Authors: Inna Hardison
To my boys. May you always have magic in you.
[May 6, 2236, Woods Outside of Reston]
He knew he was grinning like an idiot, running out towards the big fire, screaming “Brody!” at the top of his lungs, and he didn’t care. Brody, his Brody was alive after all. He always hoped he was, but when Janet told him about tracking Brody to that hotel, where he supposedly put a bullet in his head, and then his tracks disappearing altogether, it fit with all the rumors in Waller. He had to let him go then, and reluctantly, he did. But there he was, a few meters in front of him, staring at him now with a strange look on his face. He heard the others following behind him, but slowly, carefully through the dark.
The younger boys lined up flanking Brody, guns drawn. He put his hands up, so they wouldn’t accidentally shoot him.
The guns were lowered immediately. So he was right. Brody was in charge here. And then Brody pointed his own gun straight at his head, “That’s far enough, Zoriner. Bruner, search him, thoroughly, for anything he can use as a weapon.” One of the larger boys walked over to him and patted him down. He took his screens out of his pocket, and a small knife. That’s all he had on him. Everything else, including his gun, he stupidly left in his backpack in the woods.
He was standing only a few steps away from being able to put Brody into a headlock, few steps from being able to hug him for all the years he thought he was dead. He was staring at his best friend in the world, who was still pointing a gun at him, not finding any words now. He heard the rest of his group coming out of the woods, and the boys running to them, guns drawn again.
“Search them for weapons and bring them all here.” The stun guns, Ella’s knife and med kit were dropped in a pile behind the fire. He watched as the boys moved Ams and Laurel away from Ella. He couldn’t see Drake anywhere. The girls were holding hands, fear written all over their faces. He flinched when they put a slave band on Ella, Brody not looking at any of it, staring at him, gun still pointing at the middle of his head.
“On your knees, Zoriner,” and he walked the few steps to him, so the cold metal of the gun pressed into his forehead. This wasn’t a stun gun, but an old school weapon, ones that made holes in you, instead of just stopping your heart. He remembered Brody’s uncle, Andy, restoring these back in Waller. He used them to barter for moonshine and food. They were thought of as valuable, when they worked. He was pretty sure this one worked.
“No,” he shook his head, looking Brody in the eyes. There was no way he was going to die like this, by the hand of his best friend, and on his knees. If Brody wanted to shoot him, he would have to do it looking him in the eyes. Brody clicked the safety off with his thumb, and he saw Ams running towards him, screaming something. He shook his head at her, begging her with his eyes to stop, but it was too late.
“Grab her and tie her up at this tree, hands and feet. I don’t want her moving at all,” Brody barked at the boys. They dragged Ams to the tree just to the right of where he was, he guessed so she could see whatever Brody would do to him, and tied her up. They couldn’t hurt her. They had to know what she was. She didn’t protest or scream at them. She was staring at Brody as if he had just kicked a dead body.
“On your knees!” and he pressed the barrel of the gun harder into his skin.
“No, Brody. You’ll just have to do it like this,” he said quietly, so only Brody would hear him. Without any warning, Brody pointed the gun at where Ams was tied up and pulled the trigger. He saw a spray of dirt and leaves just at her feet. She screamed.
“This is the only warning you’ll get, Zoriner. I only miss on purpose. On your knees.”
He dropped to his knees then, hands laced behind his head. He looked up at Brody, trying to find something of the boy he had known his whole life in his face, “You win, Brody. You can do with me what you want. Please, let her go. I am begging you, as someone who used to be your friend. Let her go.”
“I’ve no idea who this Brody is, Zoriner. I don’t have your kind as friends. Bruner! Tie him up over there, same as the girl,” and he pointed to a tree just opposite of where Ams was. He could see her face more clearly now in the firelight. He mouthed “I am sorry, Ams,” hoping she could read his lips. She looked angry, and afraid, but there were no tears. He had to save her. He hoped he could save her. The one called Bruner tied his hands and feet to the tree, pulling so roughly on his arms, he thought he would break something. He couldn’t move anything but his head, and he couldn’t move that enough to not see Brody and Ams.
“Take the slave girl and the Replenisher to Astor. I’ll deal with these two. Go. I’ll send the memos myself. No comms. ECH only. Dismissed.”
One of the boys stepped forward, “Sir, there are two of them. Protocol calls for at least two.” The boy looked uncomfortable.
Brody just nodded to him, “Anders, I need you over here. You’re with me. The rest of you are dismissed.”
He didn’t even turn around to see if the boys did what they were told, as if he was so accustomed to being obeyed that he didn’t need to. The one called Anders stood by the fire, gun drawn, unmoving. Brody was going through all the screens they took from everyone, and scanning the last bits, it seemed. He’d know that Drake was supposed to be with them. Where the hell was Drake? He hoped the giant tripped on something and was now hiding in the woods, waiting for the right moment to save them.
Brody got up from the pile he was digging through, walked over to him and punched him in the stomach, hard. He couldn’t breathe for a bit after that, couldn’t speak either.
“You are making me wish you had put a bullet through your head, Brody,” he finally spat at him. He knew it was the worst kind of thing he could say to him. It didn’t matter anymore. He meant it. Needed him to know that he meant it. Brody blanched and turned away from him. So he did know who he was.
“I think one of your group is missing. Drake, wherever you are, I know you can hear me. Here is what’s going to happen. Anders here will keep hitting this boy till his insides turn liquid, until you come out with your hands up, unarmed, and walk over to the fire.” He nodded to Anders and stepped away from them, watching Anders. After the first few punches he wished it was Brody hitting him. This kid whaled on him hard, not even giving him enough time to breathe. After a few more punches, he felt one of his ribs crack. Brody turned away then. At least he had the decency not to enjoy it.
He was coughing up blood, could taste it, and his vision was going blurry at the edges. He heard Ams screaming, but it seemed too far away, softer, too soft to make sense with how close her face was. He knew he was going to black out, could feel it coming, and tried his best to hold on, and then the punching stopped. He saw Anders slump to the ground at his feet, and then Drake shooting Brody and he was down too, Drake, looking paler than he’d ever seen him, still pointing the buzzing stun gun at the prone form. Not for the first time he was grateful that this giant of a man moved like a ghost. He could close his eyes now, so he did.
He woke up to the gentle touch of Ams’ small hands smoothing the hair out of his face. He felt the bandages around his ribs, restricting his breathing. He registered the fire, and tried to stand up. Ams was holding him, and he knew he’d fall if she let go of him now, so he sat down, slowly, carefully, and finally his head was clear enough to remember all that had happened since he ran out of the woods so carelessly, so stupidly, risking everybody. Ran out to Brody. He scanned the camp looking for Brody and Drake. Brody was probably dead, of course. He remembered Drake shooting him.
“Where are they, Ams?” It hurt to talk.
Ams handed him a thermos of warm tea, “I’ll go get them. Drake took that boy away from the fire for a bit. He didn’t want you to see him when you woke up. He thought you might kill him, and I think you should. But we need him to get Ella and Laurel back. That’s what Drake said. The other one, Anders, he is dead, Riley. Drake killed him, only I don’t think he meant to, because he seemed sad about it afterwards. Nice friends you have.”
So Brody wasn’t dead then. That was okay. He could fix that.
“Try not to move, Riley. I’ll be right back,” and she was gone, light steps running into the woods.
He closed his eyes and tried to picture his old Brody, the one who cried telling him about Samson, the one who always got him in trouble in school, and the one who tried to get his father to whip him with that belt instead of Riley. The boy he had spent every day with after Ella was gone. And he could see him like that, as a little kid at first and then a bit older, stealing Andy’s moonshine. And he saw him looking at Trina as if she were made of magic, and later still, sobbing into his hands at Janet’s house after he thought he would cast him out like the rest of Waller did when the feed of his parents’ treason came out, looking very much ashamed after that. And Brody, pressing the gun to his head, forcing him to kneel, punching him.
He opened his eyes, watching the three shapes moving towards him. Brody looked unharmed, not a scratch on him, less some redness on the side of his face. His hands were tied behind his back. Drake shoved him right up to where he was sitting and pushed him to his knees in front of him. He looked angry when he did it, nothing of the gentle giant in him. The redness on Brody’s face was probably from Drake then. He couldn’t blame him for that. Brody sat up as straight as he could and looked up at him, face hard. And he thought then that maybe Brody really did want him gone, dead gone. For knowing the real Brody, Zoriner Brody, someone he seemed to have gone to a lot of trouble trying to forget.
“Untie him, Drake.” He didn’t know how to explain it to Drake or to Ams that he needed to do it this way. That he needed to know for sure who this boy was more than he needed to be safe, and that if he was right about Brody wanting him dead, he could use it to get Ella and Laurel back. Drake shook his head at him, sadness written all over his face. He probably thought he would try to fight him.
“Stand him up and untie him, please. You can point your gun at him. And Ams, please help me up.”
She did, and he was standing, swaying lightly at first, staring at Brody’s face.
“Drake, give me your gun, please, and a few minutes of privacy with him. I promise I won’t kill him.” Reluctantly, Drake handed the buzzing weapon over and took Ams back towards the woods.
He waited for them to be completely out of earshot, and not taking his eyes off Brody’s handed him the gun, handle first.
“Finish what you started,” he said flatly, quietly. Brody shook his head, not reaching for the gun.
“Do it, Brody. Finish it. I know why you think you need to. I am the last of them who knew you then, truly knew you. No more shame after this. I am okay with it. I just need your word that you and your crew will let everyone else go, that all four of them will be safe. I need your word, Brody. I still believe you will keep your word.”
Brody just kept shaking his head, “I can’t, Riley. I can’t get everyone out. I wish I could, but I can’t. You shouldn’t have run out to me like that. I can’t fix this now, not for any of us.”
He switched the gun off and threw it on the ground, Brody watching him, his jaw working hard. He put his hands out in front of him, but there wasn’t anything to tie them with. It didn’t matter, not after what he just said. He didn’t think he would run. He could have done that when he offered him the bloody gun easily enough. The gun was still lying lifelessly on the ground, so he kicked it away towards the backpacks, not knowing what to do or say now. Brody hadn’t moved.
“There are slave bands and ties in the pile by the bags. I won’t run,” his voice strained, quiet.
He walked over and found a slave band, but it felt wrong to put that on Brody even now, so he settled on one of the old ties, plastic, not metal. He tightened it around Brody’s wrists, hard enough to bite into the skin to hurt, enough for him to know he was a prisoner now. He still didn’t move, didn’t even flinch at the pain, just stood looking at him.
“Go ahead, Riley. Hit me. Beat the shit out of me. You can’t possibly not want to. Do it.”
But he couldn’t do it, and strangely, didn’t want to. He shook his head and dropped down on the log by the fire, Brody looking at him as if he were disappointed that he didn’t beat him.
“Riley! We found us a cave!” Ams voice caught him off guard. She was smiling at him. Ams had probably never seen a cave before, not even in those old library books. Of course she’d be excited. And a cave would be a better place to hide than out in the open.
He let Ams and Drake move all the backpacks to the cave. It was larger than he expected, when they finally all settled there, the ceiling tall enough to where even Drake didn’t have to bend down to stand. Brody sat against the far wall, his tied hands in fists in front of him, not speaking, and refusing anything to drink or eat that was offered him. He seemed entirely uninterested in what they would do to him. After a small supper, Drake and Ams moved into one of the inner chambers, away from them, as if sensing that he and Brody weren’t done with whatever they needed to work out. He heard them wrestling with the blankets and making another fire to keep themselves warm. They’d be asleep soon enough. Something he couldn’t possibly do now.
He sat staring at his friend through the fire, not saying anything, hoping he’d find the words soon enough. Hoping, too, that Ella and Laurel could be saved, and that Brody would help save them. Something in the way he was looking back at him told him that he couldn’t make him help them. That something terrible happened to this boy and there was nothing at all he could promise him or threaten him with.
“I am sorry I let Anders hurt you, Riley. I wanted you dead, not hurt. I still do. It would make things easier for me, but I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t lie to you about the girls. I would have killed you if I could. I want you to know that.”
He believed him. There was no reason for him to lie now. It hurt knowing that he wished him dead, but he understood it too. And he remembered the last time he ever saw him, when he chased after him down that street in Waller, but Brody wouldn’t stop, and then Brody just shaking his head at him. He remembered that now, couldn’t help remembering it, and knew that he wanted him gone even then, that he couldn’t bear take anything from that life where he was going.
He nodded, leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes to keep all the tears in, and said in almost a whisper, so there was no chance Drake and Ams would catch any of it, “If, by some miracle, you do help us get Ella and Laurel back, I will let you, if you still want me dead then. However you want. You just can’t tell Drake or Ams about it.” He looked at him, to make sure he understood, and when he knew for sure that he did, walked right up to him. Brody stood up, breathing hard, and looking like he was about to cry. It didn’t add up, what he just said to him and the way his face was.
He pulled the knife out of his pocket, but Brody didn’t seem to notice it or to care. He was just watching his face. He cut the tie at his wrists, registering a look of surprise on his face, then took his right hand and shook it, squeezing it hard, as hard as he could. Brody flinched, but returned the handshake, and put his hands out in front of him again.
He cuffed him with regular old cuffs, the ones with a tiny key that they got from Brody’s supply bag, and put the key into his sleeve pocket. These would be a bit more comfortable to sleep with, though less comfortable than the slave bands. He still couldn’t bring himself to put that on Brody. On anyone.
“You should get some sleep,” he whispered, and unrolled one of the blankets at the wall for him and then threw an almost empty backpack on it for a pillow, but Brody just shook his head at the offering, slid down against the hard clay of the wall and closed his eyes.
[Crylo, May 14, 2233]
She loved him from the first moment he looked at her in a grown up way. They were standing outside the school, and Brody offered her one of the smokesticks he stole, likely from his uncle’s warehouse, only these were old looking, shorter, all the dried grass wrapped in paper. She took it from him, and he touched her hand when he lit it. She felt that touch in the pit of her belly, a warmth and a sharp ache. He must have felt it too, as he looked at her with those gray blue eyes of his, so full of suns in them, so full of light, and she knew she wanted this boy to like her. She blushed when he asked her if he could walk her home, and nodded, hoping he couldn’t see her blush through her dark skin.
