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“I’m just—I don’t know,” I finally say. “I’m really tired. I’ve got a lot on my mind.”

“Rough night?”

I peer up at Kenji, shading my eyes against the cold sunlight. “You know, I don’t really sleep anymore,” I say to him. “I’m up at four in the morning every day, and I still haven’t gotten through last week’s mail. Isn’t that crazy?”

Kenji shoots me a sideways glance, surprised.

“And I have to, like, approve a million things every day? Approve this, approve that. Not even, like, big things,” I say to him. “It’s stupid stuff, like, like”—I pull a crumpled sheet of paper out of my pocket and shake it at the sky—“like this nonsense: Sector 418 wants to extend their soldiers’ lunch hour by an additional three minutes, and they need my approval. Three minutes? Who cares?”

Kenji fights back a smile; shoves his hands in his pockets.

“Every day. All day. I can’t get anything real done. I thought I’d be doing something big, you know? I thought I’d be able to, like, unify the sectors and broker peace or something, and instead I spend all day trying to avoid Delalieu, who’s in my face every five minutes because he needs me to sign something. And that’s just the mail.”

I can’t seem to stop talking now, finally confessing to Kenji all the things I feel I can never say to Warner, for fear of disappointing him. It’s liberating, but then, suddenly, it also feels dangerous. Like maybe I shouldn’t be telling anyone that I feel this way, not even Kenji.

So I hesitate, wait for a sign.

Kenji isn’t looking at me anymore, but he still appears to be listening. His head is cocked to the side, his mouth playing at a smile when he says, after a moment, “Is that all?”

And I shake my head, hard, relieved and grateful to keep complaining. “I have to log everything, all the time. I have to fill out reports, read reports, file reports. There are five hundred and fifty-four other sectors in North America, Kenji. Five hundred and fifty-four.” I stare at him. “That means I have to read five hundred and fifty-four reports, every single day.”

Kenji stares back, unmoved.

“Five hundred and fifty-four!”

He crosses his arms.

“The reports are ten pages long!”

“Uh-huh.”

“Can I tell you a secret?” I say.

“Hit me.”

“This job blows.”

Now Kenji laughs, out loud. Still, he says nothing.

“What?” I say. “What are you thinking?”

He musses my hair and says, “Aww, J.”

I jerk my head away from his hand. “That’s all I get? Just an ‘Aww, J,’ and that’s it?”

Kenji shrugs.

“What?” I demand.

“I mean, I don’t know,” he says, cringing a little as he says it. “Did you think this was going to be . . . easy?”

“No,” I say quietly. “I just thought it would be better than this.”

“Better, how?”

“I guess, I mean, I thought it would be . . . cooler?”

“Like, you thought you’d be killing a bunch of bad dudes by now? High-kicking your way through politics? Like you could just kill Anderson and all of a sudden, bam, world peace?”

And now I can’t bring myself to look at him, because I’m lying, lying through my teeth when I say,

“No, of course not. I didn’t think it would be like that.”

Kenji sighs. “This is why Castle was always so apprehensive, you know? With Omega Point it was always about being slow and steady. Waiting for the right moment. Knowing our strengths—and our weaknesses. We had a lot going for us, but we always knew—Castle always said—that we could never take out Anderson until we were ready to lead. It’s why I didn’t kill him when I had the chance. Not even when he was half dead already and standing right in front of me.” A pause. “It just wasn’t the right moment.”

“So—you think I made a mistake?”

Kenji frowns, almost. Looks away. Looks back, smiles a little, but only with one side of his mouth. “I mean, I think you’re great.”

“But you think I made a mistake.”

He shrugs in a slow, exaggerated way. “Nah, I didn’t say that. I just think you need a little more training, you know? I’m guessing the insane asylum didn’t prep you for this gig.”

I narrow my eyes at him.

He laughs.

“Listen, you’re good with the people. You talk pretty. But this job comes with a lot of paperwork, and it comes with a lot of bullshit, too. Lots of playing nice. Lots of ass-kissing. I mean, what are we trying to do right now? We’re trying to be cool. Right? We’re trying to, like, take over but, like, not cause absolute anarchy. We’re trying not to go to war right now, right?”

I don’t respond quickly enough and he pokes me in the shoulder.

“Right?” he says. “Isn’t that the goal? Maintain the peace for now? Attempt diplomacy before we start blowing shit up?”

“Yes, right,” I say quickly. “Yeah. Prevent war. Avoid casualties. Play nice.”

“Okay then,” he says, and looks away. “So you have to keep it together, kid. Because if you start losing it now? The Reestablishment is going to eat you alive. It’s what they want. In fact, it’s probably what they’re expecting—they’re waiting for you to self-destruct all this shit for them. So you can’t let them see this. You can’t let these cracks show.”

I stare at him, feeling suddenly scared.

He wraps one arm around my shoulder. “You can’t be getting stressed out like this. Over some paperwork?” He shakes his head. “Everyone is watching you now. Everyone is waiting to see what happens next. We either go to war with the other sectors—hell, with the rest of the world—or we manage to be cool and negotiate. And you have to be chill, J. Just be chill.”

And I don’t know what to say.

Because the truth is, he’s right. I’m so far in over my head I don’t even know where to start. I didn’t even graduate from high school. And now I’m supposed to have a lifetime’s worth of knowledge about international relations?

Warner was designed for this life. Everything he does, is, breathes—

He was built to lead.

But me?

What on earth, I think, have I gotten myself into?

Why did I think I’d be capable of running an entire continent? How did I allow myself to imagine that a supernatural ability to kill things with my skin would suddenly grant me a comprehensive understanding of political science?

I clench my fists too hard and—

pain, fresh pain

—as my fingernails pierce the flesh.

How did I think people ruled the world? Did I really imagine it would be so simple? That I might control the fabric of society from the comfort of my boyfriend’s bedroom?

I’m only now beginning to understand the breadth of this delicate, intricately developed spiderweb of people, positions, and power already in place. I said I was up for the task. Me, a seventeen-year-old nobody with very little life experience; I volunteered for this position. And now—basically overnight—I have to keep up. And I have no idea what I’m doing.

But if I don’t learn how to manage these many relationships? If I don’t at least pretend to have even the slightest idea of how I’m going to rule?

The rest of the world could so easily destroy me.

And sometimes I’m not sure I’ll make it out of this alive.

WARNER

“How’s James?”

I’m the first to break the silence. It’s a strange feeling. New for me.

Kent nods his head in response, his eyes focused on the hands he’s clasped in front of him. We’re on the roof, surrounded by cold and concrete, sitting next to each other in a quiet corner to which I sometimes retreat. I can see the whole sector from here. The ocean far off in the distance. The sun making its sluggish, midday approach. Civilians like toy soldiers marching to and fro.

“He’s good,” Kent finally says. His voice is tight. He’s wearing nothing but a T-shirt and doesn’t seem to be bothered by the blistering cold. He takes in a deep breath. “I mean—he’s great, you know? He’s so great. Doing great.”

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