Read an Excerpt
“Strap in, this is going to get bumpy.”
Not words you wanted to hear from a pilot who has your life in his hands.
Six of us were trapped in a military helicopter that was under attack, spinning out of control and headed for the ground. Fast.
I sat shoulder to shoulder with Tori Sleeper on one side of the craft. On the other side sat Kent Berringer and my mother, Stacy Pierce. None of us wanted to be there. Reaching to my right I grabbed hold of Tori’s leg. Her good leg. The other one had a bullet in it. She clutched my arm for whatever comfort it might give.
It was too dark outside to see what our altitude was, or when the impact might come. All we could do was huddle together and brace for the inevitable.
“It can’t end like this,” Tori said with surprising calm.
Well, yeah it could.
I suddenly felt pressure on my chest. It was as if a heavy weight had been dropped into my lap and was pushing me back into the seat. We were gaining altitude. The wild spinning stopped a moment later. The pilot was back in control.
“Get us outta here!” Captain Granger screamed at him through our headphones.
“Gee, you think?” Kent Berringer said sarcastically.
“Hold the chatter!” Granger scolded.
The helicopter’s rotors whined as we lifted back into the sky. I looked across the cabin to my mother. I didn’t think for a second that she wasn’t as terrified as the rest of us, but her expression seemed to be one of, I don’t know, resignation? It was almost as though she had accepted the fact that the Retro forces on the ground would shoot us out of the sky and there was no use stressing about it.
Kent, on the other hand, looked wide-eyed and frantic. He clutched the straps of his safety harness as if that would do any good if we slammed into the ground. He twisted left and right, struggling to look out of the window and get a glimpse of . . . what? The ground? The Retro forces down below that were shooting at us? A miracle swooping in from the heavens?
All four of us wore headphones that connected us with the cockpit where Captain Granger, the SYLO commander, sat strapped into the copilot’s seat. At the controls was the marine commando named Cutter, who was doing his best to keep us flying.
“Help is incoming,” Cutter announced casually as if he had just said, “Looks like rain.”
Was a miracle about to arrive after all?
The helicopter was buffeted by another shot fired from the ground. And another.
Tori yelped. Kent did too.
“Why aren’t we shooting back?” Mom said calmly into her microphone.
“Skyhawks aren’t attack birds,” Granger replied sharply. “No weapons on board. We leave that up to the Cobras.”
The chopper shuddered and we were thrown violently against our harnesses as the craft pitched to our right, but we stayed airborne and under control. At least, I think we were under control. The Retro forces weren’t shooting conventional missiles. Their weapons fired invisible yet powerful bursts of energy that worked silently but with no less destructive force than a rocket-propelled explosive. The blasts were only one example of the impossible technology the Air Force possessed . . . and that the Navy, SYLO, didn’t. Though they were both branches of the United States military, the Air Force had a serious technological advantage. The civil war that had these two forces going at each other was definitely an unfair fight.
“Evade,” Granger commanded.
“Trying, sir,” Cutter replied. The guy remained cool, but not that cool. The tension in his voice proved that he was flying his ass off to try to keep us alive.
Cutter banked hard to the right and nosedived, intentionally. The last thing he wanted to do was travel in a straight line, allowing the ground cannons to anticipate our course. The move pulled me out of my seat, straining the harness. My head spun and my stomach twisted, but I wasn’t complaining.
“Losing it,” he announced. His head was pressed against the fuselage in a desperate attempt to maintain his equilibrium. “Fighting the puke.”
Mom leaned back with her head pressed into her seat to try to keep herself stable. When she saw that I was looking her way, she lifted her right hand and held out her index finger. It was a gesture we had done with my dad for as long as I could remember. We would touch index fingers as a way to say “I love you.” It was veryE.T., but it meant a lot to me when I was a kid. I don’t remember the last time we had done it, or at least the last time I acknowledged my mother when she did it. A fourteen-year-old doesn’t do that kind of stuff . . . especially one who has been through as many battles as I had.
Then again, maybe facing the imminent end of the world made me the exact kind of fourteen-year-old who should be doing that kind of stuff.
I raised my hand and pointed my finger toward her. Though our fingers were several feet apart, the contact was made. I hadn’t yet forgiven my mother and father for the lies they told me about why we had moved to Pemberwick Island, but I was open to try to understand. Besides, no matter what had happened, she was still my mom.
