She was outside the fence. Well, outside one of a tangle of dozens of fences.
A boxy-looking armored vehicle sat beside the tent door, and two soldiers were half-visible in the turret. One was talking on what looked like an enormous telephone. Three other soldiers were on the ground, talking and joking with each other.
Aubrey hurried past them. She wanted to run—she felt so free, away from the tents—but knew that she had to conserve her energy. It was at least a mile to the other buildings and maybe more.
Traveling down the hill was easy enough, and she actually found herself enjoying it, recalling the countless hours she’d spent hiking alone in the hills and mountains behind Mount Pleasant. But as she approached the buildings it felt less like home and more like a war zone.
Tanks and armored vehicles surrounded the complex, a few of them motionless but most moving. Soldiers waited behind sandbag gun emplacements, and two massive camouflaged trucks seemed to carry large missiles. Somehow, that actually made Aubrey feel better. Missiles couldn’t be used against the people in the buildings, could they? So at least part of the army’s story was true—they were protecting something. Maybe.
There was a wide flat space in front of the soldiers, and Aubrey jogged across it. Even knowing that they couldn’t see her, it was uncomfortable. They were watching for someone just like her, and ready to shoot any intruder.
There was a sudden roar, and she spun to see a low-flying helicopter zoom up over a ridge and hover almost overheard. She froze.
No, it couldn’t be here for her. She was invisible.
It swept side to side, rotating in midair only a few hundred feet above the ground. Finally, it turned and moved over another small hill.
Aubrey let out a long breath, trying not to panic. It was nothing. It was another vehicle moving. All the military vehicles were moving, all the time. Patrolling, she guessed.
Her chest hurt. It felt like her heart was going to pound through her rib cage. She tried to focus again.
She couldn’t see any side doors to get into the complex—like her camp, it was surrounded by a double fence. Instead, she headed for the large gate guarding the main road in and out. On either side of the gate were watchtowers, and below the towers were squat, sandbag-covered fortifications. She could see the helmeted heads of soldiers peering out through narrow openings, watching for attackers.
The helicopter swooped in again, and she ducked instinctively. It moved away faster this time.
The gate was locked and closed, and she didn’t dare to try to move it. Opening a door was one thing. But this gate was something entirely different: twenty feet tall and thirty feet wide. She’d have to wait for someone else to open it, and then slip inside.
Aubrey slumped down in front of the fortifications and leaned back against the sandbags. She was already feeling tired, but the weariness was still mostly in her joints and limbs, not in her head. Once she started to get dizzy she’d be in trouble, but for now it was mainly an inconvenience.
The water in her bottle had a little chemical aftertaste, but she knew she needed to stay hydrated and so drank it anyway.
A Humvee looked like it was approaching, and Aubrey stood, ready to sneak inside as it drove through the gate, but it turned and headed to the east instead.
She looked up at the sun, trying to guess the time. It couldn’t have been more than forty-five minutes since she’d snuck out of camp, but the fatigue in her legs made it feel like hours.
A soldier left the other sandbag emplacement and crossed the road toward hers.
“You get the news?” he called out, ducking under the low roof and entering the fortification. Aubrey followed, standing at the door and looking in. There were two men already inside, one sitting on the ground, looking half-asleep, and the other looking out the small window.
“What’s up?” the sleepy man said.
“Golden Gate Bridge,” the first answered. “They knocked it into the bay.”
The man at the window swore. “And we’re here babysitting a bunch of kids.”
Aubrey took a step back from the door. She’d never been to the bridge, only seen it in pictures, but the thought of it gone made her sick. “That’s the other thing,” the first man said. “There was a breakout at Relocation Seven.”
“Which one’s that?”
The first soldier leaned against the wall. “Amarillo. We’re supposed to get briefed on it tonight, but Cummings works in the comm station and he said that the whole training facility got blown to hell. They don’t know if it came from the outside or the inside, but everybody took off. I heard that they had some freak down there—took out a Black Hawk. Just jumped up and grabbed the thing and yanked it out of the air.”
The other soldier shook his head and muttered something under his breath as he turned back to the window. “Hang on,” he said, and pulled his radio mouthpiece down in front of his face. “We’ve got two inbound. Over.”
Aubrey glanced back out toward the road and saw two olive-green tractor trailers approaching. Stepping away from the fortification, Aubrey stumbled on her weak legs. She moved out of the road and to the side of the gate.
It seemed to take forever for the two trucks to get approved to enter the complex, and Aubrey squatted down beside the gate, trying to save her energy. It felt like she had weights strapped to her wrists and ankles, and even pulling her hand up to wipe sweat from her forehead seemed like a chore. While she waited, she took another drink from the bottle.
The helicopter was back, holding steady over the trucks, like it was escorting them. One side of the helicopter was open, and a soldier leaned out, looking down. She tried to ignore him.
Finally, the gate was opened and Aubrey slipped inside, pushing herself to walk alongside the slow-moving trucks. There were fences in every direction, and she didn’t know if she’d have to use the trucks to get back out through the gate again. She was breathing heavily as she walked, and her legs had begun to burn. This wasn’t like her—she’d been hiking in the mountains for years and had always been in great health. She’d even planned on running for the cross-country team this year, before Nicole had steered her toward cheerleading instead.
The truck approached a second set of gates but as Aubrey prepared to follow it, a sign caught her eye: “Intake Station Two.” She jogged to the fence to get a better view, and saw all the places she remembered—the intake station, the small annex where they’d had their cheeks swabbed, the warehouse where they’d waited, and the long walkway that led to judgment.
From the cage where their statuses had been announced, Jack would have gone to the right. She could see a short cinder-block building with no windows. There was no way for her to get inside; there only appeared to be two doors and they were both accessed through the chain-link-enclosed walkways.
So, Aubrey reasoned, if the walkway from the judgment cage is the entrance to the building, then the other walkway has to be the exit. Her eyes followed that walkway toward a second cinder-block building—a much larger one. The steel door was stenciled with the words “Assessment Facility.”
Aubrey hurried toward that building, barely able to keep her balance over the uneven ground. She needed to find someplace where she could reappear and rest.
The helicopter was back, lower now. Sand blew in her eyes and mouth, and she shielded her face with one arm while she ran forward on shaky feet.