By Heather Anastasiu
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2013 Heather Anastasiu
All rights reserved.
THE SUNSET BLAZED FINGERS OF bright purples and oranges outward over the mountains. The breeze tugged at my hair. I shivered even though it wasn't cold and wondered if I'd ever get used to it: the open sky, the wind, the feel of sunshine on my face.
I leaned against the rock wall where the transport bay opened to the Surface and breathed in deeply. After months of practice controlling my mast cells with my telekinesis, my throat didn't even begin to close up during an allergy attack. It was still amazing to me to be able to stand here without fear of my allergies killing me. Thanks to the Chancellor, I'd been allergic to everything — plants, molds, even sunlight. But as I stood here now, there was no shortness of breath, no swelling tongue, no rash.
When Adrien had first told me of his vision of me standing under the open sun a year and a half ago, I thought it would mean I'd one day find a cure for my allergies. Instead, it was a constant battle to use my telekinetic powers to internally surround and suppress my mast cells from releasing deadly amounts of histamine — at least any time I was outside of the Foundation with its complete air-filtration system. I couldn't say I did it quite without thinking yet, but I was getting there. I let the breath I'd held in my lungs out in a steady stream. Everything was ready. I was the Resistance's strongest asset now, and tomorrow I'd leave for a mission that could change the world.
But then a lump formed in my throat that had nothing to do with an allergy attack, and everything to do with the empty space beside me. Adrien first showed me this spot near the top of the mountain where the transport bay opened to the Surface. Just six short months ago. Back when everything was ... back when he was whole.
I shook my head, letting my hair fly in the breeze for one more short moment before turning back and walking through the transport bay to the elevator.
I stepped off the elevator and went through the allergen wash-down container. I tried not to let my thoughts wander. Empty mind, that was what Jilia always talked about in our Gifted Training class. The thoughts usually flitting through our head at any given moment were rarely about what we were doing now, but so often only worries about the past or the future. The trick of controlling our Gifts was to silence all thought and be completely present.
Emptying one's mind, however, was much more difficult than it sounded, especially when my mind was so full, like now. I used the breathing trick, counting my breaths in and out up to ten, then started over again. I'd catch a stray thought of worry about Adrien or the mission and consciously push it away until there were only the numbers. By the time I had tugged on my soft pants and pullover tunic, it was so quiet in my mind that I almost felt peaceful.
Until I opened the door and saw Max waiting for me.
Any peace I'd achieved was immediately replaced by anger. I brushed past Max, but he followed at my heels.
"You have to talk to me. We're going on a mission together tomorrow and you're not even going to say hello?"
I stopped midstride and spun on my heel toward him. "You're going on a mission tomorrow because we need your Gift. That's the only reason. Believe me, you're the last person I want as my mission partner."
I continued forward, loathing the fact that we had no other choice but to take him on the upcoming mission. I had liked it better when he'd been locked away for months and I didn't have to look at or speak to him. Even once Henk had put a tracking anklet on him and released him for a few hours a day, I'd still managed to avoid him for the most part. Whenever he tried to approach me, I headed in the other direction. Which I intended to do now. We both knew our roles for the mission. There was no need to talk about it.
"You can't be mad at me forever," he said, putting a hand on my arm to stop me from walking away. His face softened. "We were friends once."
I stared at him open-mouthed. Did he really think we could just pretend the past year hadn't happened? That he hadn't let the Chancellor capture and torture the boy I loved? That he hadn't impersonated him for two months? But then again, Max's powers of self-deception had always been more impressive than his shape-shifting ability. He only cared about what he wanted, and he barely even noticed the people he destroyed to get it.
Max would pay too. He thought eventually I'd forgive him for what he'd let happen to Adrien. While Max was impersonating Adrien, Adrien was off being tortured by the Chancellor because his love for me had somehow enabled him to fight back against her compulsion. When even the torture couldn't make him tell her his visions, she'd cut out portions of his brain to make him compliant. The lobotomy had succeeded in making him obedient, but it also made him stop having visions altogether. And it had left him a shell of a person who, in spite of some groundbreaking tissue regrowth treatments, still didn't seem to be able to feel emotion.
I'd forgiven Max for every other horrible thing he'd done in the past. But he was wrong this time. He'd live his whole life and then die, and I'd still never forgive him.