That was a year ago now. She loved everything about him, even when they fought on rare occasions, there was a sweetness, a tenderness to him, even through that hard facade he put on for everyone else. For Riley, and his uncle, and Mr Sanders. As if he didn’t care about much, but she knew him better than anyone, and care he did, deeply. She caught him sneaking bits of what little food they were given for lunch into his bag and handing it to Spartan, the scrawny stray that followed them home from school. Brody would always give him a bit of something he’d saved, and talk to him, soothingly, as if he were talking to a little kid. He seemed embarrassed the first time she saw him do it, but didn’t seem to mind after that.
She loved how he’d always bring a few sweet smelling blooms to her mother in the Spring or Summer, whenever he came by, and how he’d help her put the dishes away, and listen to her talk. He had a way of making you want to tell him things, secrets even. A way of listening without judging.
She loved that he didn’t rush her into anything. He didn’t want to hurt her or scare her, he said, and when they finally did kiss, it was her doing the kissing, at least at first. She’d been wanting to kiss him for so long, she couldn’t help herself, so she took his face in her hands and watched his eyes get darker, all gray now, and she kissed him, her hands moving up to his neck and then going all the way down his back, and she felt him freeze at her touch. She let go then and he stepped away from her, his face flushed, and he looked at her with so much fear, she hoped she didn’t hurt him somehow.
“Are you sure? I need to know this is for real for you. Because I couldn’t bear it if it wasn’t,” he said quietly, not letting go of her eyes.
She walked up to him then and threw her arms around his neck, nodding, whispering that it was for real, that she’d been wanting to do it since the first time they met, and that she was pretty sure she’d want to keep doing it for the rest of her life.
She sat there, in the Zoriner Council’s chambers, thinking about all of it, about Brody, and what would happen to him if they find him, and to her. She hoped she could somehow convince these strangers that she broke it off with him right after she saw the feed with the traitors, his parents on it. She was pretty sure there were cameras in the room, recording her, and tried to make her face look calm. The doors slid open and a smallish woman came in. She looked older than her mother, by a few years at least, creases around her dark brown eyes. She had a large screen with her and was typing away on it as she sat down.
She nodded, timidly, she hoped.
“You and Brody were a couple, I’m told, for about a year. Is that correct?”
She nodded again. It seemed easier to nod than to speak.
“I need to know how he felt about Zoriners and the Alliance. Conversations you had, all of them that could give us a glimpse into his thoughts.” She was looking at her, openly, waiting.
She shook her head, “We never talked about that. It just never came up. Not until after the feed from his parents, but I broke it off with him as soon as that happened, so we didn’t even talk about it then.”
The woman got up and walked right up to where she was sitting on a hard metal bench against the wall. She looked at her, kindly, she thought, and nodded her head, “It is very, very unfortunate then, I’m afraid. You will be transported to an Alliance center at dawn. I suggest you say your goodbyes now,” and she handed her a screen she could use.
She didn’t understand why they would do this to her. Zoriners didn’t give up their own to the Alliance; at least she’d never heard of them doing it. She couldn’t think of anything she could type to her mom and dad. Couldn’t think of anything to say to anybody that would make it all right. So she simply typed “I love you,” sent it to her house and handed the screen back to the woman. She needed her gone now, so she could cry in peace.
“Can you please leave?” she hoped she sounded soft enough and polite enough, not angry. The woman put her hand on her shoulder and held it there for a bit, and then left the room, silently, except for the swish of the sliding doors.
It didn’t make any sense to her that her people would try to punish the kids for something their parents did. Zoriners weren’t supposed to do this sort of thing. It sounded like something the Alliance would do, not them. She couldn’t wrap her head around it. They had been looking for Brody all over Waller. Zoriner soldiers. They had asked her a million times if she knew where he was. She didn’t. She told them she hadn’t spoken to him since after the feed, that they broke up, that she broke them up. She wasn’t lying, they could see that much. And now they were going to use her as bait. It didn’t make any sense. She knew she hurt him, deeply, when she broke up with him. He wouldn’t come looking for her. He probably hated her by now. The way he looked at her when she handed him the little necklace back. There were tears in his eyes then. He knew what it meant. He took the necklace from her hand, and flung it hard into the woods outside the school, looked at her crying face and whispered something she couldn’t hear or read on his lips. He leaned in and kissed her on the top of her head, turned and walked away from her, quickly, not once turning around. That was the last she saw him.
And when Riley came to see her, she knew that it was because of Brody, and she couldn’t bring herself to talk to him. Riley was just a sweet kid. She couldn’t tell him she had hurt his friend like that, so she slammed the door in his face, feeling ashamed of what she’d done to Brody, hoping someday he’d understand that she was just trying to protect him, trying to make him go, leave Waller, because she knew he wasn’t safe there anymore. Everyone knew that. But when she told him after they showed the feed at school that he had to run, had to leave Waller, he just shook his head at her. She knew he wouldn’t leave for as long as she was there, so she did the only thing she could to make him go. Nobody but her knew why she did it. So them taking her to Alliance now didn’t make any sense.
She curled up on the cot by the wall, hoping they would change their minds. Hoping something would happen in the few hours she had left that would make them let her go home. But nothing did happen, and at dawn, two Zoriner soldiers woke her up, and tied her hands with metal ties, and then put her on the flier, all without saying one word to her. The youngest of them — he looked just a few years older than she was — seemed embarrassed by what they were doing. She could see the shame in his face, and she almost felt bad for him.
The flier took off silently, as if running on nothing but air. She didn’t know how they worked, having never been on one before. She looked out through the triangle of the window as they flew over Waller and then the woods and the fields and some kind of empty looking land, with strangely colored hills on it, lavender hills on beige ground. It seemed unnatural for the ground and those hills to be that color. They flew over a stark blue bit of water after that. She couldn’t tell how fast they were going, so she had no idea how large the water was. And once they were over land again, she saw an enormous city in the distance, peaks of buildings visible over the walls of the fence, startlingly white. They flew lower now, and she knew that’s where they were taking her. She knew, too, that it was impossibly far from Waller. Too far for anyone without a flier to ever find her here, even Brody, if he ever wanted to find her again. She closed her eyes, not wanting to see any more of this place, not wanting to know what they would do to her.
Two Alliance women came up to her when they were on the ground and dismissed the soldiers with a nod. The flier took off silently. The women looked like twins, same light hair, falling in straight lines around their white faces, as if they’d never been outside. Same gray-blue eyes, Brody’s eyes, only without the suns in them, and without the kindness. They put a wide metal band around her wrists and walked her down a very empty street, with the impossibly tall white buildings on both sides, but no trees, no houses, and no kids or people of any kind. They walked for a long time, the women not saying anything to her. Finally, they stopped, and pushed her inside one of these big buildings that all looked alike to her, and shoved her towards the elevator. It shot up so fast, her throat dropped into her stomach. She had no idea how high up these things went. It didn’t matter. There was nothing she could do about that now. Nothing she could do about any of it.
An older woman with white hair greeted them at the elevator with a nod, and pointed at something ahead of them. “Take her to the cage. Leave the band on,” and she walked on quickly ahead of them, disappearing down the hallway. The cage sounded ominous, but she had already given up on trying to wrap her head around any of this. She knew they would needlessly keep her here for however long it took for them to learn that Brody wasn’t coming for her. That nobody was coming for her.
The cage was a glass box. The doors slid open and closed behind her, soundlessly. She looked around and her heart dropped. She was suspended at an insane height, looking down on tiny specks of people walking around below her, the box swaying lightly. She couldn’t not see how high up she was no matter where she looked, so she leaned on one of the walls, cautiously at first, but the wall was solid enough, and she closed her eyes for long enough to get her heart to stop pounding in her head. And when she could breathe normally again, she spotted a tiny cot along one of the walls, and a small sink with a toilet near it. There was nothing else. This was her home now.
And finally, she was angry. Angry at Brody for looking like these people, angry at her own people for bringing her here, for giving her up like that, and angry at herself for not fighting while she still had a chance to fight, even if it ended up with her dead. She would fight now, would have to. Maybe get one of these sunless people angry enough at her to just shoot her with those buzzing weapons they all had. Anything to get out of this glass cage, before she went crazy. Before she became angry at herself for falling in love with a boy who wasn’t one of them.
[May 6, 2236 Woods Outside of Reston]
He hoped that Riley would be smart enough to know there could be soldiers there that simply had their regular comms off. Hoped this kid, the smartest person he knew, would choose something other than a straight line to get to where they were going. The boys he was teaching here were better trained than they looked, and there were 20 of them. If his crew ran into Riley’s group on their own, it would be over. Nothing he could do to protect his friend and still get his hands on one of the replenishers, and that he had no choice about. He heard him before he saw him, his little-kid-excited voice calling his name, his old name, screaming it at the top of his lungs. Not so smart then.
He had seen Alliance soldiers humiliate Zoriners they caught so many times, he knew what he had to do as if he’d done it himself before. He had to convince his crew that he was in charge and get rid of them. He had to do this, hopefully, without killing Riley. But when he obstinately refused to kneel, he wasn’t so sure he could keep him alive. At last his crew was gone, all but Anders. He didn’t care for Anders, that’s why he picked him. The kid was a bully. He’d have to find a way to deal with him.
He had the replenisher tied up at a tree, only he wished it wasn’t the one who apparently liked Riley, the way she ran to him, but he couldn’t do anything about it after she did that. If he’d known about her and Riley upfront, he would have found a way to take the other girl, but it was too late now. This had to look believable to his crew. If Riley just got down on his damn knees when he told him to, this girl would have had a fifty-fifty chance. Now she didn’t. He was half mad at Riley for this, but it wasn’t his fault. He should have known that kid had too much pride in him, only he knew it wasn’t just pride. They had too much history. He didn’t think he’d kneel if he were in Riley’s place either.
He had to make sure it was just the four of them. He could find a way to manage this, so that he got Trina back and didn’t have to kill Riley to do it. The girl eyeing him from the tree, he felt bad for her, but he knew they wouldn’t hurt her. Just make her do what they raised her to do, in comfort. She’d make babies with the unbroken genes for the Alliance. She’d never have to worry about anything for the rest of her life. It wasn’t so bad. They pampered these untouchable girls as if they were queens. In a way, he thought, they were. She would never spend a day in a tiny glass box. He knew that much.
He was digging through the pile of screens his boys found on Riley’s group, and saw Drake’s name popup on Ella’s over and over again. Recent too. So Drake was somewhere around here. He remembered Drake, the soft-hearted giant, remembered him well. Rumor had it Drake was a guard at one of the compounds. It made sense for him to be with this group then, but it surprised him that Hassinger didn’t mention him. Drake probably arranged their escape in the first place. He didn’t think Drake would kill him, that he could kill anybody; just didn’t have it in him. And he knew Drake always had a soft spot for Riley, and not just because he was always in love with Ella. He had to get him to come out of hiding. Had to contain him somehow. He had to make him believe Riley would die if he didn’t. There was no other way.
It was hard for him to throw the first punch at Riley, to see all the air go out of him like that, and his eyes looking at him, more hurt than in pain. He knew Riley would have never done what he was doing, no matter what, and it made him angry that he knew it with such certainty. In the same way it made him angry at Riley for not walking away from him when he needed him to, when everyone else in Waller had. For trying to comfort him after all the things he just heard Max say about his kind, calling them animals. It couldn’t have not hurt him, hearing it from Max, and yet there he was still, trying to make him, the bloody offspring, feel better. He never got over asking him if he’d walk away, trying to make him angry at him for asking, and the way he looked at him then.
He should have done the rest of it himself, the beating, knowing that Anders actually enjoyed hurting people, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. Not to Riley. So he let this boy hurt his best friend, because he was too much of a coward to do it himself. Riley was looking at him, not Anders, not making any noise, just taking it. He heard something break in him, and it scared him, and he had to turn away from it, hoping Drake didn’t take much longer.
He watched the face of the girl. She wasn’t screaming anymore, but pleading, quietly, her face wet. She was watching him, her eyes much too big for her face, and suddenly she looked surprised. He hoped Anders didn’t kill Riley. He spun around and for some reason couldn’t see him clearly enough, his vision going dark. He registered the swaying form of Drake hovering over him, pointing something at him, and hit the ground.
He woke up to Drake pouring tea into his mouth and making him swallow it. It tasted of some kind of herb he didn’t recognize. He hoped it was poisonous, remembering how Riley looked when Anders pummeled him at that tree, and the girl screaming, but Riley just taking it, looking at him, looking right at him until he finally couldn’t take it anymore and turned away from him.
He coughed and spat some of the liquid out, and sat up. Drake grabbed him roughly by his shirt and yanked him upright, and as soon as he was standing, slapped him hard on the face with his gigantic hand, making his ears ring.
“What the hell is wrong with you, Brody? How could you? You, of all people? Your best friend in the whole world, you son of a bitch. I hope he does to you what you had done to him when he wakes up, or worse. I’d shoot you right now if I could, Brody, I swear I would, and I’ve never shot anybody, before that animal you brought here, and even that was an accident. The damn dial must have moved to lethal in my backpack. So in a way, you are lucky I didn’t shoot you first,” he was shaking him roughly, screaming the words at him. He’d never heard Drake scream at anyone before, and then his voice went all quiet, “a part of me wishes I had, Brody, wishes I killed you, instead of that other kid, if only so Riley never had to look at you again.”
He looked down, hoping again that whatever was in that thermos would kill him, “I wish you had too, Drake.”
Drake looked at him strangely at that, as if trying to make sense of it.
“Put your hands behind your back, Brody.”
He did, and he felt Drake put a metal tie around his wrists, pulling it tighter than he needed to, tight enough to hurt even when he wasn’t moving his hands. He let him push him over to a tree, and sit him against it, and then wrap long straps around his whole body so he could barely breathe. He didn’t mind any of it. Drake was right to be furious with him. They all were. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, not wanting to see the anger and disgust on Drake’s face.
He must have dozed off again. He felt Drake shaking him awake, not too gently, and then pulling him up, and marching him towards the fire. He hoped Riley would just shoot him. There wasn’t anything he could do about Trina now. Maybe they would let her go anyway, after they learned that he died trying to capture one of the replenishers. He didn’t know if they would, hadn’t thought of it like that before. Maybe that would be enough. His crew would eventually stop with the holding pattern and get the other one safely to one of those compounds they kept them in. That ought to count for something with the Alliance. Only he couldn’t tell his crew what his plan was, or why he was hunting this group through the woods for all these days. They didn’t know anything about Trina and the deal he made with Hassinger.