She gave me a little smile and dropped her hand.
“Now we’re talking!” Granger exclaimed with his slight southern accent.
“What do you mean?” Kent asked.
The answer came in the form of double streaks of white light that flew past us, headed for the ground. A second later we heard two explosions. Our miracle had arrived. Two SYLO gunship choppers flashed past, one on either side of us, headed for the Retro base. The clatter of machine gun fire was a welcome addition to the tortured whine of our engine.
“Those would be the Cobras,” Granger announced.
Cutter banked hard to the right, which gave me a perfect view of the two SYLO attack helicopters as they streaked toward the Retro base, unleashing rockets one after the other. The spray of missiles they shot toward the ground left thin trails of smoke that eventually led to multiple eruptions on the surface. I hoped they were finding targets.
“They’re going to save us,” Tori said in a small but confident voice.
For the record, I thought they were going to save us too.
I was wrong.
A second later, one of the Cobras exploded. It was a spectacularly horrifying sight as the flying gunship burst into a brilliant fireball that lit up the ground, revealing dozens of the antiaircraft cannons that were all pointed to the sky. Toward us. The burning mass that just moments ago was a chopper with pilots on board fell like a molten brick and crashed to the sandy surface of the Mojave desert.
“We’re not out of this yet,” Granger cautioned.
Our chopper made another sudden lurch. I thought it was Cutter making an evasive maneuver until . . .
“I’ve lost lateral stability,” he announced. “Our tail rotor must have taken a hit.”
“What?” Kent shouted with panic. “We’ve been hit?”
The chopper started spinning, much more violently this time.
I heard Cutter’s heavy breathing through the headphones. He was struggling to fight gravity and control a hurtling machine. “I’ll put us down as softly as I can but I can’t control where—”
The front windshield shattered.
“Look out!” Granger screamed . . . too late.
Glass sprayed everywhere. Cutter was hit with a wave of razor-sharp shards and instantly went limp in his seat. I couldn’t tell if he was unconscious or dead. Either way he wasn’t flying the helicopter anymore. Granger went for the stick but Cutter had fallen onto the controls, making it impossible for Granger to take over.
The spinning picked up and we started dropping again.
I quickly unlatched my straps.
“Tucker, stop!” Mom called, no longer calm.
I ignored her. If we slammed into the ground it wouldn’t matter if I was held in by safety straps or not.
I threw off my headphones and climbed forward to where Cutter was slumped forward in his seat.
“Pull him back,” Granger yelled. “Keep him off of the instruments.”
Cutter’s straps hadn’t been snugged tight and he was a big, muscular guy. It took all of my strength to pull him back into his seat.
“Can you fly this thing?” I yelled at Granger.
My headphones and mic were gone so he couldn’t hear me. Didn’t matter. I would find out soon enough.
Granger struggled with the copilot’s stick but it didn’t stop the spinning. The SYLO commander had always come across as supremely confidant. Not anymore. He looked as terrified as I was, but that didn’t stop him from doing all he could to try to save us.
“Prepare to crash!” Granger called. He gestured with his head for me to go back to my seat.
There was nothing more we could do.
I turned to scramble for the rear of the chopper when . . .
The side door blew in with a force so violent it was torn off its track. The metal door bounced around the interior like a whirling buzz saw. If I had moved to the back a second sooner it probably would have killed me. As it was, I was launched off of my feet and sent careening to the far side of the chopper, where I hit hard and fell to the deck. I looked up in a daze to catch a brief glimpse of the terrified expressions of my mother, Tori, and Kent as debris swirled everywhere. The engine whined, desperate to provide enough power to keep us airborne. I heard someone scream but the roar of the engine and the explosions outside were enough to drown it out before I could tell who had lost it.
The chopper was hit again. The entire craft lurched forward, throwing me to the deck.
I hit my head.
The sound stopped.
The spinning ended.
The chaos was over.
Everything went black.
I found myself lying flat on my back as a cool breeze blew over me. It was a welcome relief from the violent mayhem of a few moments before.
I moved my hand to feel the ground beneath me. I wasn’t in the helicopter anymore. I was lying on sand. Cautiously, I opened my eyes to see a bright, blazing sun overhead. How long had I been here? What had happened? Without moving, I strained to hear anything that would give me a clue. What I heard was the unmistakable far-off cry of a lonesome seagull.
What? In the desert? It was followed by another sound that made even less sense.
