It doesn’t make sense that they’d go to all this trouble for treason. No. I must be in purgatory for something else.
I rack my brain for a motive, but my memories are surprisingly thin when it comes to Max and Evie. Still forming.
With some difficulty, I’m able to conjure up flickers of images.
A brief handshake with my father.
A burst of laughter.
A cheerful swell of holiday music.
A laboratory and my mother.
A laboratory and my mother.
I focus my thoughts, homing in on the memory—bright lights, muffled footsteps, the sound of my own voice asking my father a question and then, painfully—
My mind goes blank.
I frown. Stare into my hands.
I know a great deal about the other commanders and their families. It’s been my business to know. But there’s an unusual dearth of information where Oceania is concerned, and for the first time, it sends a shock of fear through me. There are two timelines merging in my mind—a life with Ella, and a life without her—and I’m still learning to sift through the information for something real.
Still, thinking about Max and Evie now seems to strain something in my brain. It’s as if there’s something there, something just out of reach, and the more I force my mind to recall them—their faces, their voices—the more it hurts.
Why all this trouble to imprison me?
Why not simply have me killed?
I have so many questions it’s making my head spin.
Just then, the door rattles. The sound of metal on metal is sharp and abrasive, the sounds like sandpaper against my nerves.
I hear the bolt unlock and feel unusually calm. I was built to handle this life, its blows, its sick, sadistic ways. Death has never scared me.
But when the door swings open, I realize my mistake.
I imagined a thousand different scenarios. I prepared for a myriad of opponents. But I had not prepared for this.
“Hi birthday boy,” he says, laughing as he steps into the light. “Did you miss me?”
And I’m suddenly unable to move.
“Stop—stop it, oh my God, that’s disgusting,” Emmaline cries. “Stop it. Stop touching each other! You guys are so gross.”
Dad pinches Mum’s butt, right in front of us.
Emmaline screams. “Oh my God, I said stop!”
It’s Saturday morning, and Saturday morning is when we make pancakes, but Mum and Dad don’t really get around to cooking anything because they won’t stop kissing each other. Emmaline hates it.
I think it’s nice.
I sit at the counter and prop my face in my hands, watching. I prefer watching. Emmaline keeps trying to make me work, but I don’t want to. I like sitting better than working.
“No one is making pancakes,” Emmaline cries, and she spins around so angrily she knocks a bowl of batter to the ground. “Why am I doing all the work?”
Dad laughs. “Sweetheart, we’re all together,” he says, scooping up the fallen bowl. He grabs a bunch of paper towels and says, “Isn’t that more important than pancakes?”
“No,” Emmaline says angrily. “We’re supposed to make pancakes. It’s Saturday, which means we’re supposed to make pancakes, and you and Mum are just kissing, and Ella is being lazy—”
“Hey—” I say, and stand up.
“—and no one is doing what they’re supposed to be doing and instead I’m doing it all by myself—”
Mum and Dad are both laughing now.
“It’s not funny!” Emmaline cries, and now she’s shouting, tears streaking down her face. “It’s not funny, and I don’t like it when no one listens to me, and I don’t—”
Two weeks ago, I was lying on an operating table, limp, naked, and leaking blood through an aperture in my temple the size of a gunshot wound. My vision was blurred. I couldn’t hear much more than the sound of my own breathing, hot and heavy and everywhere, building in and around me. Suddenly, Evie came into view. She was staring at me; she seemed frustrated. She’d been trying to complete the process of physical recalibration, as she called it.
For some reason, she couldn’t finish the job.
She’d already emptied the contents of sixteen syringes into my brain, and she’d made several small incisions in my abdomen, my arms, and my thighs. I couldn’t see exactly what she did next, but she spoke, occasionally, as she worked, and she claimed that the simple surgical procedures she was performing would strengthen my joints and reinforce my muscles. She wanted me to be stronger, to be more resilient on a cellular level. It was a preventative measure, she said. She was worried my build was too slight; that my muscles might degenerate prematurely in the face of intense physical challenges. She didn’t say it, but I felt it: she wanted me to be stronger than my sister.
“Emmaline,” I whispered.
It was lucky that I was too exhausted, too broken, too sedated to speak clearly. It was lucky that I only lay there, eyes fluttering open and closed, my chapped lips making it impossible to do more than mutter the name. It was lucky that I couldn’t understand, right away, that I was still me. That I still remembered everything despite Evie’s promises to dissolve what was left of my mind.
Still, I’d said the wrong thing.
Evie stopped what she was doing. She leaned over my face and studied me, nose to nose.
The words appeared in my head as if they’d been planted there long ago, like I was remembering, remembering
Evie jerked backward and immediately started speaking into a device clenched in her fist. Her voice was low and rough and I couldn’t make out what she was saying.
I blinked again. Confused. I parted my lips to say something, when—
The thought came through more sharply this time.
A moment later Evie was in my face again, this time drilling me with questions.
who are you
where are you
what is your name
where were you born
how old are you
who are your parents
where do you live
I was suddenly aware enough to understand that Evie was checking her work. She wanted to make sure my brain had been wiped clean. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to say or do, so I said nothing.
Instead, I blinked.
Blinked a lot.
Evie finally—reluctantly—stepped away, but she didn’t seem entirely convinced of my stupidity. And then, when I thought she might murder me just to be safe, she stopped. Stared at the wall.
And then she left.
I was trembling on the operating table for twenty minutes before the room was swarmed by a team of people. They unstrapped my body, washed and wrapped my open wounds.
I think I was screaming.
Eventually the combination of pain, exhaustion, and the slow drip of opiates caught up with me, and I passed out.
I never understood what happened that day.
I couldn’t ask, Evie never explained, and the strange, sharp voice in my head never returned. But then, Evie sedated me so much in my first weeks on this compound that it’s possible there was never even a chance.
Today, for the first time since that day, I hear it again.
I’m standing in the middle of my room, this gauzy yellow dress still bunched in my arms, when the voice assaults me.