But it wasn’t long before they stopped pretending to give a shit about diverse communities. Soon, small infractions alone would be enough to have you taken from your family. Show up late to work one day and sometimes they’d send you—or worse, someone you loved—across the planet. So far away you’d never be able to find your way back.
That’s what happened to Brendan. He was torn from his family and sent here, to Sector 45, when he was fifteen. Castle found him and took him in. Lily, too. She’s from what used to be Haiti. They took her from her parents when she was only twelve. They put her in a group home with a ton of other displaced children. They were glorified orphanages.
I ran away from one of those orphanages when I was eight.
Sometimes I think that’s why I care about James so much. I feel connected to him, in a way. When we were on base together Adam never told me that his little brother practically lived in one of those orphanages. It wasn’t until that day when we were on the run—when James and I had to hide out together while Adam and Juliette tried to find a car—that I realized where we were. I took one glance around those grounds and I saw that place for what it was.
All those kids.
James was luckier than the other children—not only did he have a living relative, but he had a relative who lived close by, one who could afford to keep him in a private apartment. But when I asked James about his “school” and his “friends” and about Benny, the woman who was supposed to bring him his government-issue meals on a regular basis, I got all the answers I needed.
James got to sleep in his own bed at night, but he spent his days in an orphanage, with other orphaned children. Adam paid Benny a little extra to keep an eye on James, but ultimately, her loyalty was to a paycheck. At the end of the day, James was a ten-year-old kid living all alone.
Maybe all this is why I feel like I understand Adam. Why I fight for him, even when he’s a dick. He comes off as an angry, explosive guy—and sometimes he really is an asshole—but it must be hard to watch your kid brother live all alone on a compound for tortured, abandoned children. It slowly kills your soul to watch a ten-year-old kid sob and scream in the middle of the night because his nightmares keep getting worse, and no matter what you do, you can’t seem to make it better.
I lived with Adam and James for months. I saw the cycle every night. And I watched, every night, as Adam tried to calm James down. How he’d rock his little brother in his arms until the sun came up. I think James is finally doing better, but sometimes I’m not sure Adam will ever recover from the blows he’s been dealt. It’s obvious he has PTSD. I don’t think he even sleeps anymore. I think he’s slowly losing his mind.
And sometimes I wonder—
If I had to live with that every day, I wonder if it would make me crazy, too. Because it’s not the pain that’s unendurable. It’s the hopelessness. It’s the hopelessness that makes you reckless.
I would know.
It only took two hours in the orphanage before I realized I couldn’t trust adults anymore, and by the time Castle found me on the run—a nine-year-old kid trying to keep warm in a shopping cart on the side of the road—I was so disillusioned with the world I thought I’d never recover. It took a long time for Castle to earn my trust completely; in the beginning, I spent all my free time picking locked doors and sneaking through his things when I thought he wasn’t looking. The day he found me, sitting in his closet inspecting the contents of an old photo album, I was so sure he would take a bat to my back I nearly ruined my pants. I was terrified, unconsciously flickering in and out of invisibility. But instead of yelling at me, he sat down next to me and asked me about my family; I’d only ever told him that they were dead. He wanted to know now if I’d tell him what happened. I shook my head repeatedly. I wasn’t ready to talk. I didn’t think I’d ever be ready to talk.
He didn’t get angry.
He didn’t even seem to mind that I’d ransacked his personal belongings. Instead, he picked up the photo album in my lap and told me about his own family.
It was the first time I’d ever seen him cry.
When I finally find Castle, he’s not alone. And he’s not okay.
Nazeera, Haider, Warner, and Castle are leaving a conference room at the same time, and only the siblings look like they’re not about to vomit.
I’m still breathing hard, having just raced down six flights of stairs, and I sound winded when I say, “What’s going on?” I nod at Warner and Castle. “Why do you two look so freaked out?”
“Let’s discuss it later,” Castle says quietly. He won’t look at me.
“I have to go,” Warner says, and bolts. Down the hall and far, far away.
I watch him leave.
Castle is about to slip away, too, but I grab his arm. “Hey,” I say, forcing him to meet my eyes. “The girls need to talk to you. It’s critical.”
“Yes,” he says, and he sounds strained. “I just saw all their messages. I’m sure it can wait until after the symposium. I need a minute to—”
“It can’t wait.” I hold his gaze. “It’s critical.”
Finally, Castle seems to grasp the gravity of what I’m trying to relay. His shoulders stiffen. His eyes narrow.
“Nouria,” I say.
And Castle looks so stunned I worry he might fall over.
“I wouldn’t bring you a bullshit message, sir. Go. Now. They’re waiting in the medical wing.”
And then he’s gone, too.
I look up to see Haider studying me curiously.
“His cat,” I say.
Nazeera fights back a smile. “Castle received an urgent message from his cat?”
“I didn’t know he had a cat,” Haider says, his brows furrowing. He has a slight accent, unlike Nazeera, but his English is flawless. “I haven’t seen any animals on base. Are you allowed to keep animals as pets in Sector 45?”
“Nah. But don’t worry, it’s an invisible cat.”
Nazeera tries and fails to force back a laugh. She coughs, hard. Haider looks at her, confused, and I watch for the moment he realizes I’ve been screwing with him. And then—
He glares at me. “Hemar.”
“He just called you an ass,” Nazeera explains.
“Hatha shlon damaghsiz,” Haider says to his sister. “Let’s go.”
“Okay—wait—that sounded like it might be a compliment.”
“Nope.” Nazeera smiles wider. “He just said you’re an idiot.”
“Cool. Well, I’m glad to be learning all these important words in Arabic.”
Haider shakes his head, outraged. “This was not meant to be a lesson.”
I stare at him for a moment, genuinely baffled. “Your brother has no sense of humor, huh?” I say to Nazeera.
“He’s not good with subtlety,” she says, still smiling at me. “You have to knock him over the head with a joke or he doesn’t get it.”
I place a hand over my heart. “Wow, I’m so sorry. That must be so difficult for you.”
She laughs but quickly bites her lip to kill the sound. And she sounds serious when she says, “You have no idea.”
Haider frowns. “What are you talking about?”
“You see what I mean?” she says.
I laugh, staring into her eyes for just a second too long. Haider shoots me a murderous look.
I take that as my cue to leave.
“All right, yeah,” I say, and take a quick breath. “I better get going. Symposium starts in”—I glance at my watch; my eyes widen—“thirty minutes. Shit.” I look up. “Bye.”
This thing is a scene.
There are around six hundred commanders and regents—officers at the same level as Warner—in the audience, and the place is buzzing. People are still settling in, taking their seats, and Juliette is up at the podium. The group of us are standing behind her, onstage with her, and I’m not going to lie—it feels a little risky. We’re perfect targets for any psycho who might show up with a gun. We’ve taken precautions of course—no one is supposed to be allowed in here with any kind of weapon—but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. But we all agreed that standing united like this would send the strongest message. The girls remained back on base—we decided it would be best for them to stay safe long enough to save us if we get injured—and James and Adam are MIA. Castle said that Adam doesn’t want to participate in anything even remotely hostile anymore. Not unless he has to.
I get it.
In my less charitable moments I might call him a coward, but I get it. I’d opt out, too, if I could. I just don’t feel like I can.
There’s still too much I’m willing to die for.
Anyway. Juliette is pretty much invincible, so as long as she keeps her Energy on, she should be fine. The rest of us are vulnerable—but at the first sign of danger we’re supposed to scatter. We’re too outnumbered to fight; our best chance of survival is to spread out, spread far.
That’s the plan.
That’s the whole goddamn plan.