I glance through the documents, scanning the general outline of the mission, and then I look up at him, stunned. “Why does the paperwork make it sound like this was my idea?”
He hesitates. Puts down his pen. “Because you don’t trust me.”
I stare at him, struggling to understand.
He tilts his head. “If you knew this was my idea, you’d never trust it, would you? You’d look too closely for holes. Conspiracies. You’d never follow through the way I’d want you to. Besides,” he says, picking up his pen again. “Two birds. One stone. It’s time to finally break the cycle.”
I replace the folder on the pile. I’m careful to temper the tone of my voice when I say, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I’m talking about your new experiment,” he says coolly. “Your little tragedy. This,” he says, gesturing between me and Juliette. “This needs to end. And she is unlikely to return your affections when she wakes up to discover you are not her friend but her oppressor. Isn’t she?”
And I can no longer keep the fury or the hysteria out of my voice when I say, “Why are you doing this to me? Why are you purposely torturing me?”
“Is it so crazy to imagine that I might be trying to do you a favor?” My father smiles. “Look more closely at those files, son. If you’ve ever wanted a chance at saving your mother—this might be it.”
I’ve become obsessed with time.
Still, I can only guess at how long I’ve been here, staring at these walls without reprieve. No voices, only the occasional warped sounds of faraway speech. No faces, not a single person to tell me where I am or what awaits me. I’ve watched the shadows chase the light in and out of my cell for weeks, their motions through the small window my only hope for marking the days.
A slim, rectangular slot in my door opens with sudden, startling force, the aperture shot through with what appears to be artificial light on the other side.
I make a mental note.
A single, steaming bun—no tray, no foil, no utensils—is shoved through the slot and my reflexes are still fast enough to catch the bread before it touches the filthy floor. I have enough sense to understand that the little food I’m given every day is poisoned. Not enough to kill me. Just enough to slow me down. Slight tremors rock my body, but I force my eyes to stay open as I turn the soft bun around in my hand, searching its flaky skin for information. It’s unmarked. Unextraordinary. It could mean nothing.
There’s no way to be sure.
This ritual happens exactly twice a day. I am fed an insignificant, tasteless portion of food twice a day. For hours at a time my thoughts slur; my mind swims and hallucinates. I am slow. Sluggish.
Most days, I fast.
To clear my head, to cleanse my body of the poison, and to collect information. I have to find my way out of here before it’s too late.
Some nights, when I’m at my weakest, my imagination runs wild; my mind is plagued by horrible visions of what might’ve happened to her. It’s torture not knowing what they’ve done with her. Not knowing where she is, not knowing how she is, not knowing if someone is hurting her.
But the nightmares are perhaps the most disconcerting.
At least, I think they’re nightmares. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction, dreams from reality; I spend too much time with poison running through my veins. But Nazeera’s words to me before the symposium—her warning that Juliette was someone else, that Max and Evie are her true, biological parents . . .
I didn’t want to believe it then.
It seemed a possibility too perverse to be real. Even my father had lines he wouldn’t cross, I told myself. Even The Reestablishment had some sense of invented morality, I told myself.
But I saw them as I was carried away—I saw the familiar faces of Evie and Maximillian Sommers—the supreme commander of Oceania and her husband. And I’ve been thinking of them ever since.
They were the key scientists of our group, the quiet brains of The Reestablishment. They were military, yes, but they were medical. The pair often kept to themselves. I had few memories of them until very recently.
Until Ella appeared in my mind.
But I don’t know how to be sure that what I’m seeing is real. I have no way of knowing that this isn’t simply another part of the torture. It’s impossible to know. It’s agony, boring a hole through me. I feel like I’m being assaulted on both sides—mental and physical—and I don’t know where or how to begin fighting back. I’ve begun clenching my teeth so hard it’s causing me migraines. Exhaustion feasts, slowly, on my mind. I’m fairly certain I’ve got at least two fractured ribs, and my only hours of rest are achieved standing up, the single position that eases the pain in my torso. It’d be easy to give up. Give in. But I can’t lose myself to these mind games.
So I compile data.
I spent my whole life preparing for moments like these by people like this and they will take full advantage of that knowledge. I know they’ll expect me to prove that I deserve to survive, and—unexpectedly—knowing this brings me a much-needed sense of calm. I feel none of my usual anxiety here, being carefully poisoned to death.
Instead, I feel at home. Familiar.
Fortified by adrenaline.
Under any other circumstances I’d assume my meals were offered once in the morning and once at night—but I know better than to assume anything anymore. I’ve been charting the shadows long enough to know that I’m never fed at regular hours, and that the erratic schedule is intentional. There must be a message here: a sequence of numbers, a pattern of information, something I’m not grasping—because I know that this, like everything else, is a test.
I am in the custody of a supreme commander.
There can be no accidents.
I force myself to eat the warm, flavorless bun, hating the way the gummy, overly processed bread sticks to the roof of my mouth. It makes me wish for a toothbrush. They’ve given me my own sink and toilet, but I have little else to keep my standards of hygiene intact, which is possibly the greatest indignity here. I fight a wave of nausea as I swallow the last bite of bread and a sudden, prickling heat floods my body. Beads of sweat roll down my back and I clench my fists to keep from succumbing too quickly to the drugs.
I need a little more time.
There’s a message here, somewhere, but I haven’t yet decided where. Maybe it’s in the movements of the shadows. Or in the number of times the slot opens and closes. It might be in the names of the foods I’m forced to eat, or in the exact number of footsteps I hear every day—or perhaps it’s in the occasional, jarring knock at my door that accompanies silence.
There’s something here, something they’re trying to tell me, something I’m supposed to decipher—I gasp, reach out blindly as a shock of pain shoots through my gut—
I can figure this out, I think, even as the drug drags me down. I fall backward, onto my elbows. My eyes flutter open and closed and my mind drowns even as I count the sounds outside my door—
one hard step
two dragging steps
one hard step
—and there’s something there, something deliberate in the movement that speaks to me. I know this. I know this language, I know its name, it’s right there at the tip of my tongue but I can’t seem to grasp it.
I’ve already forgotten what I was trying to do.
My arms give out. My head hits the floor with a dull thud. My thoughts melt into darkness.
The nightmares take me by the throat.
I thought I’d spent time in some pretty rough places in my life, but this shit is like nothing else. Perfect darkness. No sounds but the distant, tortured screams of other prisoners. Food is disgusting slop shoved through a slot in the door. No bathrooms except that they open the doors once a day, just long enough for you to kill yourself trying to find the disgusting showers and toilets. I know what this is. I remember when Juliette—
Ella used to tell me about this place.
Some nights we’d stay up for hours talking about it. I wanted to know. I wanted to know everything. And those conversations are the only reason I knew what the open door means.
I don’t really know how long I’ve been here—a week? Maybe two? I don’t understand why they won’t just kill me. I try to tell myself, every minute of every damn day, that they’re just doing this to mess with our heads, that the tortured mind is a worse fate than a bullet in the brain, but I can’t lie. This place is starting to get to me.
I feel myself starting to go weird.
I’m starting to hear things. See things. I’m beginning to freak myself out about what might’ve happened to my friends or whether I’ll ever get out of here.
I try not to think about Nazeera.
When I think about Nazeera I want to punch myself in the face. I want to shoot myself in the throat.
When I think about Nazeera I feel a rage so acute I’m actually convinced, for a minute, that I might be able to break out of these neon handcuffs with nothing but brute force. But it never happens. These things are unbreakable, even as they strip me of my powers. And they emit a soft, pulsing blue glow, the only light I ever see.
J told me her cell had a window. Mine doesn’t.