He saw the bandages around Riley’s chest and the bruises on his face long before Drake dropped him to his knees in front of him. And then the girl needing to help him up, him swaying like that, he knew how badly Anders hurt him, only it wasn’t really Anders. It was him that did it with someone else’s hands. But he was still glad Anders was dead now, or he’d try to kill him himself. He didn’t understand at first why Riley had Drake and the girl leave like that, and why he was now handing him the gun, asking him to shoot him. It didn’t make any sense for the longest time. And then it did. Riley really thought he wanted him dead. And he couldn’t blame him for thinking it after the way he was with him. Riley, too, was making a deal for the people he loved, his life for Ella’s and the other girl.
And he wished he could do this for him, keep everyone safe, and suddenly, he had the makings of a plan in his head that wasn’t there just a moment before. He just had to get Riley angry enough at him to pull the trigger. Ella and the other girl were his only leverage now. He could trade on that for Trina’s life. He couldn’t think of a single reason for them to hold her if he were gone… He just hoped he could get Riley to do what he needed him to do. So when they got to the cave, he told him that he really wished him dead, and he could tell from the way he looked at him that he believed him.
Only he didn’t, in a million years, expect him to still volunteer to let him kill him on the off chance they got the girls back. It didn’t make sense. He was doing this for him, and it hurt worse than anything to shake his hand after that, and him putting the blanket down for him was too much. It made him feel every kind of wrong just looking at it. He couldn’t sleep anyway, not now, not after what he did to his friend. So he sat there for the longest time, with his eyes closed, trying to find just the right things to say to make it easy for him to pull the trigger.
He knew asking Riley to do this was the worst kind of thing to ask of anybody, and that he’d fight him on it, even if he did truly hate him for what he had done today and for what he was about to tell him. But short of trying to steal this girl he seemed in love with from him, he couldn’t think of anything else to do, and he couldn’t do that to him. Couldn’t live with himself. So this last play he had left, that’s all he could do… That he could live with. He got up, and walked over to where Riley was lying on his blanket. He was on his back, eyes closed, but he didn’t think he was asleep yet. He was breathing too fast for that.
“Riley, we need to talk. I’m sorry to wake you, but we have to,” he said softly, not to scare him.
“All right, but we’ll have to do it outside. I’ll grab us a ray.”
He watched him go through his bag looking for a wide enough ray for them, and suddenly, he wanted a bit more time alone, time with his thoughts without Riley or Trina in them, so he walked outside the cave to the little clearing, surrounded by birch trees. He has always loved these slender trunks with their strange spots. He sat down, leaning against one of the larger ones, and waited, smelling the delicate, barely there sweetness of birch sap.
Riley’s ray caught him full in the face, making him shut his eyes for a few seconds to get rid of the red spots behind his eyelids. He watched him slowly sit on the grass across from him, still obviously in pain. Watched him stick the ray into the soil at an angle, so now the light was pointing up and to the side, enough to clearly show his bruised face. He was glad he put a shirt on, so he didn’t have to see anything else he’d done to him.
“Still don’t want to hit me? This might be your last chance… I really wish you would. It would make it infinitely easier for me to tell you what I need to tell you.”
“I am not going to hit you, Brody. Spit it out!” Riley hissed, looking at him with contempt.
That he could live with. He knew it would turn into full blown hatred in a few minutes anyway, so he nodded, closed his eyes, and told him everything he knew how to tell. Told him that Zoriners took Trina to try to get to him, and that they turned her over to the Alliance, when they didn’t get what they wanted out of her. Zoriners wanted to know if Brody was a spy. He had no idea what the Alliance wanted with her or with him, for that matter. He told him how he didn’t know about what happened to Trina for a long time, until one day he saw an image of her suspended in some glass box on his screen, with a caption: Waller, #31.
And how he spent all his time from then on trying to find her, and finally how he learned that she was at Crylo, on the other side of the continent, not any place he could get to on foot, ever.
He told him briefly about joining the soldiers’ unit after all of that under a fake name, hoping he’d either end up learning something useful or dead, and how they were thrilled to have him because he told them he had inherent knowledge of how Zoriners were, having lived with them for so long. And that finally, they put him in charge of teaching younger boys wilderness survival tactics, because he was good at it. He knew that Riley was looking for Ella, kept tabs on him by any means he could, just to know he was safe, and then finally, he told him that he got a comm call on the emergency channel about an escaped group from the compound outside Carthage, the one closest to Waller, and he knew that Riley was involved, could tell from the way the woman, Hassinger, described him.
He had to tell him about the deal he made, what she promised him, so he did, “She must have done research on me and found out who I really was, Riley. She knew about Trina; I don’t know how, but she did… She told me that I would get her back, unharmed, in exchange for one of the replenishers. She was sure, somehow, that the other girl would follow, and it was unreasonable for her to ask me to get them both. I had to keep it all quiet and do it alone, without my crew, so nobody knew that she lost the replenishers in the first place.
“That’s why I sent my crew away with Ella and the other girl. I just wish you hadn’t run out there like that, and that the girl who likes you, Ams, didn’t show that she liked you when she did, when my crew could see it. I would have sent her away instead. Astor is just a front, code for close radius holding pattern. My crew will keep them safe and close by, until they hear from me or someone on the ECH, and I planned on telling them to let them both go. I just needed the one.”
He needed a break, so he stopped, still keeping his eyes closed, not wanting to look at Riley’s face when telling him this last thing he had to tell him, this lie to make it easier for Riley.
“Here is the worst part, Riley. If I didn’t realize that Drake was still out there someplace, I think I would have killed you and tried to hand that girl over to them, to save her, to save Trina,” he looked up at Riley then, to make sure he got all of it, all of what he had done and was willing to do. To make sure he believed him and hated him for it, enough to be okay with what he needed him to do.
Riley was staring at him as if he’d never seen him before in his life, bewildered look on his face.
“Why the hell didn’t you just tell me? I would have done anything to help you, Brody, if you’d just bloody told me,” he said in his quiet voice, his mad voice.
He put his hands out in front of him, the chain of the cuffs making all sorts of noise, “Please, help me up.”
Riley stood him up, still staring at him in a way that made him want for all of this to be over.
“I will get Ella and the other girl out. I just have to talk to my crew, and I’ll have one of the boys escort them to this clearing by morning. I will also send them an encrypted message for Hassinger and route it through Bruner’s comm, stating that I died trying to capture one of the replenishers who got away from me. This has to count for something with them. You’ll need to attach a shot of me and a DNA scan, so they’d know it happened and that it was, in fact, me. I’ll set it to not go out without the attachments, so the time print matches. They took her because of me. They’d have to let her go when I am gone. I wish I’d thought of this earlier, so you wouldn’t have to be the one to do it. I’m sorry for that. My comm and my screen are in Drake’s bag, side pocket. You’ll need that and your gun.”
Riley was shaking his head at him, not saying a word, as if he couldn’t find any.
He took a deep breath, and put his cuffed hands around his face, “I won’t contact my crew unless you promise to do this my way, Riley. I won’t, and there is nothing you can do to me, nothing you can threaten me with to make me.”
Riley stepped back from him, “No. There has to be another way and we’ll find it; all of us. I am not going to kill you or let you kill yourself. And you can’t hold Ella and Laurel as leverage over me, you just can’t. Not you.” He wasn’t even looking at him any more. Just shaking his head, and breathing hard, hands making fists.
“You don’t have a choice. Not if you want your sister and the other girl back. I’m sorry, I truly am, but you don’t.”
Riley looked at him like he finally wanted to hit him, and dropped his eyes and went back to pacing in front of him, and he thought he had him when he came right up to him, staring at him with what looked like actual hatred, and wrapped his hands around his neck, squeezing hard, making it impossible to draw any air in. He didn’t fight him, didn’t want to fight him, so he closed his eyes and let him, and he let go then, and turned away from him. It took a few minutes to get enough air into his lungs, and it hurt to speak even then.
“You are not hearing me, Riley. There is nothing you can say or do to me that’ll make me contact my crew. You can break every bone in my body and I still won’t do it. You can spend the rest of the night hurting me or begging, and it won’t change anything. I know you want them back. You have to do this my way, if you ever want to see them again,” he said slowly, quietly, so Riley knew he meant every word. Riley stared at him as if he had just hit him again, hurt written all over his face, hurt and sadness. He leaned his head back against the trunk of the tree and closed his eyes.
He heard him walk away towards the cave. Heard the snaps on the bags as he was looking through them, and finally the footsteps outside. He was carrying a gun, one of theirs, stunners. He could tell that it was on and likely on high, judging by the sound it made. He smiled at his friend then, for the first time since he saw him after all these years, and reached his hand out for the comm and the screen. The messages only took a few minutes. Riley waited, unmoving, the gun hand dangling at his side. He signed off and handed the devices back to him.
He knew he had to make it easier for Riley to do this, so he turned around, and lowered his head.
“I know I have no right to ask anything more of you, but this isn’t really for me. Trina… She can’t know about this. It would destroy her. If you ever talk to her, please don’t tell her this. You can tell her all the other things about me that you want, just not this… I am ready,” and he closed his eyes, hoping this works, hoping that Trina will be free after this. He waited for far too long, and he still couldn’t even feel the gun at his head.
“Do it, Riley. You bloody promised. Pull the damn trigger!”
But he didn’t even feel him move, and when he turned around, the gun was off, tucked neatly at Riley’s belt, not buzzing, Riley looking at him, sadly, apologetically, “I’m sorry, Brody, but I can’t. I didn’t promise. You just assumed because I came out with a gun. I never said I would do this. I won’t. We’ll find another way.” He watched, amazed, as Riley pulled a slave band from behind his back and took a step towards him. He let him put the band on, too stunned to move, and watched him take the cuffs off.
He felt tears running down his face, angry at Riley’s tears. He wanted to scream at him, wanted to hit him, but all he could do was let Riley push him toward the cave.
“I am never going to forgive you for this,” he finally spat at him in a broken whisper.
And there wasn’t anything left to say after that.
He knew by now that all the stun guns and anything else he could use as a weapon would be hidden safely away from him, and even if they weren’t, he could shoot someone else with the slave band on, but not himself, couldn’t bend his wrists enough to do it; that’s why he put it on him, instead of the cuffs… Riley made him lie down on the blanket he spread for him earlier, and tied a rope to his slave band and around his own wrist, so that he’d feel it when he moved. A dog on a leash.
“Get some sleep, Brody,” and he walked away to where his own blanket was and didn’t say another word after that. And for the first time he wished he had shot him earlier. For the first time he felt that he really could have done it. And then he remembered the promise Riley made him before all of this. That he would let him if he got Ella and the other girl back. Riley had to remember it too, and now he knew that the girls would be back by morning. He had to have known he’d make him furious by tricking him into getting them back like this. It didn’t make sense, what he just did. Not unless he didn’t mean it earlier, but Riley always meant it. Riley always kept his word.
So he would rather die than kill his friend. That’s the choice he just made. The choice Riley would always make. And it made him wish he never knew this boy who always managed to make him feel ashamed of himself. Made him wish not for the first time today that Drake shot at him first.
[May 7, 2236 Woods Outside of Reston]
He woke up to an awful lot of noise outside the cave. Drake was making breakfast, smiling widely at Ella and Laurel being back. Ams was full of giggles too. He had to tell them about Brody, and he wished it could wait, so they could all enjoy this for a bit. But it couldn’t wait. When he was done with it, all of it, Ams was looking at the entrance to the cave, her hand wrapped around her stun gun, “I will gladly shoot him for you, Riley. I have no problem doing it, not after what he did to you yesterday.” He saw Brody standing just outside the cave, looking like he hadn’t slept at all, his face flushed at what Ams just said. He watched him walk right up to her, quickly, not looking at anyone else, and kneel in front of her, banded hands making fists, “I would be eternally grateful if you would,” he said quietly, put his head down and didn’t move after that.
It hurt him to see him like this. He walked over to Ams and gently took the buzzing weapon from her hand, not quite trusting her not to do it, and switched it off. They had to find a way to help him. He knew Brody was furious at him, and he wondered if he was angry enough after last night to want to hold him to the promise he made earlier. He didn’t think he was, but he needed to let Brody know that he kept his word still. And mostly, he had to be absolutely sure that Brody wouldn’t be a danger to them, less him maybe, and he couldn’t do any of that here.
“Brody, we need to talk. Have some breakfast or something to drink at least. I’ll be right back,” and he ran into the cave. He took a small, dark bag that one couldn’t see through and dropped in a stun gun, one of Brody’s old guns, checking to make sure it was loaded, but only leaving one bullet in the chamber, one of Ella’s knives, and a few blank screens. He’d need those to let the others know. Brody was still kneeling by Ams, just as he left him. He helped him up, looked at the rest of them, none of them smiling anymore, letting them know with that look that they didn’t want to be followed, and walked on to a trail that led to the stream, Brody trailing behind him.
He wanted to be far enough away from the fire so that if Brody decided to use the old gun they wouldn’t hear it. He didn’t think Brody ever really wanted to hurt him, much less kill him, not after what he told him last night, and even then he could tell he was lying about some of it, trying to make it easier for him. But he knew he still had to do this, if only to show Brody that even with the slave band on, he was still his equal. They walked in silence for a long time finally reaching the water, and then for a while alongside the stream after that.
The stream sparkled grayly, metallically in the early sun. He saw a few ripples, round ones, probably from the fish pop up and disappear on the surface, sending tiny sparks in all directions. He wanted to put his hands in it to see if it was warm enough to swim in, but there was no way for him to do that and not imagine laughing, giggling Ams swimming in it with him, flailing like a little kid, the way she did at the waterfall, and not want to change his mind.
He looked away from the water and kept his eyes on the trail. He spotted a collection of rocks just ahead of them, and decided that it would have to do. It was as good a place as they were likely to find here, except for by the water, and he couldn’t do that. He ran up ahead to the rocks, and dumped the contents of his bag on one of the larger flat ones. He typed the few words he worked out in his head while they walked. Ella words, and Drake words, and mostly, Ams words. His just in case words, doing his best to explain this, and putting the burden of his last wish on them, for them to help Brody. Brody would give the screens to them, he knew, and they would all do what he asked, even if they hated him for it.
