She’d failed. She was supposed to give them important intelligence information, but all she could do was confirm that someone was in the basement. She’d failed her test. She’d probably get sent back to quarantine to live in one of those awful dorms.
She sat on the floor, next to the pile of blankets that was someone’s bed. Loose bricks were everywhere, and Aubrey couldn’t even get comfortable to rest.
“Come out and play,” the voice sounded, an odd mix of little girl and menacing monster.
“Jack,” she said, her hands balled into tight fists, her eyes closed. “You’ve got to help me.”
“You’re not the first, you know,” the little girl’s voice said. “Other people have come here, and they’ve done a whole lot better than you. But you can’t have me. I sent the SWAT team running like scared puppies with tails between their legs.”
Aubrey picked up a brick.
“And you think I’m not ready?” the girl asked. Her voice became muffled. “I’m ready. Ready and waiting.”
“Jack,” Aubrey said, her voice only a hoarse whisper. “If I don’t get out of here . . . just . . . I’m sorry. I tried.”
There was a sudden crash, and the room exploded with light and sound. The water burst upward and all around, like throwing dynamite in a pond, and all Aubrey could tell was that she was wet. She couldn’t see; she couldn’t hear.
In a daze, she rubbed at her ears, mashed her palms into her eyes. Things were happening all around her, but she couldn’t make out what.
There were screams—that was the first thing to break through the mud in her head. But they weren’t the screams of the little girl; they were men, adult men.
She hadn’t heard sounds like this before. These screams were visceral, like the cries of men whose lives were ending. Like men who were being tortured. Men who had found out their wives and children were dead.
No one was shooting. Not one person was shooting at the demon. What had happened?
She cracked an eye and the room was still a blur of brilliant white light burned into her eyes. Flashlight beams danced all around the room as the men reeled and tried to regain their composure before reeling again.
And in the middle of everything was a tiny girl, certainly no older than thirteen. She wore a gas mask on her face, and every time a soldier made an effort to stand, she would lean toward him, shouting things too muffled by the mask to understand.
Aubrey’s eyes darted all around the room, looking for some other source of fear—some demon behind the little girl that she was using to mock the terrified Green Berets.
But there was nothing. Just a girl, just a gas mask, and six horrified grown men.
Aubrey struggled to stand, watching the girl to make sure that she hadn’t spotted Aubrey. But no, she was still hidden.
Aubrey stepped forward, staring mystified at the scene in front of her.
And then she smacked the girl in the head with the brick.
IT WAS LATE—OR, EARLY. THEY’D been up most of the night, with only a couple of hours back at Dugway to sleep and recover. But the entire dorm had been awakened for a mandatory meeting in another building. Some people said it would be the meeting. Where they found out what would happen to them.
Jack stood outside in the cold October morning, looking up at the stars. Training was over, but it was all too clear that he had a long way to go. He could barely do the lowest levels of the fitness test, and he’d only been given the very basics of how a special forces team worked.
They hadn’t gone through weapons training either, but at least that was one skill he felt he already had. He’d hunted deer every season—and then lived off the venison for the rest of the year. He’d owned his first .22 at eight years old and had a deer rifle by age twelve.
Still, he wasn’t ready for war. He wasn’t ready to be helping the Green Berets, for crying out loud. He wasn’t even a private. He was a Lambda, outranked by every grunt in any of the armed services. And he was still surrounded by barbed-wire fences in all directions. He still had a bomb strapped to his foot.
“You’re going to be late,” a voice said. Jack turned to see Aubrey.
“I was waiting for you.”
She slipped her hand into his. She’d been doing that lately. So had he. He wasn’t sure what it meant, if it meant anything at all.
“I wonder what my parents think,” Jack said. “I wonder what they’ve been told.”
“The quarantine camps have started sending people home,” she said. “I heard that a few of the camps on the West Coast are totally cleared out.”
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Jack asked.
Without hesitation, she nodded. “It feels right.”
Jack wished that he felt so confident, but there were too many things holding him back. He still had a family who loved him, a town that he missed.
And then there was Aubrey.
She could do amazing things. He’d followed her every motion in the school, tracked her every step, and he’d been amazed at how much she’d changed. She acted like a soldier now, after just one week.
But she’d almost been caught. And she’d had to fight. And Jack wanted nothing more than to protect her.
He pointed up at the sky. “I wish you could see this,” he said. “I’ve never seen so many stars.”
Not just stars. He could discern the shadows on the rims of moon craters, the vague clouds of nebulae, the circular disk of Andromeda, the moons of Jupiter. The night sky seemed to be lit up with Christmas lights, and it filled everything around him with light.
He wondered how bright it really was—whether he should be able to see each of Aubrey’s eyelashes, the splashes of color in her irises. He used to think her eyes were gray, but they weren’t; they were blue and green and yellow and brown. They were like little impressionist paintings, filled with a hundred colors that created the illusion of gray.
“Hey,” she said.
Aubrey grinned. “You’re staring at me.”
He felt his face flush. “Sorry. I was just . . . My eyes are so much better now.”
She laughed, and then put her hands to her face. “My pores must be enormous.”
“No! No, that’s not it at all.” He didn’t know what to say without sounding stupid. He used to be so comfortable with Aubrey, but that was because she was just one of the guys. The one time he had tried to change things, she’d said no. That had been months ago.
He took both her hands in his. Aubrey’s were cold and rough, from too many obstacle courses and push-ups in the dirt. But he didn’t care. They could be coarse as dried leather and he wouldn’t care.
He opened his mouth to talk, but she spoke first.
“Promise me something,” she said.
“They’re going to assign us together,” she said.
“What? How do you know?”
She smiled wryly. “Because I spy on people.”
“You need to be careful.”
“I’m okay,” she said, turning his wrist and looking at his watch. “Just promise me something. They were worried about one thing—that I’d be in danger and that you’d come charging in, being stupid.”