A nurse spots me first, just outside the main doors. Her eyes dart to the blood on my arms and face. “Can I be admitted, cousin?” I call to her. I wince in imaginary pain. “Is there still room tonight? I can pay.”
She looks at me without pity before she returns to scribbling on a notepad. Guess she doesn’t appreciate the “cousin” affection. An ID tag dangles from her neck. “What happened?” she asks.
I double over when I reach her and lean on my knees. “Was in a fight,” I say, panting. “I think I got stabbed.”
The nurse doesn’t look at me again. She finishes writing and then nods at one of the guards. “Pat him down.”
I stay where I am as two soldiers check me for weapons. I yelp on cue when they touch my arms or stomach. They don’t find the knives tucked in my boots. They do take the little pouch of Notes tied to my belt, my payment for entering the hospital. Of course.
If I was a goddy rich sector boy, I’d be admitted without charge. Or they’d send a doctor for free straight up to where I live.
When the soldiers give the nurse a thumbs-up, she points me toward the entrance. “Waiting room’s on the left. Have a seat.”
I thank her and stumble toward the sliding doors. The man named Metias watches me as I pass. He’s listening patiently to one of his soldiers, but I see him study my face as if out of habit. I make a mental note of his face too.
The hospital is ghostly white on the inside. To my left I see the waiting room, just like the nurse said, a huge space packed with people sporting injuries of all shapes and sizes. Many of them moan in pain—one person lies unmoving on the floor. I don’t want to guess how long some of them have been here, or how much they had to pay to get in. I note where all the soldiers are standing—two by the secretary’s window, two by the doctor’s door far in the distance, several near the elevators, each wearing ID tags—and then I drop my eyes to the floor. I shuffle to the closest chair and sit. For once, my bad knee helps my disguise. I keep my hands pressed against my side for good measure.
I count ten minutes off in my head, long enough so that new patients have arrived in the waiting room and the soldiers are less interested in me. Then I stand up, pretend to stumble, and lurch toward the closest soldier. His hand reflexively moves to his gun.
“Sit back down,” he says.
I trip and fall against him. “I need the bathroom,” I whisper, my voice hoarse. My hands tremble as I grab his black robes for balance. The soldier looks at me in disgust while some of the others snicker. I see his fingers creep closer to his gun’s trigger, but one of the other soldiers shakes his head. No shooting in the hospital. The soldier pushes me away and points toward the end of the hall with his gun.
“Over there,” he snaps. “Wipe some of that filth off your face. And if you touch me again, I’ll fill you with bullets.”
I release him and nearly fall to my knees. Then I turn and stagger toward the restroom. My leather boots squeak against the floor tiles. I can feel the soldiers’ eyes on me as I enter the bathroom and lock the door.
No matter. They’ll forget about me in a couple of minutes. And it’ll take several more minutes before the soldier I’d grabbed realizes that his ID tag is missing.
Once in the bathroom, I abandon my sick routine. I splash water on my face and scrub until most of the pig’s blood and mud have come off. I unzip my boots and tear open the inner soles to reveal my knives, then tuck them into my belt. My boots go back on my feet. Then I untie the black collared shirt from around my waist and put it on, buttoning it up all the way to my neck and clipping my suspenders over it. I pull my hair back into a tight ponytail and tuck the tail into the shirt so it’s pressed flat against my back.
Finally, I pull my gloves on and tie a black handkerchief around my mouth and nose. If someone catches me now, I’ll be forced to run anyway. Might as well hide my face.
When I finish, I use the tip of one of my knives to unscrew the cover to the bathroom’s ventilation shaft. Then I take out the soldier’s ID tag, clip it to my pendant necklace, and stuff myself headfirst into the shaft’s tunnel.
The air in the shaft smells strange, and I’m grateful for the handkerchief around my face. I inch along as fast as I can. The shaft can’t be more than two feet wide in any direction. Each time I pull myself forward, I have to close my eyes and remind myself to breathe, that the metal walls around me are not closing in. I don’t have to go far—none of these shafts will lead to the third floor. I only need to get far enough to pop out into one of the hospital’s stairwells, away from the soldiers on the first floor. I press forward. I think of Eden’s face, of the medicine he and John and my mother will need, and of the strange red X with the line through it.
After several minutes, the shaft dead-ends. I look through the vent, and in the slivers of light I can see pieces of a curved stairwell. The floor is an immaculate white, almost beautiful, and—most important—empty. I count to three in my head, then bring my arms as far back as I can and give the shaft cover a mighty shove. The cover flies off. I get one good glimpse of the stairwell, a large, cylindrical chamber with tall plaster walls and tiny windows. One enormous, spiraling set of stairs.
Now I’m moving with all speed and no stealth. Run it. I squeeze out of the shaft and dart up the steps. Halfway up, I grab the railing and fling myself to the next highest curve. The security cameras must be focused on me. An alarm will sound any minute now. Second floor, third floor. I’m running out of time. As I approach the third-floor door, I tear the ID tag off my necklace and pause long enough to swipe it against the door’s reader. The security cameras haven’t triggered an alarm in time to lock down the stairwell. The handle clicks—I’m in. I throw open the door.