He saw him standing just on the other side of the rock with all the stuff on it, only a few steps away, watching him.
“That’s all the weapons I have, Brody. I can’t take your band off. I don’t trust you not to hurt yourself, I’m sorry for that. These screens are for the others. They’ll understand. I told them they had to help you try to get Trina back. They will do what they can for you, and I’m trusting you to not put any of them in danger in return.”
He stood up and put his hands behind his back, squeezing his fingers together, hard, “I won’t fight you, and I won’t run. If you still want this, I am okay with it… Do what you need to, but quickly, please. I’m not so good with the waiting…” He said it softly, without any anger, at least he hoped there was no anger in his voice. He didn’t feel all that angry at his friend now. He knew that if Brody really did want him dead, it would be because he thought he betrayed him last night, because he thought he had lost Trina for good because of him, and he couldn’t really blame him for wanting to kill him after that. But the waiting was hard, much harder than he thought it would be. He wanted to scream at him to hurry it up, to just bloody do it or not already.
Brody hadn’t moved, just stood there breathing hard, looking at him, eyes full of suns. He walked up to him finally, slowly, and lifted his banded hands to him, “Please, take this off. I won’t do anything stupid, I swear,” his voice shaky.
He did, and as soon as the band was off, Brody lunged at him and hugged him, hard, hard enough to make his ribs hurt. He let him do it anyway, for a long time, long enough to make up for all the years of looking for him, for wishing he didn’t put a bullet through his head in some hotel room, and then for wishing briefly yesterday that he had. And when it was over and Brody put his hands out in front of him again, he couldn’t put the band on him, couldn’t see him like that. He shook his head.
“You have to, Riley. It’s not for you. For me. I don’t… I don’t trust myself, if we can’t find another way.” And he did then, hoping there was something, anything at all they could do to get Trina out.
Brody turned away from him when he was putting the screens and the weapons into the bag, “You haven’t changed, Riley. I don’t know how, after everything, but you haven’t. That day you ran up to me on the street and I turned you away, I couldn’t help it. You made me ashamed of myself. For my parents, and for asking you if you would walk away from me then. I had no right to do that to you. I knew you wouldn’t. I just needed to make you angry at me… I couldn’t have you feeling sorry for me after Trina, after everything, couldn’t bear your kindness or your pity.” He said it quickly, as if he didn’t trust himself to say all of it. He could see his back moving fast, and hoped it was just the breathing. He walked over to him and put his hand on his shoulder, squeezing hard, letting him know that he forgave him for that a long time ago, forgave him for everything.
They started back, walking much slower now, in silence, Brody trailing slightly behind him, keeping his head down. He hated seeing him like this, sad and ashamed, so un-Brody like. Not at all like Brody he grew up with, who could take anything and still smile. He had to fix this, before they got back to where Ams was, who he was sure meant what she said earlier, and Drake who he knew was still furious at Brody. He couldn’t have him go back there like that. He stopped and faced him. Brody stopped too, still looking down, his wrists straining against the slave band. He unlocked it, letting it drop to the ground. Brody looked at him then, hands still out in front of him, his face hard, as if he were afraid of him, of what he would say.
“I need to tell you something about last night, about why I did what I did to you, Brody, and you need to let me finish all of it. It won’t be easy for you to hear it, but you need to.”
Brody nodded, his eyes betraying the fear he felt.
“I don’t believe they would have let her go, even if you were dead. They don’t tend to let anyone go, no matter what they promise. Drake turned himself in to them, let them tag him as a slave, the only male one, so they’d let Ella go. They even gave him the official promise on the Council’s screen, only they never let her go. They lie, Brody. That’s why I couldn’t do what you asked. I know it felt like a betrayal to you, and I’m sorry for that. But I couldn’t do it, not when I knew it wouldn’t have made any difference. I would have done it, if I thought for a second that you were right about them letting her go. I would have done it for you, and I would have found a way to live with it somehow, if you needed me to do it, if there was no other way to save her.”
Brody’s light eyes filled up with water, but he didn’t turn his face away from him, “Why the hell didn’t you tell me this last night? Before dragging me to those rocks like that? I could have killed you, Riley, thinking that of you, thinking you lied to me like that…” He seemed afraid, staring at him, his jaw clenched, still holding his hands out in front of him in fists.
He leaned down, pain stabbing him in the ribs, picked up the band, and dropped it into the bag with the rest of the stuff he didn’t want to see for a long time, if he could help it.
“If I told you this last night you would have never believed me. But I never really thought you would do it. I had to trust that you wouldn’t, even if you thought the worst of me. I know what you tried to do last night, all the things you said trying to get me to be really angry at you, trying to get me to hate you, to make it easier for me. I knew it then… But I am sorry I scared you like that.”
He could see Brody’s hands shaking. He was still staring at him, eyes dark gray and wet, angry or afraid, he couldn't tell. And then he knew, could feel it, that he didn’t trust himself enough to be who Riley always thought he was. That he didn’t believe he deserved his trust, or anybody’s, and he didn’t know what to do with him then, didn’t know how to help him.
“I can’t help you get her back if you are going to be like this, Brody. I need to trust you, we all do. I need to know that Ams and Laurel are safe from you, and I need to know that you are safe from you. I need your word, Brody. But no more slave bands or cuffs or watching over my shoulder. You are stuck with us now, and I have to know that I am not putting anyone I love in danger, and that includes you.”
He waited for him to take it all in, waited for a long time.
“You have my word,” almost a whisper, that, but it was enough. It would always be enough between the two of them.
He picked up the pace, wanting to get to the camp. He needed food and they had to start making some kind of plan. Drake was serving bits of hot smoked meat and bread when they got there. He could smell it before he ever saw the fire. Whatever that meat stuff was that Stan found for them in Reston, he never thought he’d get tired of it. He stomach was growling, so he walked a bit faster still. He grabbed two plates of the steaming meat stuff and a small thermos of tea and walked back to where Brody sat down on the edge of the clearing, away from the fire, away from everybody.
Brody shook his head at him, at the food. He hadn’t seen him eat or drink anything yet. He had to make him. “Brody, you don’t have a choice. You have to make yourself drink this, and you have to eat, or you are going to kill yourself by starving to death, or get so weak that we’ll have to carry you, and we can’t do that,” he snapped at him. Brody nodded and took the plate and the thermos from him, set them down on the grass, leaned his head back against the tree and closed his eyes.
Impatience getting the better of him, he picked up the thermos and opened it. He took Brody by the face, roughly, squeezed into his jaw joints, and poured the warm liquid into him, making him choke, “If you are going to act like a child, I’ll have to treat you like one, Brody. You have to stop this. You have to stop punishing yourself for everything. For me, for Trina, for your parents. It wasn’t your fault. I know it’s hard, but you have to. I am not angry at you, I am really not… I don’t know what I would have done if it were me. Ams and Drake will get over it too. So please, stop this. It’s killing you; and it’s killing me to watch you do this to yourself.” He whispered all of it, so only Brody heard him, and walked away from him, back to the fire. He turned around once, and saw him pick up the thermos and take a drink. The food he didn’t touch, but this was a start.
He knew he couldn’t ask them to risk their lives to try to save Trina. Had no right to ask it of them, but he hoped he could get them to help him in some other way. He was talking to them about it now, Ams looking at him like he was insane, and shaking her head, “I’m not helping him, Riley. I just can’t. Not after what he did to you.”
He was relieved. He didn’t want to risk Ams, wanted her safe.
“I know, Ams. I’m not asking you to. I am not asking any of you. Brody and I will go, but we could use some planning help, and we still need to deal with Brody’s crew, and I don’t know how to.” He knew Brody heard all of this, and hoped it didn’t make it worse for him.
“I want to come with you, Brody. I want to help,” - Laurel, who hasn’t said a word to Brody or about him since she got back. It didn’t make sense for her to want to help him. But she stood there in front of the boy, looking at him, “I can get into that compound. If I can find the right clothes, any compound. I can probably get into one of their metros too. They won’t hurt me. I just need to look the part. None of you can do that. You have to let me come with you.”
He looked at Brody, who was watching this girl in disbelief, “No. I’m sorry, but you can’t. I promised Riley that I wouldn’t put any of you in danger. I can’t take any of you with me. Not even you, Riley.” Brody got up and walked into the cave, and nobody seemed to want to go in after him.
They sat in silence, Ams looking angry at him for some reason, and not even trying to hide it. Drake and Ella walked off into the woods, probably trying to give them privacy, and he didn’t see Laurel anywhere. Just as well. Ams was sitting unnaturally still, not looking at him, her angry, deliberate not looking at him. He couldn’t think of anything he’d done to upset her lately, if only because there wasn’t any time, so it didn’t make sense for her to be angry at him now. Only of course it did…. She thought he was choosing Brody over her. She must have thought that he wouldn’t want to go with him if she didn’t, and now he was planning on leaving her because of this boy who almost killed him yesterday. The boy she clearly hated because she watched him do it. He would need to talk to her, but he was too tired to think after not sleeping most of the night, and too tired to talk.
He walked to the cave, needing to just lie down for a bit, and when he got there, he saw Laurel crouching by where Brody was sitting against that wall, whispering at him. Brody’s eyes were closed, but his face seemed relaxed for the first time, and his hands weren’t making fists. He was intruding, so he quietly grabbed his blanket and walked to the birch tree that Brody chose last night, smelling its mild sweetness, slumped down next to it, and finally let himself sleep.
[May 7, 2236 Woods Outside of Reston]
She was surprised Riley didn’t get it. Looking at this boy, Brody, she could tell from the first that he was broken, that something happened to him, something unfixable. Riley, of all people, should have seen it. This boy had that same look to him that Riley had when Ams stopped talking to him for days before they ran. The waiting to die look. Ams being the way she was with this boy she got, couldn’t blame her for it. She must have been scared out of her mind, tied up to a tree and watching that other boy punching Riley like that. She must have thought they would kill her Riley. But Riley not getting it surprised her…
She couldn’t bear look at the boy sitting there alone by that tree, as if waiting for himself to just stop breathing, so when he went inside, she followed him, because somebody had to talk some sense into him, and because she really wanted to help him get his girl back, this Trina. It’s not like they had someplace to be or plans of any kind, and this trudging through woods from one city to the next was already getting old. She didn’t run away from the compound to do this.
He was sitting against the wall, his eyes closed. “Brody.”
He didn’t even look at her.
“You have to let me help you. I know you promised Riley, but Riley would let me go. He has to. I am not Ams, or Ella. I’m not his to keep safe. I want to help you, and I need you to let me,” she crouched in front of him, watching his face. There were streaks of gold in his hair, catching what little light was coming into the cave, from all the sun she guessed. He looked about Riley’s age, but there was no carelessness about him. She couldn’t picture him as a little kid, like she could Riley, or Ams. Couldn’t even picture him smiling.
She heard Riley come in then, fumble for his blankets and leave. He must have thought they were talking. She wished she could make this boy talk to her, felt he needed to talk to somebody and nobody seemed to want to be around him. She moved to his side and sat next to him by the wall, “Tell me about her. About Trina, from before they took her.” He looked at her then, for the first time, surprised gray blue eyes with sparkles of yellow and gold in them, and nodded. And finally, he talked.
His voice cracking when he got to the part where she handed him the necklace back, and she could picture them from his words, the girl leaning against the aged brick wall of the school, him hurting so much he threw the necklace away just to not have it near him. She could picture him kissing the girl’s head and it made sense to her, him doing it even then, could almost hear him whisper something to her, only she didn’t know what it was, and him walking away for the last time. But she couldn’t picture being that girl, couldn’t imagine ever doing something like that to a boy who loved her. She didn’t think she could.
She put her hand on top of his, and he froze. “Please, don’t,” he said so very quietly, barely a whisper, as if it hurt him just to have her hand on his like that. Every instinct in her told her to let go, to not hurt him, but she felt she had to let him know that she didn’t think he was as horrible as all that, so she pressed harder on his hand, not moving, hoping he understood that she didn’t mean him any harm by it, and he let her. They stayed like that for a long time, not saying anything.
He looked at her finally, sparkles all gone now, his hand in a fist under hers, “I would have given you up to the Alliance to save her, if I could. You need to know that. That’s who you are trying to comfort, Laurel. You see the sadness, but nothing else, because that’s how you are. But I am not like Riley, Laurel. I am not,” he lowered his head, and whispered after a beat, “I tried to get him to shoot me last night to save her, because I thought it might work. I tried to force my best friend to kill me in exchange for getting you and Ella back. I don’t know how he would have lived with himself if he had, but I didn’t care about that,” he looked up at her again. “That’s how I am,” and he seemed sorry he said it then, or sorry that it’s how he was.
“I think I might have let you take me to the Alliance, Brody, if I knew why you were doing it. I don’t have anybody, so it doesn’t matter where I end up to anyone but Ams, and she has Riley now. She’ll be all right. I might have let you walk me right in if it could get you Trina back, if I knew. I still would, if you’d just ask. And that boy wouldn’t have beat up Riley like that, and you wouldn’t have felt the need to do what you did last night, and you wouldn’t feel so bad now,” she said softly. She didn’t know why she said all of it now, didn’t think about it beforehand, but she believed she meant it. She was tired of running through these woods, and she certainly didn’t want to see any more cities with no life in them. She never wanted to see that again. And all the sadness on everyone’s faces all the time…. She didn’t want it in her, didn’t want to become hard like Ams or sad and lifeless like this boy.
He was staring at her, as if not quite understanding what she just said, or not trusting that she meant it. He stood up, breathing hard, still staring at her, the light in his strange eyes back now, “I can’t take you with me, Laurel. Even if Riley lets you go. Not after what you just said. I can’t. I won’t,” and his voice was full of anger. She didn’t understand why he wouldn’t at least talk to the rest of them about it. This could be the only chance they had to make it okay for all of them, okay for Riley and Brody, and it would be okay for her too, she knew that. This would be different than her just doing the thing she was made for because before she had no choice about it. Her choosing to go back wouldn’t feel so bad at all, not if it would make it all right for her friends.
She stood up. She would give him some time, and she would talk to Riley about it. Ams she couldn’t talk to, not about this, not yet.
“I wouldn’t be doing it out of pity for you, Brody, if that’s what you think… I don’t know you enough to feel that, and I hope that if I ever do know you enough, it still wouldn’t be pity. This, I would be doing it for me,” and she walked out, hoping Riley was close by.
