I nod once as he waves good-bye, collect my good sense from where I left it, and fall backward onto the bed, head spinning, the complications of war and peace heavy on my mind.
I did not think it would be easy to be a leader, exactly, but I do think I thought it would be easier than this:
I am racked with doubt in every moment about the decisions I have made. I am infuriatingly surprised every time a soldier follows my lead. And I am growing more terrified that we—that I—will have to kill many, many more before this world is settled. Though I think it’s the silence, more than anything else, that’s left me shaken.
It’s been sixteen days.
I’ve given speeches about what’s to come, about our plans for the future; we’ve held memorials for the lives lost in battle and we’re making good on promises to implement change. Castle, true to his word, is already hard at work, trying to address issues with farming, irrigation, and, most urgent, how best to transition the civilians out of the compounds. But this will be work done in stages; it will be a slow and careful build—a fight for the earth that may take a century. I think we all understand that. And if it were only the civilians I had to worry about, I would not worry so much. But I worry because I know too well that nothing can be done to fix this world if we spend the next several decades at war within it.
Even so, I’m prepared to fight.
It’s not what I want, but I’ll gladly go to war if it’s what we need to do to make a change. I just wish it were that simple. Right now, my biggest problem is also the most confusing:
Wars require enemies, and I can’t seem to find any.
In the sixteen days since I shot Anderson in the forehead I have faced zero opposition. No one has tried to arrest me. No other supreme commanders have challenged me. Of the 554 remaining sectors on this continent alone, not a single one has defected, declared war, or spoken ill of me. No one has protested; the people have not rioted. For some reason, The Reestablishment is playing along.
And it deeply, deeply unnerves me.
We’re in a strange stalemate, stuck in neutral when I desperately want to be doing more. More for the people of Sector 45, for North America, and for the world as a whole. But this strange quiet has thrown all of us off-balance. We were so sure that, with Anderson dead, the other supreme commanders would rise up—that they’d command their armies to destroy us—to destroy me. Instead, the leaders of the world have made our insignificance clear: they’re ignoring us as they would an annoying fly, trapping us under glass where we’re free to buzz around, banging broken wings against the walls for only as long as the oxygen lasts. Sector 45 has been left to do as it pleases; we’ve been allowed autonomy and the authority to revise the infrastructure of our sector with no interference. Everywhere else—and everyone else—is pretending as though nothing in the world has changed. Our revolution occurred in a vacuum. Our subsequent victory has been reduced to something so small it might not even exist.
Castle is always visiting, advising. It was his suggestion that I be proactive—that I take the upper hand. Instead of waiting around, anxious and defensive, I should reach out, he said. I should make my presence known. Stake a claim, he said. Take a seat at the table. And attempt to form alliances before launching assaults. Connect with the five other supreme commanders around the world.
Because I may speak for North America—but what of the rest of the world? What of South America? Europe? Asia? Africa? Oceania?
Host an international conference of leaders, he said.
Aim for peace first, he said.
“They must be dying of curiosity,” Castle said to me. “A seventeen-year-old girl taking over North America? A teenage girl killing Anderson and declaring herself ruler of this continent? Ms Ferrars—you must know that you have great leverage at the moment! Use it to your advantage!”
“Me?” I said, stunned. “How do I have leverage?”
Castle sighed. “You certainly are brave for your age, Ms Ferrars, but I’m sorry to see your youth so inextricably tied to inexperience. I will try to put it plainly: you have superhuman strength, nearly invincible skin, a lethal touch, only seventeen years to your name, and you have single-handedly felled the despot of this nation. And yet you doubt that you might be capable of intimidating the world?”
“Old habits, Castle,” I said quietly. “Bad habits. You’re right, of course. Of course you’re right.”
He leveled me with a straight stare. “You must understand that unanimous, collective silence from your enemies is no act of coincidence. They’ve certainly been in touch with one another—they’ve certainly agreed to this approach—because they’re waiting to see what you do next.” He shook his head. “They are awaiting your next move, Ms Ferrars. I implore you to make it a good one.”
So I’m learning.
I did as he suggested and three days ago I sent word through Delalieu and contacted the five other supreme commanders of The Reestablishment. I invited them to join me here, in Sector 45, for a conference of international leaders next month.
Just fifteen minutes before Kenji barged into my room, I’d received my first RSVP.
Oceania said yes.
And I’m not sure what that means.
I’ve not been myself lately.
The truth is I’ve not been myself for what feels like a long time, so much so that I’ve begun to wonder whether I ever really knew. I stare, unblinking, into the mirror, the din of buzzing hair clippers echoing through the room. My face is only dimly reflected in my direction, but it’s enough for me to see that I’ve lost weight. My cheeks are hollow; my eyes, wider; my cheekbones more pronounced. My movements are both mournful and mechanical as I shear off my own hair, the remnants of my vanity falling at my feet.
My father is dead.
I close my eyes, steeling myself against the unwelcome strain in my chest, the clippers still humming in my clenched fist.
My father is dead.
It’s been just over two weeks since he was killed, shot twice in the forehead by someone I love. She was doing me a kindness by killing him. She was braver than I’d ever been, pulling the trigger when I never could. He was a monster. He deserved worse.
I take in a tight breath and blink open my eyes, grateful for the time to be alone; grateful, somehow, for the opportunity to tear asunder something, anything from my flesh. There’s a strange catharsis in this.
My mother is dead, I think, as I drag the electric blade across my skull. My father is dead, I think, as the hair falls to the floor. Everything I was, everything I did, everything I am, was forged from the twins of their action and inaction.
Who am I, I wonder, in their absence?
Shorn head, blade switched off, I rest my palms against the edge of the sink and lean in, still trying to catch a glimpse of the man I’ve become. I feel old and unsettled, my heart and mind at war. The last words I ever spoke to my father—
My heart speeds up as I spin around; I’m affecting nonchalance in an instant. “Hi,” I say, forcing my limbs to slow, to be steady as I dust errant strands of hair from my shoulders.
She’s looking at me with big eyes, beautiful and worried.
I remember to smile. “How do I look? Not too horrible, I hope.”
“Aaron,” she says quietly. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” I say, and glance again in the mirror. I run a hand over the soft/spiky half inch of hair I have left and wonder at how the cut manages to makes me look harsher—and colder—than before. “Though I confess I don’t really recognize myself,” I add aloud, attempting a laugh. I’m standing in the middle of the bathroom wearing nothing but boxer briefs. My body has never been leaner, the sharp lines of muscle never more defined; and the rawness of my body is now paired with the rough cut of my hair in a way that feels almost uncivilized—and so unlike me that I have to look away.
Juliette is now right in front of me.
Her hands settle on my hips and pull me forward; I trip a little as I follow her lead. “What are you doing?” I begin to say, but when I meet her eyes I find tenderness and concern. Something thaws inside of me. My shoulders relax and I reel her in, drawing in a deep breath as I do.
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