It was the crashing of a wave.
I got my wits together and sat up to see . . . the ocean. I was lying on a sandy beach not twenty yards from the waterline. That explained the cool breeze, but it didn’t begin to tell me how I had gotten here . . . wherever here was.
Sailboats cut through the sea out beyond the break, running with the wind as they were pulled along by colorful jibs. The waves weren’t big enough to surf, but plenty good for boogie-boarding and bodysurfing. The water was full of kids splashing and playing inside the break. The beach to either side of me was dotted with brightly colored sun umbrellas. Families were staked out everywhere, lying on their blankets to sunbathe, read, and snack. A couple of guys tossed a football around. There was a high-pitched squeal as one of the kids picked up a girl and tossed her into the surf. She was kicking her legs while shrieking in protest, but she wasn’t kidding anybody. She loved it. Young kids used neon-colored shovels and pails to build sand castles. A guy jogged by with a golden retriever trotting at his heels. Radios played a mix of hit songs. A single-engine plane flew by over the water, parallel to the shoreline and dragging a banner that advertised two for one lobster dinner at the Lighthouse Inn.
It was all so impossible . . . yet familiar.
“Pemberwick Island,” I whispered to myself.
I was home.
It was the beach where I had been hanging out for the last five years, first with my parents and then with my friends. It was on the eastern shore of my island home . . . the same home that had been overrun by SYLO soldiers and quarantined against a virus that didn’t exist. SYLO had set up a base on Pemberwick Island to make a stand against the Air Force, which was being controlled by people called Retros. SYLO came to protect the island from the gruesome fate that the Retros brought to the rest of the world. Calling it genocide would be an understatement. The Retro Air Force went on a fierce killing spree, wiping out three quarters of the world’s population.
Their justification was that they were protecting the world from an even worse fate, though it was hard to believe that there could be anything worse than a cataclysmic, systematic mass execution.
I never expected to see my island home again, yet there I was with my feet in the sand, lying on a scratchy striped towel, catching some rays. I was even wearing board shorts and a T-shirt. What had happened? Was I knocked unconscious and shipped home with amnesia? It was the only logical explanation I could come up with.
That logic went right out the window at the very next moment.
“Tucker!” a familiar voice called out. “’Bout time you got here!”
I was almost too stunned to turn around. Almost. I looked over my shoulder to the stretch of sea grass that bordered the beach to see my best friend trudging over the sand berm, headed my way.
Quinn Carr was alive.
He carried a beach chair and had a bright orange towel draped around his neck. His mop of curly blond hair and thick glasses were unmistakable. My best friend, the guy who was disintegrated when he was hit by a killer beam of light fired from three Air Force fighters, was somehow headed my way.
“Jeez,” he said. “Could you have picked a spot a little further away? My feet are on fire.”
Quinn dropped his towel and stood on it directly over me, blocking the sun so that I didn’t have to squint. I saw him in silhouette, a dark, impossible ghost.
All I could do was stare in wonder and ask the only question that made sense. “Are we in heaven?”
“Yeah right,” he said with a scoff. “I know you think Pemberwick is, like, nirvana but . . . heaven? That’s over the top, even for you.”
My mind was reeling, desperate to understand what was happening.
“You okay, Tuck?” Quinn asked with concern.
“Okay? I’m about as far from okay as you can get. What the hell is going on?”
“You tell me,” he said. “Your leg looks gnarly.”
I looked down to see that my right leg was covered in blood. The instant I saw it, I registered the pain. It was vaguely numb at first, but the sensation quickly grew into a vicious, angry ache.
“My folks can fix you up,” Quinn said. “But I don’t know how you’re going to ride your bike to the hospital.”
“I rode my bike here?” I asked, bouncing between confusion and panic.
“I was hoping we could take a midnight ride later,” he said. “I miss those rides, Tuck. Hell, I miss you. I wish things could go back to the way they were.”
I tried to stand up but the pain in my leg forced me to stay down.
“What is happening, Quinn?” I cried. “Why am I here?”
Quinn laughed in that casual way he had of letting you know he knew so much more than anybody else in the world and said, “Because this is where you want to be. Hopefully you’ll get back here someday. For real.”
“But I’m here now!”
Quinn took a step back and the sun blasted my eyes.
“I’m proud of you, buddy. You’re officially my hero.”
“Quinn?” I shouted.
