“Wait, what?” Kenji hazards a look at Castle. “You planned this?”
“It was the only way,” he says. “Once we were able to get free of the asylum”—he nods gratefully at Nazeera—“I knew the only place left for us was here, with Nouria. But we couldn’t have radioed to tell you to land here; our communication would’ve been intercepted. And we couldn’t have you land at the air base, for obvious reasons. So we’ve been tracking your plane, waiting for the right moment. Shooting you out of the sky punts the problem straight back to the military. They’ll think it was action from another unit, and by the time they begin to figure it out, we’ll have destroyed all evidence of our being here.”
“So— Wait—” I say. “How did you and Nouria coordinate this? How’d you find each other?” And then: “Castle, if you’ve abandoned the citizens— Won’t Anderson just murder them all? Shouldn’t you have stayed to protect them? Tried to fight back?”
He shakes his head. “We had no choice but to evacuate Omega Point members from Sector 45. After the two of you”—he nods at me and Aaron—“were taken, things fell into complete chaos. We were all taken hostage and thrown in prison. It was only because of Nazeera—who connected us with Haider and Stephan—that we were able to make our way here. Sector 45 has since been returned to its original state as a prison.” Castle takes a tight breath. “There’s a great deal we need to share with each other. So much has happened in the last two weeks it’ll be impossible to discuss it all quickly. But it is important that you know, right now, a little bit about Nouria’s role in all this.”
He turns to Nouria and gives her a small nod.
Nouria looks me in the eye and says, “That day you were shot on the beach,” she says quietly. “Do you remember?”
I hesitate. “Of course.”
“I was the one who issued that order against you.”
I’m so stunned I visibly flinch.
“What?” Aaron steps forward, outraged. “Castle, are you insane? You ask us to take refuge in the home of a person who nearly murdered Ella?” He turns back, stares at me with a wild look in his eyes. “How could y—”
“Castle?” There’s a warning in Kenji’s voice. “What is going on?”
But Nouria and Castle are staring at each other, and a heavy look passes between them.
Finally, Castle sighs.
“Let’s get settled before we keep talking,” he says. “This is a long conversation, and it’s an important one.”
“Let’s have it now,” Aaron says.
“Yes,” Kenji says angrily. “Now.”
“She tried to murder me,” I say, finally finding my voice. “Why would you bring me here? What are you trying to do?”
“You’ve had a long, difficult journey,” Castle says. “I want you to have a chance to get settled. Take a shower and eat some food. And then, I promise—we’ll give you all the answers you want.”
“But how can we trust that we’ll be safe?” I say. “How can we know Nouria isn’t trying to hurt us?”
“Because,” she says steadily, “I did what I did to help you.”
“And how is that plausible?” Aaron says sharply.
“It was the only way I knew how to get a message to you,” Nouria says, still staring at me. “I was never trying to kill you—and I knew that your own defenses would help protect you from certain death.”
“That was a dangerous bet to make.”
“Believe me,” she says quietly, “it was a difficult decision to make. It came at great cost to us—we lost one of our own in the process.”
I feel myself tense, but otherwise betray no emotion. I remember the day Nazeera saved me—the day she killed my assailant.
“But I had to reach you,” Nouria says, her dark brown eyes deep with feeling. “It was the only way I could do it without rousing suspicion.”
My curiosity beats out my skepticism. For the moment.
“So— Why? Why did you do it?” I ask. “Why poison me?”
Unexpectedly, Nouria smiles. “I needed you to see what I saw. And according to Castle, it worked.”
“Ella—” She hesitates. “May I call you by your real name?”
I blink. Stare at Castle. “You told her about me?”
“He didn’t have to. Things don’t stay secret for very long around here,” Nouria says. “No matter what The Reestablishment has you believe, we’re all finding ways to pass messages to each other. All the resistance groups across the globe know the truth about you by now. And they love you more for it.”
I don’t know what to say.
“Ella,” she says softly, “I was able to figure out why your parents have kept your sister a secret for so long. And I just wanted t—”
“I already know,” I say, the words coming out quietly.
I haven’t talked to anyone about this yet; haven’t told a soul. There’s been no time to discuss something this big. No time to have a long conversation. But I guess we’re going to have it now.
Nouria is staring at me, stunned. “You know?”
“Emmaline told me everything.”
A hush falls over the crowd. Everyone turns to look at me. Even Haider, Stephan, and Nazeera finally stop talking amongst themselves long enough to stare.
“She’s kept in captivity,” I say. “She lives in a holding tank, where she exists almost permanently underwater. Her brain waves are connected to tidal turbines that convert the kinetic energy of her mind into electricity. Evie, my mother, found a way to harness that electricity—and project it outward. All over the world.” I take a deep breath. “Emmaline is stronger than I’ve ever been or ever will be. She has the power to bend the minds of the people—she can warp and distort realities— Here. Everywhere.”
Kenji’s face is a perfect encapsulation of horror, and his expression is reflected on dozens of other faces around me. Nazeera, on the other hand, looks stricken.
“What you see here?” I say. “Around us? The decay of society, the broken atmosphere, the birds gone from the sky— It’s all an illusion. It’s true that our climate has changed, yes—we’ve done serious damage to the atmosphere, to the animals, to the planet as a whole—but that damage is not irreparable. Scientists were hopeful that, with a careful, concerted effort, we could fix our Earth. Save the future. But The Reestablishment didn’t like that angle,” he says. “They didn’t want the people to hope. They wanted people to think that our Earth was beyond salvation. And with Emmaline they were able to do just that.”
“Why?” Kenji says, stunned. “Why would they do that? What do they gain?”
“Desperate, terrified people,” Nouria says solemnly, “are much easier to control. They used Ella’s sister to create the illusion of irreversible devastation, and then they preyed upon the weak and the hopeless, and convinced them to turn to The Reestablishment for support.”
“Emmaline and I were designed for something called Operation Synthesis. She was meant to be the architect of the world, and I was to be the executioner. But Emmaline is dying. They need another powerful weapon with which to control the people. A contingency. A backup plan.”
Aaron takes my hand.
“The Reestablishment wanted me to replace my sister,” I say.
For the first time, Nouria has gone still. No one knew this part. No one but me. “How?” she says. “You have such different abilities.”
It’s Castle who says, “It’s easy to imagine, actually.” But he looks terrified. “If they were to magnify Ella’s powers the way they did her sister’s, she would become the equivalent of a human atom bomb. She could cause mass destruction. Excruciating pain. Death when they please. Across tremendous distances.”
“We have no choice.” Nazeera’s voice rings out, sharp and clear. “We have to kill Evie.”
And I’m looking out, far into the distance, when I say, quietly, “I already did.”
A collective gasp goes through the crowd. Aaron goes still beside me.
“And now,” I say, “I have to kill my sister. It’s what she wants. It’s the only way.”
Nouria’s headquarters are both strange and beautiful. They have no need to hide underground, because she’s found a way to imbue objects with her power—an evolution of our abilities even Castle hadn’t foreseen. The Sanctuary’s campsite is protected by a series of twenty-foot-tall pole lights that border the edges of the clearing. Fused with Nouria’s power, the lights work together as a barrier that makes it impossible to look in the direction of their campsite. She says her abilities not only have the power to blind, but that she can also use light to warp sounds. So they live here, out in the open, their words and actions protected in plain sight. Only those who know the location can find their way here.
Nouria says that the illusion has kept them safe for years.