This time I strike some sort of nerve with the Girl. She kicks my chair back until it can go no further, then slams my head against the wall. Stars burst across my vision. “I’ll tell you why it matters,” she hisses. “It matters because if you hadn’t escaped, my brother would be alive right now. And I want to make sure no other filthy street con assigned to the labor camps escapes the system—so that this scenario won’t play out ever again.”
I laugh in her face. The pain in my leg only fuels my anger. “Oh, is that all you’re worried about? A bunch of renegade Trial takers who managed to escape their deaths? Those ten-year-olds are a dangerous bunch, yeah? I’m telling you that you got your facts wrong. I didn’t kill your brother. But you killed my mother. You might as well have held the gun to her head!”
The Girl’s face hardens—but behind that I can see something waver, if only for a moment, and she looks like the girl I’d met on the streets. She leans over me, so close that her lips touch my ear and I can feel her breath against my skin. A shiver runs down my spine. She lowers her voice to a whisper that only I can hear. “I’m sorry about your mother. My commander had promised me she wouldn’t hurt any civilians, and she went back on her word. I . . .” Her voice quivers. She actually sounds a little apologetic, like that will help. “I wish I could have stopped Thomas. You and I are enemies, make no mistake about that . . . but I did not wish for such a thing to happen.” Then she straightens and begins to turn away. “That’ll do for now.”
“Wait.” With great effort, I swallow my temper and clear my throat. The question I’d been afraid to think about escapes before I can stop it. “Is she alive? What’d you do with her?”
The Girl glances back at me. The expression on her face tells me she knows exactly who I’m talking about. Tess. Is she alive? I brace myself for the worst.
But instead the Girl just shakes her head. “I don’t know. I have no interest in her.” She nods at one of the soldiers. “Withhold water from him for the rest of the day and move him to a cell at the end of the hall. Maybe he’ll be less temperamental in the morning.” It’s weird to see the soldier salute someone so young.
She’s keeping Tess a secret, I realize. For my sake? For Tess’s sake?
Then the Girl’s gone, and I’m left alone in the cell with the soldiers. They haul me off the chair, across the floor, and out the door. My bad leg drags along the tiles. I can’t hold back the tears that spring to my eyes. The pain makes me light-headed, like I’m drowning in a bottomless lake. The soldiers are taking me down a wide hallway that seems to be a mile long. Troops are everywhere, along with doctors wearing goggles and white gloves. I must be in the medical ward. Probably because of my leg.
My head slumps forward. I can’t hold it up anymore. In my mind, I see the image of my mother’s face as she lies crumpled on the ground. I didn’t do it, I want to scream, but no sound comes out. The pain of my wounded leg reclaims me.
At least Tess is safe. I try to send a mental warning to her, to tell her to get out of California and run as far as she can.
That’s when, halfway down the hall, something catches my attention. A small red number—a zero—printed in the same style as the ones I’d seen underneath the porch of our house and under the banks of our sector’s lake. It’s here. I turn my head to get a better look as we pass the double doors it’s sprayed on. The doors have no windows, but a gas-masked figure clad in white enters and I get a brief glimpse inside. I don’t see much more than blurs as we walk by—but I do manage to catch one thing. Something in a bag on a gurney. A body. On the bag is a red X.
Then the doors slide shut again, and we continue on.
A series of images begin to run through my mind. The red numbers. The three-lined X mark on my family’s door. The medic trucks that took Eden away. Eden’s eyes—black and bleeding.
They want something from my little brother. Something to do with his illness. I picture the three-lined X again.
What if it was no accident that Eden got the plague? What if it’s no accident when anyone gets it?
THAT EVENING, I FORCE MYSELF INTO A DRESS TO ATTEND an impromptu ball with Thomas on my arm. The gala is being held to celebrate the capture of a dangerous criminal, and to reward us all for bringing him to justice. Soldiers go out of their way to hold open doors for me when we arrive. Others throw me salutes. Clusters of chatting officials smile at me when I pass, and my name is scattered through almost every conversation I overhear. That’s the Iparis girl. . . . She looks awfully young. . . . Only fifteen years old, my friend. . . . The Elector himself is impressed. . . . Some words are more heavily laced with envy than others. Not as big a deal as you might think. . . . Truly it’s Commander Jameson that deserves the recognition. . . . Just a child . . .
No matter their tone, though, the topic is me.
I try to take pride in all this. I even tell Thomas, as we wander the lavish ballroom with its endless banquet tables and chandeliers, that arresting Day has filled the gaping hole Metias’s death left in my life. But even as I say it, I don’t believe it. Everything here feels wrong somehow, everything about this room—as if it’s all an illusion that will shatter if I reach out and touch it.
I feel wrong . . . like I did a terrible thing by betraying a boy who trusted me.
“I’m glad you’re relieved,” Thomas says. “At least Day’s good for something.” His hair is carefully combed back, and he looks taller than usual in a flawless, tasseled captain’s uniform. He touches my arm with one gloved hand. Before the murder of Day’s mother, I would’ve smiled at him. Now I feel a chill at his touch and pull away.