The only reply I got was a sudden rush of sound. At first I feared that a rogue wave had hit the beach and I was about to be washed away. But the sound was too steady for that. I looked for Quinn, but he was gone. The whole beach was gone.
I was still lying in the sand, but it was Mojave sand. It was night. The blinding light revealed its true nature: It wasn’t the sun at all, but a searchlight on a helicopter that was shining down on me. The rogue-wave sound was the steady whine of its engine.
I had only visited Pemberwick Island in the dazed stupor of a teasing dream. My pounding head was proof of that. The only thing real about any of it was my bloody leg. I was hurt. Badly. The pain was excruciating. I didn’t dare touch it for fear I would feel a bone sticking out.
I waved to the chopper, hoping it was coming to get me. It answered by killing the searchlight and flying off. It was hard to see any detail, as I’d just had a bright light shining directly into my eyes, but I could still make out the rising-sun SYLO logo on its belly.
Whoever was in that chopper, they didn’t care about me.
As the sound of the helicopter’s engine faded I looked around to try to figure out my next move. I was definitely in the middle of nowhere. I did a slow three-sixty until I spotted something that rocked me fully back to reality: the wreck of our helicopter.
A dozen thoughts flashed through my brain. None of them were good. My mother, Tori, and Kent were on board. So were Granger and Cutter. It looked as though I had been thrown clear of the wreck. That might have happened because I was near the door that was blown open. Whatever had happened, I was lucky to be alive, even though my leg was useless.
I tried to get up but there was no way my leg could handle any weight. Still, I had to get to the wreck. People could be trapped inside. The only way I could move was to crawl on one knee, dragging my dead leg behind me. The pain was unbearable. It felt as though my limb was being wrenched off, and on fire, but I didn’t stop.
The chopper was dead. The engine was silent. It wasn’t burning so I didn’t think there was any chance of an explosion. How long had it been since the crash? I could have been lying there for hours. Why didn’t the SYLO helicopter land? I didn’t hear any sounds of battle. The action seemed over.
As I crawled nearer to the wreck, I realized that my leg wasn’t my only problem. My head was spinning. I must have had a concussion, not that I knew what that was like. I’d had my bell rung a few times playing football, when I’d see colors and hear a sharp ringing for a few minutes. This felt like that, except it wouldn’t go away. The world was spinning and so was my stomach. I heaved, losing whatever I had eaten earlier that day in Las Vegas.
Las Vegas. That seemed like centuries before.
I wiped my mouth with my dirty sleeve and kept going. I had to know who was inside that wreck, even if there was nothing I could do to help them. When I finally reached the downed chopper, the first person I saw was the pilot through the shattered windshield. Cutter. He was dead. The marine commando who helped lead the rebels in Las Vegas but was secretly part of SYLO was gone. He came across as an arrogant jock, but the guy had compassion. He actually told us that he was honored to know us. In the end, I was honored to have known him.
I dragged my way to the side of the chopper and the huge gash that had once been a door. The spinning got worse. So did the nausea. I wasn’t going to last much longer, let alone help anybody who was inside. But I had to know. These were the only people I had left in the world. My mother. My friends. Granger, too. It’s weird to say that I hoped Granger survived after all he had done, but nothing was turning out the way I expected it to.
I pulled myself toward the opening and hesitated. What would I find inside? It could be gruesome. I wasn’t sure what was hurting more: my leg, my head, or my heart.
The chopper was a twisted wreck. It didn’t seem likely that anybody could have survived such a violent crash. It took every bit of physical and mental strength I had left to poke my head inside the downed craft.
What I saw inside was . . . nothing. No bodies. No survivors. No sign that anybody had lived or died. Even the copilot’s seat was empty. Granger was gone, along with my mother and my friends. The shock of seeing the empty craft and realizing that I was totally on my own was the last straw.
I gave in to the spinning.
The world turned upside down and I dropped into oblivion.
Ishould have been hurting a lot more than I was.
That was the first conscious thought I had. My right leg had been pretty much hanging by a thread; my head had been battered so hard that my skull must have cracked like Humpty-Dumpty; and after being tossed from a crashing helicopter I probably had any number of other injuries that I hadn’t noticed only because the other two were so vicious.