She found him dead asleep by one of the strange black and white trees. Nobody seemed to be by the almost dead fire anymore. She shook him gently by the shoulders, until his eyes flew open at her and he sat up, fully awake now, “What is it, Laurel? What happened?” He sounded worried.
She needed to do this just right, she knew, needed to find the right words to tell him.
“I know how we can get Trina back, Riley. I figured it out, but you have to promise me that you would let me do what I want to do if I tell you.”
He shook his head, “No. Not unless I know what it is, Laurel.”
She just had to tell him then. She couldn’t see how he could keep her from doing what she wanted to do. She wasn’t a prisoner here. That was it, that’s what she had to tell him.
“Am I your ward, Riley? Yours or Ams’? Or am I free to do what I want to do? Because if I am not, this is no better than the compound for me, just a different kind of prison with better company and much more sadness…” She waited, crouching by him, Riley looking at her strangely now.
“You are not a prisoner, Laurel. But you are my friend and I swore to keep you safe. I intend to do that. I have to do that,” he said sharply.
“I told Brody that I want to go back, and I meant it. I am not Ams, or you. I am not cut out for this. Ever since that field in the city, I’ve been dreading what I’ll see next, and I don’t want to. If Brody takes me back and they let Trina go, I will have at least done something that I could feel good about. I don’t have anybody waiting for me anywhere, Riley. I will never know what happened to my parents, I know that now. That was my initial plan, to find our parents, mine and Ams’, but I can’t find them, none of us can. Our names aren’t even our own. So I want to do one good thing for somebody, while I am still free to do it. And you have to let me,” she said softly, so he knew she wasn’t angry at him, and walked away from him, leaving him be.
She found Ams sitting by herself on the other side of the clearing from where Riley was. She was angry at him again for something, only she couldn’t think of anything he’d done this time.
“Hey, Ams,” she dropped down on the grass next to her, hoping she’d tell her whatever it was that was bothering her, before she had to tell her what she planned to do. She knew it would make her angry, and sad maybe. She couldn’t help that. Sooner or later she felt she would end up back at one of the Alliance places. Some place clean, and safe, and not so full of people pointing guns at each other’s heads all the time or breaking each other’s ribs.
“I hate him, this Brody. I really, really hate him, Laurel. And Riley seems to think there is something wrong with me for it, but I can’t help it, not after watching him put that gun right to Riley’s head like that, and making him get on his knees… Not after he hit him so hard Riley couldn’t breathe. I could see it from where I was, Laurel. He couldn’t breathe for the longest time after that, and then he let that other kid almost kill him, and he just turned away from it. But there was no place I could turn away to, so I had to watch it, all of it, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do to stop it. I was screaming at him, begging him to stop it, but he didn’t even say anything to me, just stared at me as if I was crazy for screaming. Did you see how he made Riley get on his knees? He shot at me in front of him, Laurel, right by where my feet were, and then threatened to shoot me for real. What kind of a friend does that to somebody? Riley thinks I am some kind of monster again, for still being angry at the boy, but I can’t turn it off like he can. I want to kill him for what he did to Riley. I am serious. I think I could.” She looked up at her then, eyes sad and serious.
She hugged her close, whispering to her, “I don’t think you are a monster, Ams. I wasn’t there for most of it, but I can’t imagine watching him do any of those things. He felt he had to, so the crew believed it, but I don’t know if he had to do it that way. I never loved anybody but you, Ams, so I don’t know what I would do for someone I loved. I don’t know if I could do what he did to keep you safe, Ams, but that’s me. I see how broken he is, and ashamed. I don’t think he would have killed Riley or you. Don’t think he has it in him. But I am sorry he hurt Riley, I really am.” She got up then and walked to the fire, getting it started again, because she couldn’t tell Ams what she wanted to tell her after all, at least not tonight. Riley wasn’t in his spot by the tree anymore. It was just her then, her and Ams, maybe for the last time.
“Feel like helping me get this thing roaring, Ams? Nobody else seems interested in eating today. I need some sticks, and dry leaves. And a bit of laughter or I am going to go crazy with all the silences.” And she watched Ams running through the woods around the edge of the clearing after a little while, collecting anything dry enough to burn, and dropping large piles of it by the fire, and finally they had it going, as big as they wanted it, big enough to light up this whole clearing, and for the first time since they got here, she noticed how pretty it was.
The white of the trees catching the light and glowing, in a way the insides of white candles glow, but not trees, never trees. It was as if every one of these slender trunks was filled with snow on the inside, and someone set the snow on fire, only it didn’t melt the snow, it just made it glow softly, whitely from the inside. She watched, fascinated, making a mental note to ask someone what these trees were called, and to remember it, so she could take it with her. This memory she wouldn’t mind keeping.
[May 7, 2236, Woods Outside of Reston]
He knew what Riley was up to when he came at him like that, pulling him away from Ams, taking her gun from her, as if he really believed she could kill him. He could hear it in his voice and he was afraid he’d try to make him hold a gun against his head again. He would die before he ever let that happen, he knew, but he followed him to the stream, because he still had things to tell him, old things. He needed him to know why he pushed him away like that back in Waller, and that he never really wanted him dead or gone. He had to find a way to tell him all of that somehow, and he knew he couldn’t do it at the fire with everyone looking at him like he was a monster. Not that he didn’t deserve it.
He caught the way Riley was looking at the stream, the water sparkling like melting icicles when the sun hits them just right, throwing glitter across the tiny waves. Riley seemed to want to turn into the stream, but then didn’t, and he felt it had something to do with the girl, the little one at the cave, the one who was unapologetic about wanting to shoot him. He liked her for that. There was an honestly to her, and she didn’t seem to care what anyone else thought of her. She was pretty too. He noted that much. Those impossibly large, liquid gray eyes staring right at you. Nothing timid in her look, too, as if she had no secrets. He was glad for Riley that he had her, and he really did seem in love with her, begging for her like that. Riley, who never begged for anything in all the years he’d known him. Not even when his father took that belt to his back for something stupid he got him into at school. He just took it, never screaming or pleading.
His father did it in front of him once, probably to make him stop getting Riley in trouble, and he did for a long time after that. He couldn’t take it, watching him swing the narrow belt at the kid’s back like that, and Riley standing there with his eyes closed, not making a sound. He remembered begging his father to stop, swearing he’d never get Riley to do anything bad again, but he just wouldn’t stop hitting him for anything. He ran up to that big man finally and begged him to hit him instead, because it was his fault in the first place, and he knew how unfair it was that Riley was getting punished for it. He stopped then, and threw him out of the house, slamming the door in his face.
He watched Riley stop at some rocks, and take whatever he brought with him out of the bag. He saw the two guns and a knife, and knew for sure what they were here for; that Riley was making good on his promise. He wondered if he ever trusted anyone the way Riley was trusting him now, even after all the horrible things that happened to him. Or maybe it wasn’t trust. Maybe Riley really did think that he could kill him, that he would want to, and was willing to let him do it. Maybe he wanted to atone for betraying him last night, tricking him like that, and he knew that if it were anyone else, anyone but Riley who did that to him, he’d shoot them without thinking about it. He watched him stand up and put his hands behind his back and he knew what it meant before Riley said anything, knew that he wouldn’t fight back.
And when he told him that he was okay with it, if he really wanted to do this, there was no anger in his voice. He just looked at him, openly, apologetically almost. He knew the waiting was killing him and he couldn’t bear let him stand there like that for another second, couldn’t bear let him think that he ever truly wanted to hurt him, but he didn’t trust himself to not fall apart, so he waited for the flood of everything he was feeling to be manageable, so he could speak calmly enough to at least ask him to take the stupid band off, so he could hug him.
He believed him when he told him how he didn’t think they would have let Trina go, and that he would have done what he had asked of him, if he thought it would save her. He believed he’d do that for him. And as angry as he was at him for not telling him this earlier, before dragging him to those rocks like that, he understood it too. It would have felt like cheating to Riley, like he wasn’t quite keeping his promise. And all of it made him even more ashamed at what he’d done to him earlier. That he couldn’t even bring himself to beat him with his own hands, even when Anders was breaking his ribs.
He saw him clench his jaw when he leaned down to pick up the slave band, and he couldn’t help blushing. And the way he looked at him, asking for his word, he wanted to promise him anything, just to stop him from looking at him like that. He couldn’t hurt any of his people now, he just wasn’t so sure about himself. That he could live with himself after all of this, not if he did all of it for nothing, and Trina was gone. But he owed it to Riley, owed it to him after all he put him through, so he gave him his word, and it hurt to do it, knowing that he couldn’t just put a bullet in his head.
He felt like he was intruding on everyone when they got to the fire. These people had every right to hate him, he knew, and they seemed to, all but the other girl, Laurel. She looked at him with softness in her eyes, and he couldn’t understand why she would look at him like that, not after what he would have so easily done to her. So when she came into the cave and called him by name like that, all soft, he wanted her gone, but she wouldn’t leave, and after a while, if felt good to have someone leaning against the wall next to him. It felt good to not feel so alone, even if he didn’t deserve it.
He didn’t mind telling her about Trina, needed to tell somebody, and so he did, telling her almost everything, except for what he said to her that last time. He didn’t want this girl to feel pity for him. And afterwards, when she put her hand on his, he thought she did anyway, and he didn’t want that warm touch, didn’t think he had any right to let her comfort him, so he told her that he would have given her up to save Trina, and he wasn’t lying then. He would have done it before, would have done almost anything before.
He expected her to scream at him for it or hit him. He would have been okay with any of it. But her telling him that she would have let him take her to the Alliance, that she still would, if it helped him get Trina back, he couldn’t take that. It didn’t make sense for this girl to offer to do this for him, not after all that she saw him do and all the other things that she knew now. And when she was gone he was grateful for the silence again. He sat there, trying to think a way out of it for himself, for Trina, sat thinking for a long time, and finally his eyes closed and he slept.
Too much light coming into the cave woke him up. Something was going on outside that made an awful lot of it, as if the whole clearing was on fire. He poked his head out, timidly, not wanting to scare anyone, and there it was, a roaring fire much too large for so few of them, much too large for this tiny clearing. Laurel and Ams were running around it, holding hands, giggling, looking very much like little kids who’d never seen a fire before. They were lost to whatever game this was and didn’t see him, so he leaned on the wall of the cave and watched, trying to remember the last time he giggled or ran around like that, without a care in the world. Trying to remember the last time he was as happy as these two girls looked now.
And he had it, the last time he laughed. It was Riley’s 16th birthday, only Riley didn’t ever remember it anymore, or if he did, he never wanted to do anything, so Trina made him a surprise supper, and it was just the three of them, at Andy’s warehouse. He remembered trying to save all the candy they could for months, and Trina stealing candles and soft pillows from her house. He caught a bunch of fish the night before, and he hoped they could cook them just right on the little camp stove at Andy’s.
Janet gave them nice plates for this, and cloth napkins, and silverware, and when Riley walked in, because he asked him to come by to help him with something, the whole warehouse was full of candlelight, and it smelled like food, and Trina’s perfume, and candles, instead of old rusty machines and motor oil like it always did.
Riley knew what they did as soon as he opened the door, and he had tears in his eyes and a huge grin on his face. They ate the fish and potatoes out of nice plates with flowers on them, sitting on the soft, embroidered pillows on the floor. And then every piece of candy they had stashed away for this after that. They took sips of Andy’s moonshine out of a bottle, not a thermos, and they didn’t have to steal any of it. Andy left it for them in the middle of a table, with a Happy Birthday note to Riley under it. And afterwards, they ran around the warehouse with bags of milk and salt, trying to make ice-cream, hitting each other with them, spilling the milk onto each other’s faces, and laughing. They learned how to do it this way from the old crazy woman who always talked to them when they walked to school in the mornings. Nobody in Waller seemed to know who she was, not even a name. She told them people in the old days used to make ice-cream just like that, only it didn’t work for them, but they didn’t care that it didn’t work that night.
He must have closed his eyes remembering, because he didn’t see Laurel walk up to him, but there she was, standing right in front of him, pulling on his hand, trying to get him to move, “Come play with us, Brody. Ams promised me she wouldn’t try to kill you anymore, at least not tonight, because she said she is too happy to be angry now, even at you, so she won’t.”
He saw Ams standing on the far side of the giant fire, still smiling, waiting for her friend. He couldn’t do this.
He shook his head, “I can’t, Laurel. I am sorry, but I can’t.” She nodded softly letting his hand go, and ran back to the fire, her arms waving wildly, child-like.
It didn’t matter if Laurel got Riley to let her go with him; he couldn’t take her. This girl running around the fire was good, Riley good. He couldn’t make her go to a place behind the walls, without trees, and fires and Ams in it. He could never do that to her, even if she thought she wanted to do it. Even if it was the only way for him to help Trina. But he could tell she had her own reasons for this, from before him. He had to find a way to talk to her, get her to tell him what happened to her, so maybe he could help her not want to go back anymore. He walked over to them, smiles suddenly gone from their flushed faces, and looked at her, “Can we talk, please,” and went back to the cave, hoping she’d follow.
She did, after a while, and stood there in front of him, watching him, waiting.
“I need to know why you want to go back. Not because of Trina, but from before you met me, the other things. I need you to tell me, if you can, need to know what happened to you.”
She slid down the wall and sat next to him, like the last time, and told him about all of it, starting with when Riley fell into the compound, and how Ams saved him. She told him about Hassinger, and what she did to Riley, and how Ams had to stitch him up after that, and he couldn’t help but flinch when she told him that. And about meeting Kaia, the non-mute mute, and things not adding up for her after that. She told him about Drake, and how she snuck sage leaves to him for years without anyone knowing. How he helped them run, and then Drake and Keller, and how he was kind to Keller in the end, and he knew she told him that part because she wanted him to think of Drake in that way, but he always had anyway.
She told him finally about finding Reston, the city with nobody in it, and all that happened there. About the way Stan looked at her and Ams at first, and then finding that field of bones and knowing why he thought of them that way. And how Ella took the tag out of Drake there, and Stan gave Ella her voice back.