I didn't know which was healthier — sadness or anger — but anger was certainly more productive. Sadness made me numb, like I wanted to sleep for a hundred years. Anger, on the other hand, made me active, gave me energy and purpose, and kept me busy planning my revenge against the Chancellor. Most of the time, if I kept busy enough, it even staved off the guilt. Or, at least, I had so many things to do, I could push it to the back of my mind and let it feed the anger instead of consuming me.
I pulled my arm away from his touch, biting back what I really wanted to say: that I looked forward to the day he went into a coffin box and was burned to ash in an incinerator. The thought surprised me as soon as it flitted through my head.
I never used to have thoughts like that. A year and a half ago, I hadn't even understood what the word hate meant. But Max was an excellent teacher.
"Zoe, I'm sorry for what I did. You know I am."
"You think that absolves you?" I shook my head. "Because you say you're sorry?"
"But Zoe, don't you see? It means that I'm trying, that I'm changing. That night, on our date when things got so," he leaned in, "so heavy, I stopped it from going too far. Doesn't that mean something? I realized in that moment that I didn't want to be the guy who just took what he wanted no matter the consequences. Even though I wanted it so, so badly. And I'll keep changing, every day. I could still be the kind of man you could love."
I scoffed harshly, and I didn't care about the look of hurt on his face. I tried to calm down the rage simmering inside me. It didn't matter what I felt. I needed Max for the mission. I knew the only reason he'd been so eager to help the Rez, in addition to hoping they'd lessen his imprisonment sentence, was to try to insinuate himself into my life again. He'd even let Henk implant a kill chip at the base of his skull since we'd have to take off the ankle tracker for the mission. Every vehicle that entered Central City was scanned, and the tracker would show up as anomalous. Once we left, both the team back here at the Foundation and I would each have a trigger switch. If he betrayed us again or tried to escape, he'd be dead within minutes.
He'd been trying to pretend he was a changed man for a few months now. Molla even talked Tyryn and the Professor into letting him have supervised visits with his baby son. After everything he'd done to her, Molla still loved him. I saw it in her eyes sometimes while he was holding their little boy — whom she'd named Max Jr. — how she believed that Max had suddenly become the man she'd always wanted him to be. Apparently incredible powers of self-delusion weren't limited to Max alone.
I brushed past him, and this time he let me.
I went to the Med Center. Jilia looked up at me. "Hey," she said.
"Is everything ready for the mission?"
She nodded. "Henk sent a message an hour ago. His team captured the two Uppers without a problem. You and Max should be able to replace and impersonate them without no one being the wiser."
I swallowed my nerves. There was no turning back now. "When do we leave?"
"An hour. You'll be in Central City by late tonight."
I fidgeted with the edge of my sleeve. "Do you know where Adrien is? I want to say good-bye before I go."
Jilia looked down as she arranged her instruments on a tray. "He came by here half an hour ago for his daily injection. I think he said he was heading to the Caf."
"Zoe." She put a hand on my arm. "Be safe on the mission."
I nodded, then turned and headed down the long hall that flanked the cafeteria. I peeked in almost hesitantly when I got to the door. The Caf was packed like always. More and more refugees had been flooding into the Foundation since it was one of the last few safe Rez sanctuaries left. Loud chatter filled the room. A few children laughed and chased each other around, but most of the adults wore subdued expressions. Some of them had been on the run for months. And they knew as well as I did that the situation here at the Foundation was tenuous at best.
With the Chancellor able to use her compulsion powers to make any Rez agents she captured tell her everything they knew, Rez numbers had dwindled to the lowest in recent memory. It also made sneaking in supplies harder than ever. Many of our supply contacts had either been captured, or were too afraid to help us anymore.
Which meant, even with stringent rationing, soon we wouldn't be able to feed the people who'd taken refuge here. Some of the refugees were already grumbling about the smaller portions. Last week we'd found several men breaking into the pantry, trying to steal food.
I shook my head and took a deep breath. It wouldn't be a problem, I told myself. After the mission next week, everything would change.
I finally located Adrien among all the other people. He sat at a small table in the corner, reading from his tablet. I paused for a moment, watching him. It was a picture I wanted to take with me.
The way he hunched over when he read was so familiar I was stung by memories. For just a moment I could pretend that when I walked in and called his name, he'd look up and a smile would light his face. That special smile he used to save only for me.
I stepped in, wishing I could lengthen out the space of this moment, so full of potential, when hope was still alive that today might be the day I'd see that smile.
