught it as he pulled out a few others.
I let the stiff folds of the material fall open in my fingers and gasped when I saw the insignia: the image of one all-seeing eye flanked by three stars inside an embroidered circle. Order. Compliance. Progress.
We were dressing as PMC.
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