I had the brief fear that I might be dead, but I didn’t think a trip to the afterlife involved having an IV stuck into your arm. The only real physical discomfort I felt was a stiff left wrist from the needle that pumped liquid into me from a plastic bag hanging overhead. I was definitely alive, so why wasn’t I in pain? I didn’t even feel numbed by drugs. I forced myself to focus on my surroundings. Part of me wanted to be back on that beach on Pemberwick Island, but since that was only a dream, it was just as well that I wasn’t. Instead I was lying on my back in what looked like a hospital ward. There were two long lines of beds that faced each other. Most were occupied by a patient. Rather than some antiseptic institution, though, the building looked more like a long wooden hut. This place was brand new, with the smell of freshly cut wood overriding any typical hospital smells.
I lifted my head slightly and saw that all of the patients, including me, were wearing the same thing: bright orange one-piece coveralls. My bloody jeans and dark hoodie were gone, replaced by an outfit that made me look like I was ready to work on a road crew . . . that handled plutonium. On my feet was a pair of clean gleaming-white sneakers.
I reached down to my injured leg to discover it was no longer injured. How long had I been unconscious? Was I in a coma long enough for my leg to have healed completely?
The answer came quickly and it wasn’t a good one. I suddenly registered that the medical staff all wore black-and-gray military fatigues.
The uniform of the Air Force. The Retros.
I instantly realized why I wasn’t in any pain. They had given me the same miracle medicine that had healed Tori’s gunshot wound and brought Mr. Feit back from the brink of death. It was probably being pumped into me through the IV. I may have been healed but it came at a steep price.
I was in the hands of the Retros.
The realization gave me a shot of adrenaline that brought me into full focus. I wanted to jump up and run, but I had no idea where I was and wouldn’t know which way to go. I had to force myself to calm down and understand the situation before doing something stupid. I didn’t want to let anybody know that I was awake so I did my best to scope out the situation without sitting bolt upright.
It was daytime. Bright sunlight shone in through windows set near the ceiling. As I focused I realized that they weren’t windows at all, but openings for ventilation . . . and they weren’t doing a very good job, because it was hot. The only relief came from ceiling fans that were spaced every ten feet or so, gently moving around the warm, dry air. This was no high-tech medical center. It was more like how I imagined a hastily erected battlefield hospital must feel.
Every last one of the patients seemed to be in the same situation as me. They were on their backs, hooked up to an IV. There were both men and women, and all appeared to be adults. I watched through squinted eyes as a Retro approached the guy in the bed next to me. He held a small device that could have been an iPod and scanned something at the foot of the bed. He checked the screen, dropped it into his pocket, and lifted the guy’s leg to examine his foot. He rotated it a few times as if to see that it was working properly. His casual manner made it seem more like he was checking out a piece of machinery than a human being. Satisfied, he dropped the foot, went right to the guy’s IV, and pulled it out.
“Go,” the soldier said. That was it. “Go.”
The patient stood up obediently, and after spending a few seconds to test his foot, he walked off down the line of beds headed for . . . somewhere. Spread across his back were four large black numbers: 4242.
The soldier made an entry into his device and moved on.
I cautiously looked around to the rest of the ward to see similar scenes playing out. Retro doctors, or whatever they were, checked on patients while entering information into their electronic devices. A few of the patients were unplugged and given the same “Go” command as the guy next to me. The rest were left to continue whatever healing process was going on.
A few minutes later another patient in an orange jumpsuit was wheeled in on a gurney and transferred to the bed next to me. It was a woman and she was a mess. She was unconscious, and that was a good thing, because her right leg was twisted into such a grotesque angle that it made me want to gag. A small blossom of blood grew in the orange material below her right knee. It seemed as though her leg was in just as bad a shape as mine had been. The medical guy hooked her up to the IV, entered some notes, and moved on.
The scene was disturbing for all sorts of reasons. These patients were being treated no better than animals. Or robots. Very few words were exchanged. Nobody asked any questions or spoke about how they were feeling. The doctors didn’t even pretend to care. Who knows? They might not even have been medically trained. That miracle medicine healed the body at an impossible speed; it wasn’t like the doctors had to do anything more than stick the IV in.
Also disturbing were the numbers printed on the patients’ backs. Nobody was called by name. It was all so . . . inhuman. It followed what Jon Purcell, the Retro infiltrator we met in Portland, told us. He called us primates and said we were all dead already. The Retros thought the only value we had was to rebuild the world for them. I saw that plan in action at Fenway Park. Tori and I watched with horror as survivors of the attack were treated like slaves, fed the Ruby (which gave them impossible strength and speed), and forced to work on the project that Granger called the gate to hell.