And she told him about how it changed her, being in Reston after she knew what her people did to everybody there. How she thought the implant in her could make her do horrible things. Maybe not now, but someday, because it didn’t make sense for anyone to do something so awful to someone else on their own, without something making them do it. Told him how she asked Stan to get it out of her, hoping that he could, and him drawing it for her on a pad, the tiny connected dots inside a drop of blood, and telling her that he couldn’t get it out of her, out of any of them. And how she almost killed herself with Drake’s mushrooms after he told her that, to make sure her implant never hurt anybody, only Ams and Riley wouldn’t let her.
She stopped then, not looking at him, just breathing. He reached over and took her small hand in his, wrapping his fingers around it as tightly as he could without hurting her, feeling every kind of wrong for asking her to tell him any of this.
“I am sorry, Laurel. You don’t need to keep going. You don’t need to tell me anything.”
He had no right to make her remember this for him. He knew he couldn’t help her fix how she felt, make her un-see any of what she had seen. He leaned his head against the wall and closed his eyes, waiting for her to go, but she didn’t go. She took a deep breath and kept going.
She told him about leaving Reston, and about finding the waterfall, and she seemed happy telling him about that. He thought of Riley looking like he wanted to go to the water earlier, and knew now why he didn’t. She told him how after the waterfall, the next morning, she knew for sure for the first time that Ams really loved Riley, and that something changed for the two of them, because Riley was smiling all morning after that, couldn’t help smiling, and Riley never really smiled. And finally, she told him how she saw Drake running to them, a worried look on his face, and Riley telling them to move back, but they were all making too much noise, so they stopped, and Riley was on the ground watching the smoke from the fire that spooked Drake like that, an awful lot of smoke, and then he was running out there, running through the trees and screaming his name.
He put his head down at that. He knew the rest of it. She didn’t move, didn’t take her hand away from him. He could barely hear her breathing. He looked at her, made himself do it, to make sure she was all right after telling him all of this, but she just sat unmoving, calm, staring at some spot in front of her.
“I know you don’t want to let me help you, Brody. And I think I know why, and it’s not just because you gave Riley your word. You don’t want me or anyone to help you because you don’t think you deserve it. In the same way you won’t eat, or let anyone be kind to you. That’s the real reason.” She looked at him when she said it, and he lowered his eyes. She was right, of course, but he wished she didn’t quite figure him out like that.
She turned to him, making him look at her, “I am sorry for making you uncomfortable. Sometimes I just don’t know to keep my mouth shut. But this, what I want to do, this isn’t about you, Brody. One way or another, I am going to go back, by myself if I have to. At least this way it’ll mean something to somebody, and you can keep me safe until I get there. But I am going, no matter what you or Riley or Ams say. Unless you are willing to put one of those bands on me, I am going.”
She got up, and walked to the door of the cave, and then turned around, looking at him with sadness in her eyes, “I need to know something, Brody.”
He nodded, looking up at her.
“Would you have gotten Ella and me back if Riley didn’t trick you?”
He slid up the wall fast, too fast, scraping his back against the rocks, anger making his face burn, “You think…. What kind of a monster do you think I am?” But of course it made sense for her to think that. It’s the only damn thing that made any sense. He shook his head at her apologetically, “I am sorry, Laurel. I am not angry at you for asking this. It makes sense. I am okay with it, I promise, but you can’t come here trying to talk to me again.” He hoped he didn’t sound angry when he said it. He tried his best not to. He just needed her gone. Needed to be left the hell alone. By all of them.
She walked back to him, and without asking, wrapped her small hands around the fists he was making. He wanted to shove her away from him, and if it were Riley or anyone but this girl, he would have, but he couldn’t do that to her, so he stood still, letting her keep her hands on his, making himself look into her serious, blue eyes. He deserved this, this girl thinking the worst of him, but it still hurt.
“I don’t think you are a monster, Brody, but I think that you do. That’s why I asked. To see if it would hurt you. I am glad it did.”
He felt himself flinch and wished she wasn’t standing close enough to see it.
She let go of his hands, and kept going, much softer now, “You said earlier you weren’t like Riley, but you are exactly like him in this. He, too, punishes himself in the stupidest ways for all the things that aren’t really his fault; all but the one, maybe. He didn’t care if Ams shot him when she found him on the lawn at the compound. He had her hold the gun against his chest asking her to pull the trigger, and then didn’t care if she took him to Hassinger, even after what that woman did to him. He thought he deserved it somehow, because he failed, because he didn’t think he could save his sister after all.
“And the only bad thing I ever saw him do, I think it would have killed him if Ams didn’t come around and started talking to him again. He bullied her into coming with him, using me as bait. She didn’t want to run, but I did, so he told her he’d take me but only if she came too. I didn’t tell you that part. Ams wouldn’t talk to him for days after that. I had to take his food to him and put HealX on his scars, and I watched him do what you are doing, watched it for days. Punishing himself, looking as if he wished he were dead, not eating, not speaking either. All those horrible things you did, or think you did, he did all of them too, in his own way, only he did them to a little girl who didn’t even know him well enough to like him yet, not to his best friend. But you are like him, whether you see it or not… I am sorry I hurt you, Brody. I needed to know for sure who you are. I think I do now, and we will talk again,” and she left then, and he didn’t know what to do about her after that.
Riley came in, looking at him in his old Riley way, but he didn’t know how to tell him any of this yet, so he slid back down the wall and shook his head at his friend, and he let him be. He watched Riley dig through his bag, and pull out a shirt. The one he had on was wet for some reason. He pulled it off, too much light landing on all the scars he could see above his bandages, thin white lines diagonally drawn across his back. He felt sick looking at it, after what Laurel just told him.
“I am going to kill her, Riley. Someday. I will find her, and I will kill her.”
Riley turned around, surprised look on his face, “Kill who, Brody?”
Of course. He had no way of knowing that he knew how he got those scars.
“Hassinger. I am going to kill her.”
Riley crouched in front of him, concerned look on his face.
“I had Laurel tell me what happened to you, to all of you. I think she told me everything she thought I could take. And then some things I don’t think she meant to tell me. You and Ams things. I think she wanted to go back even before me. Because of all the sadness, the sadness on you at the compound after what you did to Ams, the way Stan made her feel, the field in Reston. I think she means to go back, Riley, and I don’t think any of us can stop her.”
“I know. But we can’t let her. At least not until we know she’ll be safe. I don’t trust them, Brody, the Alliance, only now, after what you told me about Trina, I don’t trust us either. It’s like they are all playing some kind of game, and none of us know what it is or why they are doing it. I need to know for sure she’ll be okay if she goes back, and until I do, she can’t go anywhere. We can’t let her.”
He nodded, letting Riley know that he was with him on this if he needed him.
“Brody, whatever Laurel told you about me and Ams, she did it for a reason. She gets people, reads them somehow. It’s like she can see through everybody. Her telling you that, she meant well by it, and I don’t mind you knowing. I’m actually glad that you do. I am not the saint you think I am, Brody. Never was.”
He left him alone after that, and he didn’t want to think about Laurel and all the things she just told him, so he made himself think through everything he learned about the Alliance in the last few years, trying to connect it all up so it made sense, but he couldn’t do it. Riley was right, it wasn’t adding up. But Hassinger would know. They just had to get their hands on her, and make her talk. He still had her on the ECH. All he had to do was tell her that he had one of the replenishers. She’d come for that. And he’d make her talk, and then he would kill her. He went through Riley’s bag and found his comm, and typed in the GPS numbers for a secluded spot he scouted with his crew a while ago. It was about a six-hour walk from here, if they didn’t slack off. So he punched in the time-stamp of tomorrow at six in the evening. It should give her plenty of time to find a private flier and get Trina.
He told her that she wasn’t going anywhere with the girl until he had Trina, and that if she were smart, she’d come alone, as he’d have most of his well trained crew on standby, and she didn’t want him to have to reach out to his crew for this. He signed off, and for the first time felt hungry enough to eat. He joined the others at the fire, ignoring the angry looks from Drake and Ams, just listening to them talk, and he hoped Riley didn’t kill him tomorrow morning when he’d have to tell him what he just did.
One way or the other, tomorrow all of this will be over. He needed for this to be over, before he completely lost himself to his anger, to the relentless chase for Trina and to the guilt he went to sleep with every night for his parents, and guilt for what he had done to Riley. He just had to make it through the night now. That much he could manage.
[Crylo, May 16, 2233]
She expected someone to come and ask her questions or at least tell her what they wanted from her, but nobody came. She’d been locked up in this box for two days and nobody came to tell her anything. When she woke up the first morning after they brought her here, there was a small plastic tray with a cup and a small thermos of some dark brown liquid. It wasn’t tea, she could smell that much. She poured out a small sip and tasted it, spitting it out. It was thick and bitter. There was a silver box next to the strange liquid that she couldn’t open at first, couldn’t figure it out, and then finally she did. She didn’t know what she was looking at. Didn’t have names for any of it.
There was a round orange thing, cut up into four pieces. She liked the way it smelled, but after the stuff in the thermos, she was going to have to be more careful. She ran the tip of her index finger against one of the slices and licked it. It was the strangest thing she’d ever tasted. Sweet and tart and perfumy, the smell mingling with the taste. This she could eat, and she did, juice running down her chin and dripping onto the tray. The only other thing in the box was a white square bar. She tasted it first, in the same way she did with the round orange thing, and it tasted like sweetened milk and something else she couldn’t quite place, but it was decent enough, so she ate that too, and then walked over to the sink and washed her face and hands under cold water. She rinsed out the thermos and filled it up with water at the sink and drank that.
She slept again after that, thinking of Brody, making his face show up in her head, his eyes looking at her in a way that made her insides feel warm. She knew she did the right thing, sending him away like that, but it didn’t help her not miss him. She must have slept most of the day, because when she woke up, her old tray was gone and there was a new one on the floor next to her bed. This one was red. She was paying attention to all these clues now, as there was no way for her to see what time it was, not even if it was day or night. So this would be dinner. And she couldn’t eat any of it. She couldn’t even bring herself to smell it. She moved the tray away from her, not that it helped in this small space, and went back to her cot. She wasn’t that hungry yet anyway. At worst, she knew she wouldn’t starve if she just ate the stuff on the white trays from now on.
She needed something to do to occupy herself, something that would make the time stop moving so slowly. She got up and started taking mental notes of everything she saw through the walls and the floor of this box. It still made her feel a bit uneasy when she looked through the floor, but only when she was thinking about it. She didn’t notice feeling sick earlier walking on it, she remembered that. The people walking around below her looked impossibly small. She could barely tell men from women from so high up, and she only figured out that much because she could see women’s dresses or skirts dragging on the floor around their feet.
Men’s legs looked like black matchsticks, nothing flowing around them at all. There seemed to be about an equal number of both here, she noted. None of these little people below her seemed to be aware she was stuck in this box, dangling over them. They never seemed to look up. She could see where the door to the building was from here, as that seemed to generate the most people traffic, but she couldn’t see anything through that door. She would have liked to be able to see outside if only to know if it was day or night. It felt strange, not knowing something so basic. Through the sides, all she could see were empty hallways and an elevator shaft just to her right. That was it. Not much she could learn by looking at any of it, so she slept again, not knowing what else to do.
At least she could dream when she was sleeping, and she was getting pretty good at dreaming about Brody, and Waller, and all the things she loved there, and about her parents. She didn’t want to dream about them now. She pushed their faces away from behind her eyes and was looking at Brody’s head, bent in front of her. She was running her fingers through his hair, counting the gold streaks, comforting him. He ran to her without a jacket of any kind, just in his t-shirt in the middle of January, looking entirely out of sorts. Brody never looked like that. She dragged him inside, slamming the door at the cold that followed him, put a warm blanket on him, one of her mother’s, and ran into the kitchen to heat up some tea. He stood at the door, right where she left him when she came back out again. She had to take him by the hand and walk him into the kitchen as if he were a little kid, and make him sit down, hoping he would just spit it out, whatever this bad thing was, so that she didn’t have to pry. And finally he did, three words, “Andy is dying,” and there wasn’t anything she could do to make him feel any better then.
She made him his tea, without any sugar in it, and put the steaming mug in front of him, but he just put his head down, so many gold streaks spilling onto the table in front of her. She couldn’t tell if he was crying, couldn’t see his face at all, but she hoped he was, hoped he trusted her enough to do it in front of her if he needed to. Andy was all he had left of family, she knew that. And she knew how much he loved that man. She knew he went to that warehouse every day after dropping her off from school, running to that depressing place in the old part of town, even when it was really nice outside and he could have been doing anything else he wanted, like the rest of the kids. But Brody never was like the rest of the kids. He stuck to this routine for as long as they were together, only taking the occasional off day when she begged him to, for her, and she always felt a little guilty asking him not to go to Andy’s on those days.
He looked up at her finally, eyes without any suns in them, dark and sad, “They can’t fix it. The thing that’s killing him, nobody here can fix it, and he won’t try to get help anyplace else. I tried to make him do it, but he… He. Just. Won’t. Go,” and the head went back on the table again, and she was pretty sure he was crying now, so she walked around him and hugged him with all the weight she could put on him, letting him cry it all out without the embarrassment of looking at her. After too long of this, he stood up, slowly, looked at her for a long time and then kissed her softly on her forehead, “Riley doesn’t know. I don’t know how to tell him yet. I don’t know if I want him to know.” She nodded to him and he left. She knew he needed some time to be alone with this, however he needed to.
The white tray was exactly the same as the last time when she woke up, only this time she dumped the containers of the thermos into the sink without even looking and immediately regretted it. This liquid looked very much like tea, and smelled right, but it was too late now. Somebody must have been watching her for them to know that she didn’t drink the other thing. She ate the round orange thing and the milky bar, and paced around the box. Seven small steps in any direction. No wonder they called it a cage, she thought without humor, only if she were in the cage, she was supposed to have a bloody audience at the very least.
She must have paced for hours, just counting the same steps over and over again, and somehow she missed her white tray disappearing, replaced with the red one. This one didn’t smell bad at all. There was a bowl of some dark brown stuff with a plastic spoon stuck in it. She tasted it tentatively. Brothy and salty meat chunks swimming in not quite liquid. This wasn’t bad at all. She identified a few potatoes and carrots and some herbs and veggies she didn’t know, but all of it was decent enough. At least they weren’t going to starve her to death. She slept, or tried to. She was getting rather tired of sleeping, so she stared at the glass ceiling, the only thing she couldn’t really see anything through, nothing but untextured darkness.
