Something jolts to life in my mind.
The memory from earlier, expanded:
She shrugs and throws a rock in the lake. It lands with a dull splash. “Well, we’ll just run away,” she says.
“We can’t run away,” I say. “Stop saying that.”
“We can, too.”
“There’s nowhere to go.”
“There are plenty of places to go.”
I shake my head. “You know what I mean. They’d find us wherever we went. They watch us all the time.”
“We can live in the lake,” she says simply.
“What?” I almost laugh. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m serious,” she says. “I heard my mum talking about how to make it so people can live underwater, and I’m going to ask her to tell me, and then we can live in the lake.”
I sigh. “We can’t live in the lake, Ella.”
“Why not?” She turns and looks at me, her eyes wide, startlingly bright. Blue green. Like the globe, I think. Like the whole world. “Why can’t we live in the lake? My mum says th—”
“Stop it, Ella. Stop—”
A cold sweat breaks out on my forehead. Goose bumps rise along my skin. Ella.
Ella Ella Ella
Over and over again.
Everything about the name is beginning to sound familiar. The movement of my tongue as I form the word, familiar. It’s as if the memory is in my muscle, as if my mouth has made this shape a thousand times.
I force myself to take a steadying breath.
I need to find her. I have to find her.
Here is what I know:
It takes just under thirty seconds for the footsteps to disappear down the hall, and they’re always the same—same stride, same cadence—which means there’s only one person attending to me. The paces are long and heavy, which means my attendant is tall, possibly male. Maybe Max himself, if they’ve deemed me a high-priority prisoner. Still, they’ve left me unshackled and unharmed—why?—and though I’ve been given neither bed nor blanket, I have access to water from the sink.
There’s no electricity in here; no outlets, no wires. But there must be cameras hidden somewhere, watching my every move. There are two drains: one in the sink, and one underneath the toilet. There’s one square foot of window—likely bulletproof glass, maybe eight to ten centimeters thick—and a single, small air vent in the floor. The vent has no visible screws, which means it must be bolted from inside, and the slats are too narrow for my fingers, the steel blades visibly welded in place. Still, it’s only an average level of security for a prison vent. A little more time and clarity, and I’ll find a way to remove the screen and repurpose the parts. Eventually, I’ll find a way to dismantle everything in this room. I’ll take apart the metal toilet, the flimsy metal sink. I’ll make my own tools and weapons and find a way to slowly, carefully disassemble the locks and hinges. Or perhaps I’ll damage the pipes and flood the room and its adjoining hallway, forcing someone to come to the door.
The sooner they send someone to my room, the better. If they’ve left me alone in my cell this long, it’s been for their own protection, not my suffering. I excel at hand-to-hand combat.
I know myself. I know my capacity to withstand complicated physical and mental torture. If I wanted to, I could give myself two—maybe three—weeks to forgo the poisoned meals and survive on water alone before I lost my mind or mobility. I know how resourceful I can be, given the opportunity, and this—this effort to contain me—must be exhausting. Great care went into selecting these sounds and meals and rituals and even this vigilant lack of communication.
It doesn’t make sense that they’d go to all this trouble for treason. No. I must be in purgatory for something else.
I rack my brain for a motive, but my memories are surprisingly thin when it comes to Max and Evie. Still forming.
With some difficulty, I’m able to conjure up flickers of images.
A brief handshake with my father.
A burst of laughter.
A cheerful swell of holiday music.
A laboratory and my mother.
A laboratory and my mother.
I focus my thoughts, homing in on the memory—bright lights, muffled footsteps, the sound of my own voice asking my father a question and then, painfully—
My mind goes blank.
I frown. Stare into my hands.
I know a great deal about the other commanders and their families. It’s been my business to know. But there’s an unusual dearth of information where Oceania is concerned, and for the first time, it sends a shock of fear through me. There are two timelines merging in my mind—a life with Ella, and a life without her—and I’m still learning to sift through the information for something real.