Is that what these orange-wearing people were being used for?
Is that what I was being healed for?
Most upsetting of all, I had no idea what had happened to my mother. Tori, Kent, and Granger were missing too. Part of me hoped that they had died in the crash so they wouldn’t be forced into becoming robot slaves like the people surrounding me.
The reality of the situation hit me with a wave of despair. Whatever hope we had of putting an end to the Retros’ plans of resetting society ended when our chopper crashed into the desert floor. I may have survived, but the Retros did too. Destroying their fleet of planes hadn’t put them out of business. Our moment of victory was short-lived. We had failed.
“You are Zero Three One One,” a woman said.
Without thinking I turned quickly to see that she was standing at the foot of my bed. I wished I hadn’t looked to her so quickly. It proved that I was awake.
“I’m not a number,” I said defiantly.
I saw a few of the other patients shoot a quick look toward me as if I had broken the cardinal rule by opening my mouth.
“Do not speak,” the woman said harshly.
“Why not?” I asked.
She raised her electronic device, aimed it at me, and a second later I felt a painful jolt of energy shoot through my body. It only lasted a few seconds, but it was brutal enough to convince me to keep my mouth shut. That was some device: iPod and torture-shooter all in one handy package.
“You’re new,” she said with no emotion, as if she’d given this same speech a hundred times. “You’re allowed one mistake. You won’t be allowed another.”
I didn’t dare say, “Oh yeah? And then what?” That might have been suicide. The Retros had no hesitation about wiping out three-quarters of the world’s population. They wouldn’t think twice about destroying a wiseass kid with too many questions . . . especially one who had a hand in blowing up the entire Retro fleet of attack planes at Area 51.
I truly hoped they didn’t know I had anything to do with that.
The woman grabbed my leg and worked my knee around like she was kneading bread dough. She didn’t ask how I felt or if she was hurting me. (For the record, I felt fine, and she wasn’t.) She learned all she needed to know from her incredibly thorough five-second exam. I think all she was doing was checking to see if my lower leg was still attached. Once that was established, I was good to go.
She yanked out my IV (without swabbing my arm with alcohol to stop any bleeding, I might add) and simply said, “Go.”
I almost said, “Where?” but didn’t want to get zapped again.
I wanted to question her. I wanted to ask where we were. I wanted to know how long I had been out. Hell, I wanted to punch her in the head.
But I also wanted to find out about my mom and the others. For that I needed to be alive.
I slowly stood up. The last time I had moved I was broken in a dozen places and so dizzy I couldn’t see straight. I expected my head to go light and pain to shoot up my leg. Instead, I felt surprisingly strong. There was no pain. No dizziness. No nausea . . . and no fatigue whatsoever. I felt great. At least physically.
“Follow me, Zero Three One One,” came a man’s command.
Standing between the rows of beds was another Retro soldier. This guy wasn’t part of the medical staff. The black baton weapon he held proved that. I’d seen that weapon in action and knew that the charge it shot out could knock somebody into next week . . . or kill them, depending on its setting. I’d used one myself to threaten Mr. Feit—Colonel Feit of the United States Freakin’ Killer Air Force. The fear of getting zapped convinced him to turn a giant attack craft back from its mission of wiping out the rest of the population of Los Angeles.
The Retro soldier motioned for me to walk ahead of him between the two rows of beds. I obeyed and walked slowly past him toward a door that was thirty yards away. The whole way, I stole quick glances at the poor victims who were being healed, hoping to catch a glimpse of my mom or the others. Many were awake, staring blankly at the ceiling. None made eye contact with me. It was like being trapped in zombie-land.
I pushed through the door at the far end of the building and entered another structure that looked nearly as long as the hospital ward, but it was twice as wide. Rather than hospital beds, there were dozens of white domes that looked like igloos lined up neatly in two rows.
The Retro soldier pushed past me and hurried up to one of them. He used his weapon to rap on what looked like a door. A second later a panel slid open with a quick, sharp hiss.
“Inside,” the guy commanded. “Sit down. Wait.”
“Why?” I asked.
At the sound of my voice, the guy stiffened as if I had just slapped him in the face. He started to bring the weapon around to shoot me for daring to open my mouth, but he took a deep breath and got hold of his emotions.
“If you keep asking questions,” he said, “you won’t be alive long enough to get any answers. Inside. Sit down. Wait.”