And finally she did sleep, only she couldn’t recall any of her dreams when the sound of the swishing doors woke her up. She was staring at an immaculately white face of a woman whose age she couldn’t determine. She jumped up and stood against the far wall, afraid. The woman smiled at her, using only her mouth to do it, and said in a surprising pleasant voice that her name was Rindar, and she would be her keeper. She didn’t know what that meant, but didn’t want to ask her.
“I am going to take your slave band off, Trina. You won’t be needing it anymore,” and she walked up to her and put a finger on some spot on the band. It slid right off her hands, clanking loudly against the glass floor. She felt herself flinch at the sound, and hoped this woman, this Rindar, did not.
“Come with me. I’ll introduce you to everybody. Good to have you with us. I think you are the prettiest one yet. You should be proud,” and she walked ahead of her to the swishing doors.
She watched her glide across the floor in the overly long white dress, somehow not tripping on it. She could see the outlines of everything through it, the woman’s slim frame hugged as if this dress was made especially for her body. Somehow everything on her had that feel, of being made especially for her: the way her hair fell in straight sheets of white, not one of them moving as she walked, her face without any wrinkles or freckles anywhere on it. If she didn’t just talk to her the way she did, she’d think the woman was a droid.
They walked in silence for a long time, going through four long, empty hallways and then down a few floors in an also empty elevator, and another long hallway after that. She still hadn’t seen a single person or droid or whoever these people were. Finally the woman put her finger on a slot of a giant metal door in front of them and it slid open, soundlessly, and she heard human noise coming out from the inside.
“This will be your home for a little while, Trina. This is our best facility, truly,” and she pushed her gently through the doors. The room was enormous, the largest she’d ever seen or even imagined. She couldn’t see the far wall from where she was standing, couldn’t even tell if there was a far wall. All the human noises stopped. There seemed to be hundreds of people, all wearing white dresses, like this woman, and the men with white coats over something dark, and they were all staring at her. Rindar took a few steps in front of her and smiled at them, “Meet Trina. We are lucky to have found her. Make sure she wants for nothing while she is here.”
She looked at her, and handed her a small metal circle, that was moving slightly on her hand, “This is a comm. You just have to press your finger, any finger to it, and say anything you want to say to me, and I’ll hear it, but only I. It is my job to make sure you are taken care of here, Trina. I’ll be checking up on you at least once a day unless I hear from you through this device,” and she left her standing in the midst of all these people all staring at her like she was indeed some strange animal. They were smiling at her strangely, and suddenly the small cage they had her in before didn’t seem so bad.
[May 8, 2236, Woods Outside of Reston]
He saw Brody making the fire outside when he ran out to pee, the sun just starting to come up. It was far too early to be making breakfast, so he felt something was up, but he needed more sleep to process anything important, and this seemed important. He said good morning to his friend and raced back towards the cave.
“Riley, I know it’s early, but I have to tell you something, before the others wake up,” Brody’s voice caught him, sounding far too awake for how early it was. He needed some of that stuff they called coffee that Stan gave them. Tea just wasn’t going to cut it. He ran into the cave, found a pouch of the stuff by touch and went back to the fire, showing the pouch to Brody, letting him know he needed this before he could hear anything he had to tell him. It only took a few minutes for the little bit of water to boil in the small kettle, and he poured himself a steaming cup, and took a few tiny sips, still hating the taste of it. Brody let him do all of it, tending to the kettle of tea for the others, not saying a word.
“All right, I am up enough now, damn you. What is it?” Brody sat next to him then and told him what he did last night about Hassinger, and that he also got to his crew and he’d have a dozen of the best trained of them waiting for them when they get there, just in case. He was listening to him talk, getting more and more angry with every word, and finally he lunged at him and dropped him on the grass, throwing punches at him, not holding anything back either. His friend just put everyone here in danger without so much as asking him first. He pummeled him, as hard as he could until his arms got tired. Brody didn’t even try to defend himself, just lay there, not even covering his face, letting him do it, watching him. It seemed pointless to keep going, so he got up and walked away from him, to the other side of the fire, trying to get his breathing back to normal.
“Never thought I’d get you to throw a punch at me, or a hundred,” Brody grinned at him. “If you had let me finish, I’d have told you that I had a plan, and I wasn’t going to put anyone here in danger, but me, and Laurel, but only if she was okay with it, and only if we knew for sure she’d be safe. None of you are coming, just me and Laurel, if she wants to. The rest of you will be safe here until we get back with Hassinger and hopefully, Trina.”
He walked over to him, looking at him with a smirk on his quickly bruising face, “Want to hit me some more, before the rest of them wake up?”
He didn’t. He let him fill in the other details of the plan, and he knew he’d be going with him, whether Brody wanted him to or not, but he didn’t want to argue with him over it just yet. He was still far too angry at him to want to talk. He went back into the cave, packed a small bag with everything he thought he’d need, stashed it under his blanket and waited for Laurel to wake up.
Brody was letting him be, staying by the fire. He knew him well enough still to give him space when he needed it, just not well enough to know that his friends were off limits, and he had no right to make any decisions that could put any of them at risk. He didn’t feel the least bit guilty for pounding on him.
Still sleepy-eyed Ams and Laurel ran out of the cave toward the woods or the stream to do their morning business. He wanted to talk to Laurel about this without Ams. He could see Ams losing it on Brody for this, could see her shooting him to keep Laurel safe. He knew she still hated the boy, and he still didn’t get a chance to talk to her about him. He could see her hatred for him in the way she looked at him, throwing daggers at him for just being, and he couldn’t imagine her being okay with what Brody was planning. He walked out to the fire, ignoring the bruises on Brody’s face, and poured himself another cup of coffee, drinking the bitter liquid, not saying anything to his friend, not even looking at him.
The girls were walking back now, Laurel looking at Brody, and then at him, surprise written all over her face. She said something to Ams, and he saw her run back into the cave, not looking at any of them. Laurel walked quickly to where he was sitting on the log and stopped right in front of him, staring at his face, waiting, and finally when he didn’t say anything, couldn’t think of anything to say yet, she spat at him in her angry voice, one he’d only heard her use once before, “I don’t see any new bruises on you, not a one, and an awful lot of bruises on him. That tells me you two didn’t have a fight. A fight I would have been okay with. But this? This looks like a beating. I didn’t think you had it in you, Riley. Did you tie him up for this too? Point a gun at his head? Do you bloody feel better now?”
He shook his head at her, embarrassed, set his coffee on the grass and stood up, keeping his head down. She seemed angry enough to want to hit him, and she almost did, too, only suddenly Brody was there, pulling her away, making her look at him, instead of Riley, “It wasn’t his fault, Laurel. I swear it wasn’t. I could have fought him or stopped him if I wanted to. I didn’t. It looks worse than it is. And it’s not what you think it was. Please, let it go. There is something we need to tell you. It’ll make a lot more sense after that, I promise,” and he took her away and sat her down on the log, handed her a cup of steaming tea, and told her what he did, told her his plan, quickly, in a rush to get it all out before anyone else came out of the cave.
He stood where she left him, watching them, hoping Laurel thought it was a lousy idea, hoping she’d change her mind about wanting to go back in the first place. But she was nodding her head at whatever Brody was telling her, too softly for him to catch anything but an occasional word. She got up finally and walked over to him, “You have to let us, Riley, you just have to. It’s a good plan. It’ll work. She can’t tell anyone she lost us, not right before the Selection, so she’ll come, I know she’ll come, and she won’t have but a few guards with her at the most. She can’t call this in, you know that. And they can’t hurt me.”
Nothing he could do about changing her mind, so he didn’t try. There was no point.
“All right, but I am going with you, or you can’t go. I’m not going to argue over it either. I am going. And one of you is going to have to tell Ams. I can’t be the one to do it. Not that. I think it should be you, Laurel. I have a feeling she’ll kill Brody to keep you from going if he tells her,” he said quietly and walked away from the fire toward the stream, wanting more than anything to wade in and let the cold water run all around him in icy waves, and not think about what he just did to Brody, or seeing Hassinger’s face again.
It was almost time for them to go when he got back to the camp. Ams wasn’t talking to him. Wasn’t looking at him either. So Laurel did tell her then. He’ll have to deal with it later. There just wasn’t enough time for it now. Drake and Ella were sitting on either side of Ams on the log, Drake’s arm draped around her. Laurel looked like she had spent the last hour crying, her eyes so blue they looked almost violet, but her face was all pink and splotchy. He wished Ams made it easier on her friend. It was cruel of her to make her hurt like that now. But that’s what they did, he and Brody and Ams. They hurt the people they loved.
“I am packed and ready to go. I just need to change my clothes,” he whispered and walked into the cave to grab his bag and put on a dry shirt. Nobody was saying anything to anybody when he got out. Brody and Laurel had their small backpacks on them already, and he could see an old metal gun strapped to Brody’s belt, and a stun gun at Laurel’s waist. They seemed ready.
He walked over to Ams and crouched in front of her, trying to look at her face, “I am sorry, Ams. It wasn’t my call, it was Laurel’s. I’ll make sure she is safe, I promise. We should all be back by morning.” She didn’t even look up at him, so he leaned in and planted a kiss on the top of her head, catching Ella looking at him sadly. He kissed his sister on the cheek, and walked into the woods, knowing that Brody and Laurel would follow.
They had more than enough time to get there, so they walked slowly, not wanting to be exhausted in case something went wrong. He had a feeling that something would go wrong, and couldn’t make sense of it. The plan was solid, he knew that, but he couldn’t keep the feeling of dread from settling on his stomach. Brody and Laurel were walking just behind him, not speaking. It’s as if they all ran out of things to say to each other.
They stopped for a few minutes at roughly the halfway point, quickly ate a small meal of cold smoked meat and tea, all of it in silence, and were on their way again. After a few more hours of this silent walk, Brody signaled for them to stop. He could see the clearing through the trees now. They still had almost an hour till Hassinger was due.
He spotted one of Brody’s boys running towards them, gun drawn, and pointing at him.
“Ellis, sir, is darky a prisoner?”
“Stand down, Trelix, you idiot. If he was a prisoner, he’d be tied up. Stand down. And don’t call him darky again. His name is Riley and you will protect him.”
The boy lowered his gun, looking at him with unguarded hatred, “I am sorry, sir. It won’t happen again.” He whistled and the rest of the boys came towards them, no guns drawn this time.
He took Laurel away from where Brody was talking with his crew, and sat her down on the soft patch of grass, crouching in front of her, “I have to tell you something, Laurel, and I hope you don’t get angry at me for it. I think I know why you want to go back. I’ve seen how everything bad that’s happened since we ran makes you feel, how you don’t seem to get over any of it. So I don’t fault you for not wanting to see the ugliness and the sadness ever again. I couldn’t fault you for that. But I need to be absolutely sure that you know what you are trying to go back to. The ugly things the Alliance does, you couldn’t see it then, not at the compound, but you know it now, you’ve seen it. I think you are the wisest person I know, the way you seem to get everything about people anyway, but I don’t think you’ve thought all of this through.” She was looking at him with those guileless blue eyes of hers, hands playing with the blades of grass.
“Laurel, I don’t know what’s going to happen in a few minutes, but I have a bad feeling about it. I can’t explain it. I know it’s a good plan, and that Brody is very good at whatever it is he does with those soldier boys, but I am worried, and I think it’s something to do with you. That Hassinger will try to get you to do something that would be dangerous for you, manipulate you in some way. I don’t trust her… She is like that boy Drake shot, Anders. She gets off on other people’s pain, and I don’t trust anyone who is like that. I promised Ams to keep you safe and to bring you back. I have to do that. And if you still want to go back after that, I’ll help you make it happen, I promise.”
She nodded at him and got up, and when he was standing, came up to him and took his hands in hers, looking right at him, “I know what you’re trying to do, Riley. I knew you would, too, because that’s how you are. I am not running away because of all the bad stuff I see here. It’s more selfish than that. I see you and Brody and Ams, and I know you weren’t the way you are before. I can see you as a happy little kid, Riley, can picture you like that, but I never even see you smile. And Ams… It’s like all the gentleness has gone out of her, and she was the most gentle person I ever knew. And your friend, he is the saddest of all. I think he wants to die, Riley, so if you need to worry about anyone, it should be him, but you don’t even see it. That’s why I want to go back. I don’t want any of this to change me like that. I wouldn’t know what to do with it. But I will be careful with Hassinger. Let’s go find your sad friend, and get ready. Maybe we’ll get Trina back and he would want to stick around a while. I kind of like having him around,” and she smiled at him then, full on big smile, eyes crinkling in the corners.
He would miss this girl, but for now, he just hoped he could keep her safe.
They found Brody crouching behind a thicket, signaling to them to get down next to him on the ground. They did, and Brody stretched what looked like a net made entirely of leaves and grass and branches over them. He couldn’t see any of his crew from he was. Brody pointed up at the trees, and he looked really hard and still couldn’t see anything, but he knew his boys were well trained to blend in, and blend in they did. He checked the time on his screen. 17:50. Brody spotted the flier first, and whispered something that sounded random into his comm. His heart was racing now. He drew his gun, and watched Laurel do the same.
The flier sat there in the middle of the clearing, the doors facing them, but nothing was happening. Minutes went by in absolute silence. He could hear his own heartbeat, and hoped he was the only one. Finally, the door slid open, and the stairs dropped to the grass. He saw a large, light haired man step down, gun drawn and sweeping the area, moving the way Brody moved, like a soldier. He signaled to whoever was behind him and another guard or soldier or whoever they were stepped down after him. They stood at either side of the stairs, weapons buzzing loudly enough for him to hear them.
He switched his on, and whispered to Laurel to do the same. And then he saw her, Dana Hassinger, gliding down the steps in that way she had, taking her time. She seemed unarmed. She stopped a step behind the guards, looked around and walked a few steps forward, saying something quietly to the guards. He felt Brody’s breath catch, and then he saw her, the girl he hadn’t seen for three years now, looking very much the same still, only she was wearing some ridiculously long white dress that hugged her as if there was nothing to that fabric, as if it were made of skin. She was walked down by a giant of a man. He had his hand on her shoulder and a gun pointing at her temple, he guessed so they could all see it. Brody didn’t move, but he could hear his breathing change.