But then I came closer and he shifted his head, showing the angry red scars tracing across the left side of his skull. Evidence that nothing could ever go back to normal, not after what the Chancellor had done to him. At least his hair was finally growing back in, short and wavy against his head except where the scars were.
I swallowed hard and then sat beside him like I always did. Every afternoon, no matter how busy I was or how many demands were made of me as the ranking officer at the Foundation, I made sure to stop whatever I was doing and spend an hour with him. He used to let me take his hand, but for the past few weeks, he hadn't. I didn't know if this was a good thing — that he was developing a will of his own again, or a bad thing, because the Adrien I knew would never give up a chance to touch and connect with me.
"How are you feeling?" I asked.
"Nauseous and weak."
"Oh. I'm sorry. Is it the treatment?"
"It's the injections the doctor gives me. I don't like taking them."
I reached for his hand, but he put it under the table before I could make contact. I stared for a second. All month he'd deliberately moved away from me whenever I reached for him. I tried to still my quivering voice. "But the injections will help make you feel better," I said. "They're helping stimulate the new amygdala tissue that's been grown."
He didn't say anything, just stared at his tablet.
I tried another approach. "What about your emotions?" I asked. "How are you feeling emotionally today?"
Again, he didn't say anything. He never did when I asked him that question.
"What are you reading?" I tried instead, desperate to hear more than a cursory answer from him. Usually when I visited him I spent most of the hour talking since he rarely gave more than one-word responses. But I missed the sound of his voice. Sometimes I was afraid I was forgetting what it sounded like, just like I was afraid of forgetting what it used to feel like when his eyes brightened when I walked in the room, or the way he looked at me when he said the three most magical words in the English language: I love you.
He looked up briefly, then back at his text. "One time you called me a philosopher," he said. "So I'm reading philosophy."
I brightened. He remembered. I knew Jilia said he had all his memories — it was attaching emotion to the memories that was the problem. I kept hoping that the more he remembered, the more he'd be able to draw those emotional connections himself. I'd called him a philosopher during one of our first conversations when he was trying to convince me that people had souls, that we weren't only base physical parts strung together with electrical impulses.
"So what's it about?" I asked.
He finally met my gaze for more than a passing glance. "It's about the myth of Sisyphus. Do you know it?"
I shook my head. I hadn't read much beyond what the Professor assigned in Humanities. "Tell me about it." Anything was better than the math theorems he usually liked to study. He'd tried to explain them a couple times during past visits. Not only could I never follow, but he'd become so meticulous and absorbed in the problems on the page, I felt like he barely noticed I was even there.
He paused, and for a second it seemed like his eyes softened. "It's the story of this man who's in the Greek mythological version of hell. You know what hell is?"
An uneasy shiver went down my spine. I didn't like where this was going, but I tried to tell myself it was encouraging that he was engaging with me and actually asking questions. "Um, isn't that the bad place people in the Old World thought people went after ... after they died?"
He nodded. "So this man is in hell, and they were very creative with their punishments there. They knew that it wasn't just unending pain that could torture a man."
"So what did they do to him?" My voice was barely more than a whisper. I'd wanted to get Adrien talking, but now I wasn't sure that I wanted to hear what he had to say.
"All day long and every night without rest, he had to push a rock up a hill. Then when he got it to the top of the hill, the rock would roll back down, and he'd have to push it up again. Over and over and over again. For all eternity."
"You know that's only a story, right?" I said uneasily. "That never really happened."
Adrien lifted his tablet briefly. "Well, I'm reading this philosopher named Camus who says that this is really what all our lives are like. Useless, monotonous. That we're lying to ourselves if we think anything different."
"No," I said, edging closer to him. My heart hurt in my chest at the things he was saying. "That's not all there is. There's love and beauty and courage."
He averted his gaze from mine. "Camus says love is a fiction. Make-believe. A story weak men tell themselves so they can believe there is something more to their pointless lives. He says it's courageous to look at life in the face and call it what it is. All of us uselessly pushing our boulders up the hill."
"Adrien," I said, putting my hand on his forearm, but he pulled away again.
"Maybe I'm not as broken as you all think. Maybe I'm just one of the few people who can see clearly now." His voice was calm. It sounded like he thought it was a good thing not to be able to feel anything. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Shutdown by Heather Anastasiu. Copyright © 2013 Heather Anastasiu. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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