Message received. I ducked down and entered the dark dome.
Inside was a black wire chair with a wide back that faced a flat, blank white wall. That was it. The entire inside of the dome was white, except for the chair. I sat down, as instructed, like a good little primate prisoner.
With a hissing sound, the door closed, plunging the dome into total darkness. I felt panic rising. What were they going to do with me? If they knew I planted the bomb that destroyed every last Retro plane at Area 51 and killed one of their leaders, I could be in for a rough time. Was this my prison? Was I sentenced to live the rest of my life in dark solitude? Or would it be my execution chamber?
I sat there in pitch darkness for what felt like an hour, though it might have been only a few seconds. I was a breath away from screaming out, “Why am I in here?” when words appeared in front of me. They were white letters that looked to be floating in space.
YOU ARE ZERO THREE ONE ONE. ACKNOWLEDGE. I heard it spoken as I saw the words written in front of me. It was said aloud by a woman who spoke with no emotion and not much inflection. It felt like a computer-generated voice, but it sounded way more natural than that.
The words disappeared, only to be replaced by the single word: acknowledge.
“ACKNOWLEDGE,” the voice repeated.
“That’s what they tell me,” I replied.
I figured that was a good answer. I wasn’t accepting the fact that they considered me a number rather than a human being, but I didn’t want to pick a fight with a machine that was probably way smarter than me.
Each time the computer spoke, the words appeared in front of me. I guess it was in case I was deaf or something.
“YOU ARE FORTUNATE, ZERO THREE ONE ONE,” the voice said. “YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED TO HELP REDIRECT THE COURSE OF THE WORLD.”
“You mean I’m lucky because I wasn’t killed when you guys wiped out most of the population,” I said.
I couldn’t help myself.
The machine didn’t acknowledge that.
“THE WORK WILL BE DIFFICULT,” the computer voice and the floating words continued. “BUT YOU WILL BE REWARDED WITH THE KNOWLEDGE THAT YOU ARE PERFORMING AN IMPORTANT SERVICE TO MANKIND.”
“And if I get hurt you’ll just plug me into the magic medicine machine and fix me right up so I can get right back to work, right?”
“YOU WILL BE FED WELL AND GIVEN MEDICAL TREATMENT WHEN NECESSARY,” was the reply. “AS LONG AS YOU COOPERATE AND WORK HARD, YOU WILL BE TREATED FAIRLY.”
The conversation had turned ominous.
“And what if I don’t cooperate and work hard?” I asked.
“YOU WILL BE ELIMINATED,” was the horrifyingly matter-of-fact answer.
“My name is Tucker,” I said, belligerently.
“IRRELEVANT,” the machine replied. “WHAT USEFUL SKILLS DO YOU POSSESS?”
“Useful skills? What do you mean?”
“DO YOU HAVE A PARTICULAR TALENT? ARE YOU ACCOMPLISHED AT SOMETHING PRACTICAL?”
“Like what?” I really didn’t know where these questions were going.
“ARE YOU A PLUMBER? AN ELECTRICIAN? A WELDER? DO YOU WORK WITH WOOD? CAN YOU COOK? WE ARE ALWAYS LOOKING FOR THOSE WITH USEFUL SKILLS. WHAT ARE YOURS?”
I really had to think about that. What could I do? If I had some kind of skill it might get me out of doing hard labor. Or dangerouslabor. The trouble was, I had nothing. I was a fourteen-year-old second-string running back on my high school football team. What was that going to get me? Suddenly all those hours studying math and writing essays in school felt pretty wasted.
“Wait,” I said. “I have a skill. I’m a landscaper. I design gardens and know how to care for pretty much anything that grows. They say I’ve got a green thumb.”
That was totally overselling my abilities. The truth was I mowed and raked grass for my dad’s gardening business. I knew a little bit about fertilizer and how to trim plants to keep them looking good, but that was about it.
“IRRELEVANT,” the machine said.
“What happened to my mother and my friends?”
As soon as I said that, I regretted it. This machine didn’t know who I was. If it connected me with the others there was a better chance we’d all be found out. But I couldn’t help myself. Without my friends I wasn’t sure how I’d have enough strength to go on.
“YOU NO LONGER HAVE A MOTHER AND FRIENDS,” the machine said. “YOU ARE ZERO THREE ONE ONE. THAT IS YOUR HISTORY AND YOUR FUTURE.”