“Ellis, or maybe I should call you Brody, whichever you prefer, show yourself.”
He put his hand on Brody’s back, trying to hold him down, but he was up in one quick move and out in the open, his gun pointing at Hassinger’s head. She didn’t seem concerned.
“Send Trina over, Dana. When she is safely out of the clearing, I’ll let the replenisher go. Not until then.” He said it the way he talked to his crew, an order, not a request.
“You must think so little of me, soldier boy. This is an exchange, not an execution, certainly not mine. The replenisher can take one step towards me for every step Trina takes away, with my guard following. You can follow the replenisher.”
And before he had any time to react, Laurel was up and in the clearing, standing by Brody. He shook his head at her, and then pushed her behind him, taking a step towards Hassinger. The guard shoved Trina a step forward. They kept at it until Brody was only a few steps away from Trina, and he couldn’t imagine the control it took for him to not run up to her and wrap his arms around her.
“This is as far as the guard goes, Dana. Let her go. There are four of you and one of me.”
“Drop your weapon.”
He did, and that sick feeling he had in him earlier came back.
Laurel stepped in front of Brody, her own gun trained on Hassinger, “Please just let her go. I will come once I know she and Brody are safe from your guards,” and she took one step towards the flier. Hassinger nodded to the guard who had Trina, and he lowered his gun and pushed her forward. And suddenly the rest of Brody’s crew were on the ground, as if they dropped from the trees they were hiding in, not making any noise. They surrounded Trina, making a safe passage for her into the woods, two of the boys finally dropping her next to him. Brody and Laurel were still out in the clearing, two of the guards pointing their weapons at them, looking very surprised, as the rest of Brody’s boys stood there with their guns trained on Hassinger and the guards.
“You son of a bitch, you told your crew. You idiot child. They will execute you for this.” She looked at his crew then and addressed them, as if Brody weren’t there, “This girl is a replenisher. She belongs to me, to the Alliance. This imbecile stole her from us, and it is your sworn duty to get her back to me, safely. Not one of you will be spared if I don’t have her on this flier.”
Not one of the boys moved.
“Have it your way then,” she hissed, and then took out her screen and punched something into it, a small smile curling her lips. Suddenly the boys, Brody’s crew, had their weapons trained on Brody. He didn’t know how it was possible for her to do that with a touch of a button, but the soldiers were definitely under her control now.
He watched Laurel, who no longer had the gun on her, walk right up to Hassinger. Nothing he could do about it, nothing any of them could do about it. Laurel turned around just once, and smiled at Brody, and then she was whispering something to Hassinger, only she didn’t seem to like what she was hearing, her face flushed, and then she grabbed Laurel by her arm and turned her around, so she was standing with her back to him. He saw her take out the white handled thing from behind her back, heard the buzzing of the metal, and he was running then, running to where Laurel was, screaming, not caring that some of Brody’s boys turned their guns on him, waiting for Hassinger to tell them to shoot, only she didn’t for some reason.
“My favorite Zoriner boy. I should have known you’d be here. So… Let me fill you in. I need the other girl, Amelia. Something tells me she is close by, but Laurel here won’t tell me where. I am simply trying to get it out of her, or maybe inspire Amelia to come out on her own and save her friend. You remember this, don’t you, Zoriner?” And she swung the whip into Laurel’s back, slicing through her shirt. Laurel screamed. He felt hands on him, too many hands to fight off, Brody’s boys. Brody was on his knees now, in front of Hassinger. The boys dropped him to his knees next to his friend.“She is not lying, Dana. We don’t have her. She stayed behind in Reston. I’ll take you to her. Under guard if you want. She is not here. Please, don’t do this. You can hit me if you want to again, not her.”
She walked up to him and slashed him across his chest, and then Brody, and he saw out of the corner of his eye Trina running out of the woods towards Brody, tears in her eyes. Hassinger hit them both again, and again, and then stopped, noticing Trina, staring at her with a smirk on her face.
“Love! Isn’t it grand, boys? Especially the illegal kind. So, Ellis. Would you like to tell your crew here that you are in love with this Zoriner girl? You fall in love with your pets too?” she said slowly, a smile in her voice.
She walked over to one of her guards, took the gun from him and aimed it straight at Trina. Brody was fighting the five boys holding him down, trying to get up, screaming that he would kill her, one way or another, he would bloody kill her, if it took him the rest of his life to do it, and she laughed at him, and then turned and shot at Trina, over and over again, even when she was on the ground and not moving.
“That’s what you get for trying to play me, Brody,” she spat at him. Brody collapsed then, screaming into the grass, wailing into it like an animal, and he knew there was nothing any of them could do for him after that.
He felt tears running down his own face, making it hard for him to see. He was looking at Hassinger’s blurry laughing face, and the faces of the three guards, smiling, and pointing at Trina’s slim form, and he saw Laurel standing behind Hassinger, holding something in her hand, only Hassinger seemed to have completely forgotten about her, so she didn’t turn around, and then she was falling to the ground, a look of surprise on her face, a deep gash in her neck spraying blood all over her dress.
Brody’s crew lifted them both up, looking confused, as if they had just woken up. It’s as if they were connected to Hassinger’s thoughts and now that she was gone, they were back, trying to piece it all together. The guards were running to the flier, one already on the steps, only none of them made it. He watched them fall and not move again, and ran over to Brody. He was still lying on the grass, face first, making those impossible sounds, Laurel crouching next to him, her small hand on his back. He stopped where he was, not quite knowing how to help him.
He saw one of the boys flip Trina over on her back and check her pulse. There was no point. Nobody could have survived that many charges. Brody finally got up and walked over to her sprawled body, sent the boy away, and knelt by her head, running his hands through her hair, whispering something at her. They had to let him be.
“Who is second in command here?” he asked.
A tall skinny boy came towards him, “I am. Damon Brax.”
The boy stared at him as if he were a pest, arrogance coming off him in waves, but he was too hurt to care.
“I need you to get all the boys out of this clearing. Send two boys to quickly search the flier, and the rest of you need to clear out. Stay close, but for now, we need to give him some space.”
“We don’t take orders from darkies. In the same way we don’t take orders from apes, sir,” the kid spat, grinning at him, the other boys stifling laughter.
He was about to break the kid’s jaw, but didn’t get a chance to, as Brody was suddenly standing between them, glowering at the kid.
“Disconnect your implant syncs, all of you. That’s an order. You still take those from me, right?”
The boys reached into their pockets and got their screens out, all punching in something that only took a second.
“Your weapon, Brax,” Brody said in his soldier voice.
The kid handed it to him, and before he could do or say anything else, Brody put a bullet through the middle of his head.
“Does anyone else here have a problem with my Zoriner friend? Don’t be shy, boys. I trained you not to be cowards. Anybody else who thinks this kid belongs in some zoo exhibit, step forward and take a bloody bullet for it. Anybody?”
He watched the boys standing there, heads down, not looking at Brody.
“No takers then? Get the hell out of my sight.” He threw the gun on the ground and walked back to where Trina was, and nobody made a sound after that.
He found Laurel sitting against the tree, her eyes closed.
“How did you do it?”
She looked at him, as if not understanding the question.
“I always have a knife on me, Riley. You taught me that,” and she turned away again.
He knew this conversation would have to wait, and as worried as he was, he’d have to let it go for now.
“I hate to do this to you, Laurel, but I need you to stand up. I need to see how bad it is,” he asked softly. She did, and the gash was still bleeding hard. He ran to the flier, hoping there was a med kit of some kind, and when he came back with the kit, Brody was there, waiting for him, “You should let me do this, Riley. I’ve done it before. I know how to. And I’ll have to do yours too.” He forgot about his own wounds, forgot about Brody’s too. He nodded to his friend, and held the torn fabric away from the wound while Brody put the stitches in. She had her head in her hands, lying face down in the grass, not even crying when he did it. And when it was over, she got up and told them she was going for a walk, and they didn’t dare stop her.
His weren’t as bad as Brody’s, the bandages taking the brunt of all but two of Hassinger’s blows. Brody stitched them up quickly, apologizing to him for all of this over and over again, only he shut him up, and Brody didn’t talk after that. Brody’s were deep, too deep for him not to be screaming when he had to fix them, but he just sat there, not moving, looking at the clearing, looking at Trina. And when it was over, he pulled Brody’s head into his chest, and held him like that for a long time, running his fingers absently through his hair.
After a while, he finally told him what he needed to tell him, “It wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t have known she could take over your crew like that. None of us could have known that… But I know you, and I know that you’ll be blaming yourself for this, no matter what I say, no matter what actually happened. I need to know that you won’t do anything stupid. I can’t bear to put a band on you again, but I will if I have to protect you from yourself.”
Brody stood up, looking at him strangely.
“You either trust me to keep my word or you don’t, but it can’t be both. And if you don’t, you need to put that band on me, and not take it off every time you feel guilty about it. I am okay with it either way. But don’t you dare ask me this again,” he said quietly, his voice steady, and then put his hands out in front of him, staring at him, not moving a muscle.
He shook his head, “You are right, Brody. I am sorry,” and he got up, embarrassment making his face burn.
They turned towards the clearing again, and saw Laurel crouching at Trina’s head, weaving some long stemmed yellow flowers into her hair. They watched her for a long time, and when she was done, she walked over to Brody, and took him by the hand, “You need to find it in you to say goodbye, Brody, and you need to tell us what she would have wanted, how she would want to be buried and where, and we’ll have to do that for her.”
He watched Brody walk over to Trina then, slowly, and kneel by her head again. Laurel leaned on a tree next to him, her eyes closed, “I changed my mind, Riley. I don’t want to go back. I don’t ever want to go back.” He wrapped his arm around her and pulled her in close to him, and they stayed like that until all the stars came out, Brody still kneeling by Trina. They had to let him be if it took him all night, he knew, so he took Laurel by the hand back to the thicket they hid in earlier, pulled the net Brody made over them and they slept.
[May 9, 2236,the Camp at the Cave]
Riley’s brown eyes were hovering over her when she woke up. He was shaking her awake, saying something that wasn’t quite registering yet. She jumped up, hitting her head on the branches and leaves overhead, which didn’t make sense to her, and finally her head cleared enough to remember. She climbed out of the thicket, following Riley to the small fire. Brody and two of his crew were sitting there, talking in whispers.
“Trelix and Loren can fly those things, so we’ll need them with us for now. They don’t seem to have any issues with Zoriners anymore. I checked,” Brody said and he wasn’t smiling when he said it. The boys put their heads down, afraid or embarrassed, she couldn’t tell. Brody stood up then and signaled something to the boys. They got up, heads still down and walked over to Riley, “We will do what we can to help you and to protect you, sir. We swear that we won’t put you or your people in danger, sir,” and Riley shook their hands, nodding at them without any anger on his face.
Trina was gone from the clearing when they walked to the flier, but she didn’t want to ask Brody what they did with her, didn’t want to ask him anything about that girl now. The one they called Trelix pressed a few buttons at the controls, and the flier took off, as if it ran on nothing, not making a sound. It only took them a few minutes to get to their camp, landing in the clearing.
“Loren, I need you to disable all the trackers in this thing. Trelix, follow me,” Brody ordered, and jumped off the thing without waiting for the steps, landing softly in the grass.
She saw Drake, Ams and Ella running towards the flier, towards Brody, and then Drake and Ella stopping abruptly, staring at the Alliance soldier. Brody held up his hand to them, “It’s all right, I promise. This is Trelix. We need him for a bit. I’ll explain in a minute, explain everything. Trelix, help Drake get the fire going,” and he walked into the cave.
Ams threw her arms around, pressing her close, hurting the wound in her back, but she didn’t want her to know about that yet, so she let her hang on to her for a long while, trying not to cringe, and finally when she let go, she grabbed her by the hand and took her to the stream. She didn’t want Ams to hear it from Brody, didn’t trust her not to lash out at him for it. She told her what happened with Hassinger, how she took over Brody’s crew somehow, and nobody knew how that was possible. And then about Hassinger striking her with that whip thing, and Riley pleading for her, and how the woman hurt him and Brody instead for a while, but that wasn’t even the worst of it. She told her how Trina ran out there like that to save Brody, and what Hassinger did then, and how she laughed when she shot that poor girl as if she were shooting a squirrel or a rat, as if she wasn’t even human. And finally, she told her that she couldn’t take her laughing like that anymore, so she walked up to her from behind, and slashed her neck open with her knife, and she didn’t even feel bad for it…
Ams stared at her with her liquid ready to cry eyes, not saying anything for a while.
“You can’t go back to them, Laurel, not after this, you just can’t,” and she looked at her in her little Ams way.
“I know. I am not going back. I need to ask something of you, Ams. I need you to try to be kind to Brody. I know you still hate him for what he did to Riley, but he is not a monster, Ams, he is really not, and he only did all of those things to try to save Trina. I saw him with her, at the clearing, when she was already gone… He loved that girl with all his heart. He blames himself for what happened to her, too, even though it wasn’t his fault. I don’t think that boy can take much more of anything. I like him, Ams. I know I shouldn’t, and it’ll never go anywhere because of Trina, but… He is good, Ams, Riley good, only he’d never believe that,” she said softly, Ams just nodding her head at her.
“I couldn’t be mean to him now if I tried. Not after what he lost, not after what you just told me. I promise I won’t hurt that boy. I see how Riley is with him, sweet and gentle and, in a strange way, almost happy. It’s like he got a part of himself that he lost a long time ago back, and I couldn’t ever do anything to take that away from him. But you… I can’t believe you killed somebody, can’t picture you doing it. I am glad you did. That woman was a monster, so I am glad she is gone. I just hope you are okay with it, that you won’t wake up one day thinking there is something wrong with you for having done it and not feeling bad about it. I spent so many days wishing I got a chance to put a bullet through her head for what she did to Riley at the compound. I think she died too easy. But I am happy I won’t have to think about killing her anymore… And that Riley would never have to see her face again.”
They walked back to the fire in silence, holding hands, and when they got there, there was tea and a small breakfast waiting for them, and everybody was gathered around, listening to Brody. He was speaking quietly, not in his soldier voice, in his blaming himself voice. He was talking about Trina, how the most right thing to do would be to take her home, to Waller. How she was one of the few people he knew there who loved that place, no matter how broken it was. He told them how none of them had been there in so long, they didn’t know what it would be like and if it made sense to risk showing up there at all now.