“It wasn’t real?” I don’t recognize my own raspy, panicked voice. “It wasn’t real?”
He offers me a sympathetic smile. “I designed the basic elements of the simulation, but the beauty of the program is that it will evolve and adapt as it processes a soldier’s most visceral responses. We use it to train soldiers who must overcome specific fears or prepare for a particularly sensitive mission. We can re-create almost any environment,” he says. “Even soldiers who know what they’re getting into will forget that they’re performing in a simulation.” He averts his eyes. “I knew it would be terrifying for you, and I did it anyway. And for hurting you, I feel true regret. But no,” he says quietly, meeting my eyes again. “None of it was real. You imagined my voice in that room. You imagined the pain, the sounds, the smells. All of it was in your mind.”
“I don’t want to believe you,” I say to him, my voice scarcely a whisper.
He tries to smile. “Why do you think I gave you those clothes?” he asks. “The material of that outfit was lined with a chemical designed to react to the sensors in that room. And the less you’re wearing, the more easily the cameras can track the heat in your body, your movements.” He shakes his head. “I never had a chance to explain what you’d experienced. I wanted to follow you immediately, but I thought I should give you time to collect yourself. It was a stupid decision, on my end.” His jaw tenses. “I waited, and I shouldn’t have. Because when I found you, it was too late. You were ready to jump out a window just to get away from me.”
“For good reason,” I snap.
He holds up his hands in surrender.
“You are a terrible person!” I explode, throwing the rest of the pillows at his face, angry and horrified and humiliated all at once. “Why would you put me through something like that when you know what I’ve been through, you stupid, arrogant—”
“Juliette, please,” he says, stepping forward, dodging a pillow to reach for my arms. “I am sorry for hurting you, but I really think it was worth—”
“Don’t touch me!” I jerk away, glaring, clutching the foot of his bed like it might be a weapon. “I should shoot you all over again for doing that to me! I should—I should—”
“What?” He laughs. “You’re going to throw another pillow at me?”
I shove him, hard, and when he doesn’t budge, I start throwing punches. I’m hitting his chest, his arms, his stomach, and his legs, anywhere I can reach, wishing more than ever that he weren’t able to absorb my power, that I could actually crush all the bones in his body and make him writhe in pain beneath my hands. “You . . . selfish . . . monster!” I keep throwing poorly aimed fists in his direction, not realizing how much the effort exhausts me, not realizing how quickly the anger dissolves into pain. Suddenly all I want to do is cry. My body is shaking in both relief and terror, finally unshackled from the fear that I’d caused another innocent child some kind of irreparable damage, and simultaneously horrified that Warner would ever force such a terrible thing on me. To help me.
“I’m so sorry,” he says, stepping closer. “I really, truly am. I didn’t know you then. Not like I do now. I’d never do that to you now.”
“You don’t know me,” I mumble, wiping away tears. “You think you know me just because you’ve read my journal—you stupid, prying, privacy-stealing asshole—”
“Oh, right—about that—” He smiles, one quick hand plucking the journal out of my pocket as he moves toward the door. “I’m afraid I wasn’t finished reading this.”
“Hey!” I protest, swiping at him as he walks away. “You said you’d give that back to me!”
“I said no such thing,” he says, subdued, dropping the journal into his own pants pocket. “Now please wait here a moment. I’m going to get you something to eat.”
I’m still shouting as he closes the door behind him.
I fall backward onto the bed and make an angry noise deep inside my throat. Chuck a pillow at the wall.
I need to do something. I need to start moving.
I need to finish forming a plan.
I’ve been on the defense and on the run for so long now that my mind has often been occupied by elaborate and hopeless daydreams about overthrowing The Reestablishment. I spent most of my 264 days in that cell fantasizing about exactly this kind of impossible moment: the day I’d be able to spit in the face of those who’d oppressed me and everyone else just beyond my window. And though I dreamed up a million different scenarios in which I would stand up and defend myself, I never actually thought I’d have a chance to make it happen. I never thought I’d have the power, the opportunity, or the courage.
Everyone is gone.
I might be the only one left.
At Omega Point I was happy to let Castle lead. I didn’t know much about anything, and I was still too scared to act. Castle was already in charge and already had a plan, so I trusted that he knew best; that they knew better.
I’ve always known, deep down, who should be leading this resistance. I’ve felt it quietly for some time now, always too scared to bring the words to my lips. Someone who’s got nothing left to lose and everything to gain. Someone no longer afraid of anyone.
Not Castle. Not Kenji. Not Adam. Not even Warner.
It should be me.
I look closely at my outfit for the first time and realize I must be wearing more of Warner’s old clothes. I’m drowning in a faded orange T-shirt and a pair of gray sweatpants that almost falls off my hips every time I stand up straight. I take a moment to regain my equilibrium, testing my full weight on the thick, plush carpet under my bare feet. I roll the waistband of the pants a few times, just until they sit snugly at my hip bone, and then I ball up the extra material of the T-shirt and knot it at the back. I’m vaguely aware that I must look ridiculous, but fitting the clothes to my frame gives me some modicum of control and I cling to it. It makes me feel a little more awake, a little more in command of my situation. All I need now is a rubber band. My hair is too heavy; it’s begun to feel like it’s suffocating me, and I’m desperate to get it off my neck. I’m desperate to take a shower, actually.