Just to see if it would burn, she said. Just to check if it was a regular hand, she said.
I was 6 years old then.
I remember because it was my birthday.
—AN EXCERPT FROM JULIETTE’S JOURNALS IN THE ASYLUM
“Never mind,” is all I say when Kenji shows up at my door.
“Never mind, what?” Kenji sticks his foot out to catch the closing door. Now he’s squeezing his way in. “What’s going on?”
“Never mind, I don’t want to talk to any of you. Please go away. Or maybe you can all go to hell. I don’t actually care.”
Kenji looks stunned, like I just slapped him in the face. “Are you—wait, are you serious right now?”
“Nazeera and I are leaving for the symposium in an hour. I have to get ready.”
“What? What’s happening, J? What’s wrong with you?”
Now, I turn to face him. “What’s wrong with me? Oh, like you don’t know?”
Kenji runs a hand through his hair. “I mean, I heard about what happened with Warner, yeah, but I’m pretty sure I just saw you guys making out in the hallway so I’m, uh, really confused—”
“He lied to me, Kenji. He lied to me this whole time. About so many things. And so did Castle. So did you—”
“Wait, what?” He grabs my arm as I turn away. “Wait—I didn’t lie to you about shit. Don’t mix me up in this mess. I had nothing to do with any of it. Hell, I still haven’t figured out what to say to Castle. I can’t believe he kept all of this from me.”
I go suddenly still, my fists closing as my anger builds and breaks, holding fast to a sudden hope. “You weren’t in on all of this?” I say. “With Castle?”
“Uh-uh. No way. I had no clue about any of this insanity until Warner told me about it yesterday.”
Kenji rolls his eyes.
“Well, how am I supposed to trust you?” I say, my voice rising in pitch like a child. “Everyone’s been lying to me—”
“J,” he says, shaking his head. “C’mon. You know me. You know I don’t bullshit. That’s not my style.”
I swallow, hard, feeling suddenly small. Feeling suddenly broken inside. My eyes sting and I fight back the impulse to cry. “You promise?”
“Hey,” he says softly. “Come here, kid.”
I take a tentative step forward and he wraps me up in his arms, warm and strong and safe and I’ve never been so grateful for his friendship, for his steady existence in my life.
“It’s going to be okay,” he whispers. “I swear.”
“Liar,” I sniff.
“Well, there’s a fifty percent chance I’m right.”
“If I find out you’re lying to me about any of this I swear to God I will break all the bones in your body.”
A short laugh. “Yeah, okay.”
“Uh-huh.” He pats my head.
“I know, princess. I know.”
Several more seconds of silence.
“Kenji,” I say quietly.
“They’re going to destroy Sector 45.”
Kenji leans back. Raises an eyebrow. “Everyone who?”
“All the other supreme commanders,” I say. “Nazeera told me everything.”
Unexpectedly, Kenji’s face breaks into a tremendous smile. “Oh, so Nazeera is one of the good guys, huh? She’s on our team? Trying to help you out?”
“Oh my God, Kenji, please focus—”
“I’m just saying,” he says, holding up his hands. “The girl is fine as hell is all I’m saying.”
I roll my eyes. Try not to laugh as I wipe away errant tears.
“So.” He nods his head at me. “What’s the deal? The details? Who’s coming? When? How? Et cetera?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Nazeera is still trying to figure it out. She thinks maybe in the next week or so? The kids are here to monitor me and send back information, but they’re coming to the symposium, specifically, because apparently the commanders want to know how the other sector leaders will react to seeing me. Nazeera says she thinks the information will help inform their next moves. I’m guessing we have maybe a matter of days.”
Kenji’s eyes go wide, panicked. “Oh, shit.”
“Yeah, but when they decide to obliterate Sector 45 their plan is to also take me prisoner. The Reestablishment wants to bring me back in, apparently. Whatever that means.”
“Bring you back in?” Kenji frowns. “For what? More testing? Torture? What do they want to do with you?”
I shake my head. “I have no idea. I have no clue who these people are. My sister,” I say, the words feeling strange as I say them, “is apparently still being tested and tortured somewhere. So I’m pretty sure they’re not bringing me back for a big family reunion, you know?”
“Wow.” Kenji rubs his forehead. “That is some next-level drama.”
“So—what are we going to do?”
I hesitate. “I don’t know, Kenji. They’re coming to kill everyone in Sector 45. I don’t think I have a choice.”
“What do you mean?”
I look up. “I mean I’m pretty sure I’ll have to kill them first.”
My heart is pounding frantically in my chest. My hands are clammy, unsteady. But I cannot make time to deal with my mind. Nazeera’s confessions might cost me my sanity. I can only pray she is mistaken. I can only hope that she will be proven desperately and woefully wrong and there’s no time, no time at all to deal with any of this. I can no longer make room in my day for these flimsy, unreliable human emotions.
I must live here now.
In my own solitude.
Today I will be a soldier only, a perfect robot if need be, and stand tall, eyes betraying no emotion as our supreme commander Juliette Ferrars takes the stage.
We’re all here today, a small battalion posted up behind her like her own personal guard—myself, Delalieu, Castle, Kenji, Ian, Alia, Lily, Brendan, and Winston—even Nazeera and Haider, Lena, Stephan, Valentina, and Nicolás stand beside us, pretending to be supportive as she begins her speech. The only ones missing are Sonya, Sara, Kent, and James, who stayed behind on base. Kent cares little about anything these days but keeping James out of danger, and I can’t say I blame him. Sometimes I wish I could opt out of this life, too.
I squeeze my eyes shut. Steady myself.
I just want this to be over.
The location of the biannual symposium is fairly fluid, and generally rotational. But in recognition of our new supreme commander, the event was relocated to Sector 45, an effort made possible entirely by Delalieu.
I can feel our collective group pulse with different kinds and levels of energy, but it’s all so meshed together I can’t tell fear and apathy apart. I’m focused instead on the audience and our leader, as their reactions are the most important. And of all the many events and symposiums I’ve attended over the years, I’ve never felt such an electric charge in the crowd as I do now.
554 of my fellow chief commanders and regents are in the audience, but so are their spouses, and even several members of their closest staff. It’s unprecedented: every invitation was accepted. No one wanted to miss the opportunity to meet the new seventeen-year-old leader of North America, no. They’re fascinated. They’re hungry. Wolves sitting in human skin, eager to tear into the flesh of the young girl they’ve already underestimated.
If Juliette’s powers didn’t offer her body a level of functional invincibility I’d be deeply concerned about her standing alone and unguarded in front of all her enemies. The civilians of this sector may be rooting for her, but the rest of the continent has no interest in the disruption she’s brought to the land—or to the threat she poses to their ranks in The Reestablishment. These men and women standing before her today are paid to be loyal to another party. They have no sympathy for her cause, for her fight for the common people.