Still, thinking about Max and Evie now seems to strain something in my brain. It’s as if there’s something there, something just out of reach, and the more I force my mind to recall them—their faces, their voices—the more it hurts.
Why all this trouble to imprison me?
Why not simply have me killed?
I have so many questions it’s making my head spin.
Just then, the door rattles. The sound of metal on metal is sharp and abrasive, the sounds like sandpaper against my nerves.
I hear the bolt unlock and feel unusually calm. I was built to handle this life, its blows, its sick, sadistic ways. Death has never scared me.
But when the door swings open, I realize my mistake.
I imagined a thousand different scenarios. I prepared for a myriad of opponents. But I had not prepared for this.
“Hi birthday boy,” he says, laughing as he steps into the light. “Did you miss me?”
And I’m suddenly unable to move.
“Stop—stop it, oh my God, that’s disgusting,” Emmaline cries. “Stop it. Stop touching each other! You guys are so gross.”
Dad pinches Mum’s butt, right in front of us.
Emmaline screams. “Oh my God, I said stop!”
It’s Saturday morning, and Saturday morning is when we make pancakes, but Mum and Dad don’t really get around to cooking anything because they won’t stop kissing each other. Emmaline hates it.
I think it’s nice.
I sit at the counter and prop my face in my hands, watching. I prefer watching. Emmaline keeps trying to make me work, but I don’t want to. I like sitting better than working.
“No one is making pancakes,” Emmaline cries, and she spins around so angrily she knocks a bowl of batter to the ground. “Why am I doing all the work?”
Dad laughs. “Sweetheart, we’re all together,” he says, scooping up the fallen bowl. He grabs a bunch of paper towels and says, “Isn’t that more important than pancakes?”
“No,” Emmaline says angrily. “We’re supposed to make pancakes. It’s Saturday, which means we’re supposed to make pancakes, and you and Mum are just kissing, and Ella is being lazy—”
“Hey—” I say, and stand up.
“—and no one is doing what they’re supposed to be doing and instead I’m doing it all by myself—”
Mum and Dad are both laughing now.
“It’s not funny!” Emmaline cries, and now she’s shouting, tears streaking down her face. “It’s not funny, and I don’t like it when no one listens to me, and I don’t—”
Two weeks ago, I was lying on an operating table, limp, naked, and leaking blood through an aperture in my temple the size of a gunshot wound. My vision was blurred. I couldn’t hear much more than the sound of my own breathing, hot and heavy and everywhere, building in and around me. Suddenly, Evie came into view. She was staring at me; she seemed frustrated. She’d been trying to complete the process of physical recalibration, as she called it.
For some reason, she couldn’t finish the job.
She’d already emptied the contents of sixteen syringes into my brain, and she’d made several small incisions in my abdomen, my arms, and my thighs. I couldn’t see exactly what she did next, but she spoke, occasionally, as she worked, and she claimed that the simple surgical procedures she was performing would strengthen my joints and reinforce my muscles. She wanted me to be stronger, to be more resilient on a cellular level. It was a preventative measure, she said. She was worried my build was too slight; that my muscles might degenerate prematurely in the face of intense physical challenges. She didn’t say it, but I felt it: she wanted me to be stronger than my sister.
“Emmaline,” I whispered.
It was lucky that I was too exhausted, too broken, too sedated to speak clearly. It was lucky that I only lay there, eyes fluttering open and closed, my chapped lips making it impossible to do more than mutter the name. It was lucky that I couldn’t understand, right away, that I was still me. That I still remembered everything despite Evie’s promises to dissolve what was left of my mind.
Still, I’d said the wrong thing.
Evie stopped what she was doing. She leaned over my face and studied me, nose to nose.
The words appeared in my head as if they’d been planted there long ago, like I was remembering, remembering
Evie jerked backward and immediately started speaking into a device clenched in her fist. Her voice was low and rough and I couldn’t make out what she was saying.