Where it all began.
There’s a technician stand here, a maintenance system for the speakers that run throughout the sector. I remember this. I remember all of this now, even though my brain is numb and my hands are still shaking, and blood that does not belong to me is dripping down my face and onto my neck.
But this was the plan.
I have to finish the plan.
I punch the pass code into the keypad and wait to hear the click. The technician box snaps open. I scan the different fuses and buttons, and flip the switch that reads ALL SPEAKERS, and take a deep breath. Hit the intercom key.
“Attention, Sector 45,” I say, the words rough and loud and mottled in my ear. “The supreme commander of The Reestablishment is dead. The capital has surrendered. The war is over.” I’m shaking so hard now, my finger slipping on the button as I try to hold it down. “I repeat, the supreme commander of The Reestablishment is dead. The capital has surrendered. The war is over.”
Finish it, I tell myself.
Finish it now.
“I am Juliette Ferrars, and I will lead this nation. I challenge anyone who would stand against me.”
I take a step forward and my legs tremble, threaten to bend and break beneath me, but I push myself to keep moving. I push myself to get through the door, to get down the elevator, and to get out, onto the battlefield.
It doesn’t take long to get there.
There are hundreds of bodies in huddled, bloody masses on the ground, but there are hundreds more still standing; more alive than I could’ve hoped for. The news has spread more quickly than I thought it would. It’s almost as if they’ve known for a little while now that the battle was over. The surviving soldiers from Anderson’s ship are standing alongside our own, some still soaking wet, frozen to the bone in this icy weather. They must’ve found their way ashore and shared the news of our assault, of Anderson’s imminent demise. Everyone is looking around, staring at each other in shock, staring at their own hands or up into the sky. Others still are checking the mass of bodies for friends and family members, relief and fear apparent on their faces. Their worn bodies do not want to go on like this.
The doors to the barracks have burst open and the remaining civilians flood the grounds, running out to reunite with loved ones, and for a moment the scene is both so terribly bleak, and so terribly beautiful, that I don’t know whether to cry out in pain or joy.
I don’t cry at all.
I walk forward, forcing my limbs to move, begging my bones to stay steady, to carry me through the end of this day, and into the rest of my life.
I want to see my friends. I need to know they’re okay. I need visual confirmation that they’re okay.
But as soon as I walk into the crowd, the soldiers of Sector 45 lose control.
The bloodied and beaten on our battlefield are shouting and cheering despite the stain of death they stand in, saluting me as I pass. And as I look around I realize that they are my soldiers now. They trusted me, fought with me and alongside me, and now I will trust them. I will fight for them. This is the first of many battles to come. There will be many more days like this.
I’m covered in blood, my suit ripped and riddled with splintered wood and broken bits of metal. My hands are trembling so hard I don’t even recognize them anymore.
And yet I feel so calm.
So unbelievably calm.
Like the depth of what just happened hasn’t managed to hit me yet.
It’s impossible not to brush against outstretched hands and arms as I cross the battlefield, and it’s strange to me, somehow, strange that I don’t flinch, strange that I don’t hide my hands, strange that I’m not worried I’ll injure them.
They can touch me if they like, and maybe it’ll hurt, but my skin won’t kill anyone anymore.
Because I’ll never let it get that far.
Because I now know how to control it.
The compounds are such bleak, barren places, I think, as I pass through them. These should be the first to go. Our homes should be rebuilt. Restored.
We need to start again.
I climb up the side of one of the little compound homes. Climb its second story, too. I reach up, clinging to the roof, and pull myself over. I kick the solar panels off, onto the ground, and plant myself on top, right in the middle, as I look out over the crowd.
Searching for familiar faces.
Hoping they’ll see me and come forward.
I stand on the roof of this home for what feels like days, months, years, and I see nothing but faces of soldiers and their families. None of my friends.
I feel myself sway, dizziness threatening to overtake me, my pulse racing fast and hard. I’m ready to give up. I’ve stood here long enough for people to point, for my face to be recognized, for word to spread that I’m standing here, waiting for something. Someone. Anyone.
I’m just about to dive back into the crowd to search for their fallen bodies when hope seizes my heart.
One by one, they emerge, from all corners of the field, from deep inside the barracks, from across the compounds. Bloodied and bruised. Adam, Alia, Castle, Ian, Lily, Brendan, and Winston each make their way toward me only to turn and wait for the others to arrive. Winston is sobbing.
Sonya and Sara are dragging Kenji out of the barracks, small steps hauling him forward. I see that his eyes have opened now, just a little. Stubborn, stubborn Kenji. Of course he’s awake when he should be asleep.
James comes running toward them.
He crashes into Adam, clinging to his legs, and Adam hauls his little brother up, into his arms, smiling like I’ve never seen him smile before. Castle nods at me, beaming. Lily blows me a kiss. Ian makes some strange finger-gun motion and Brendan waves. Alia has never looked more jubilant.
And I’m looking out over them, my smile steady, held there by nothing but sheer force of will. I’m still staring, waiting for my last friend to show up. Waiting for him to find us.
But he isn’t here.
I’m scanning the thousands of people scattered around this icy, icy ground and I don’t see him, not anywhere, and the terror of this moment kicks me in the gut until I’m out of breath and out of hope, blinking fast and trying to hold myself together.
The metal roof under my feet is shaking.
I turn toward the sound, heart pounding, and see a hand reach over the top.
He pulls himself up onto the roof and walks over to me, so steadily. Calm, like there’s nothing in the world we’d planned to do today but to stand here, together, looking out over a field of dead bodies and happy children.