I wanted to jump out of my chair and throttle this person, or whatever it was. But there was nothing to grab on to but glowing white letters that came and went as if blown by the wind.
“DO NOT SPEAK WITH AIR FORCE PERSONNEL UNLESS YOU ARE REQUESTED TO SPEAK. DO NOT COMMUNICATE WITH THE OTHER WORKERS UNLESS IT REGARDS THE TASK AT HAND. THERE ARE SEVERE CONSEQUENCES FOR DISOBEDIENCE.”
I didn’t have to question that. I believed it.
“YOU WILL SLEEP IN A COMMUNITY BARRACKS AND EAT IN A COMMUNITY HALL. YOU WILL NOT SLEEP IN THE SAME BUNK TWICE SO DO NOT HOARD PERSONAL ITEMS.”
This was going to be even more horrible than prison. They were taking away everything that made a person unique, starting with their name. “WHAT YOU WERE BEFORE ARRIVING HERE DOES NOT MATTER; THEREFORE NAMES ARE IRRELEVANT. WORK HARD, OBEY THE RULES, AND THE REST OF YOUR LIFE WILL BE WORRY-FREE.”
“Yeah, except it probably won’t last very much longer.”
“GOODBYE, ZERO THREE ONE ONE.”
The door to the igloo slid open. I shielded my eyes from the bright light and saw the Retro guard waiting outside for me. I stood and shuffled out.
“So I guess I’m registered,” I said. “Now what?”
The guy zapped me with the baton.
I screamed, but it was more out of surprise than pain. His weapon was dialed to shoot a very light charge . . . just enough to keep the rowdy in line.
“Do not speak,” the guard warned. “I’ll bring you to your unit.”
There wasn’t anything else I could do but follow the guy. If there was any hope of finding out what happened to my mom and my friends, I was going to have to play along . . . at least until I saw a chance to escape. As I followed the Retro guard through this frightening new world, there was only one thing I knew for sure: I was not going to live out the rest of my life as a slave to these murderers. That would have to become my focus because all hope of bringing down the Retros was gone.
The guard led me through several more buildings that were connected by wooden walkways. Each time we left one building we stepped out into the blazing-hot desert. After a few steps we’d enter the next long building in line. It wasn’t much cooler inside the structures than out in the open. Each building had ceiling fans that didn’t do any more than push the hot air around, but it was still better than being under the sun.
The buildings we passed through were nearly identical. They were barracks similar to the wooden hospital ward but with one big difference: The beds here were empty. The buildings themselves looked and smelled brand-new. The wooden beams were fresh and there was none of the grime that came from use. It looked to me as if the Retros were preparing for an influx of more people. Many more people.
When we were given the briefing back in Las Vegas before setting out to sabotage the Retro fleet of planes, the leaders of the survivors said how the Retros were heavy on equipment but light on manpower. They were absolutely correct. Area 51 was home to well over a thousand attack drones, but we saw almost no people. Wherever this camp was, it looked to be just as under-manned. But from the number of empty beds I was seeing, that would change. People were coming. But who?
After passing through a dozen identical empty barracks, I began to hear the sounds of work. There was hammering and sawing and the general cacophony one would expect from a large work force. We exited the final building and arrived at a busy construction site. Three more barracks in various stages of completion were being worked on by several dozen workers. Prisoners. It looked as though I was going to be put to work along with all the other orange-wearing, number-given slaves. This was my future. At least my immediate future.
The guard led me through the work zone when a new sound entered my consciousness. It was music. Eerily familiar music. I froze. It was a sound I’d heard far too many times. Slowly, I turned around to see what I knew would be there and was greeted by an even more disturbing sight.
Looming high above the new structures, no more than a few hundred yards away, was the giant steel igloo-like dome.
The gate to hell.
I had to fight from falling to my knees.
A black Retro attack plane rose up next to it. It lifted vertically into the air until it cleared the top of the dome, then its musical engine kicked in and the killer craft shot off like a rocket. In seconds it was out of sight.
I knew exactly where I was . . . the Mojave Desert, not far from where our SYLO helicopter was attacked and downed. Captain Granger had made a foolish mistake by flying us by here to see this structure. He should have known they’d be watching. Before we were attacked, we saw a Retro fighter plane float out from inside the dome. It proved that in spite of the fact that we had obliterated their entire fleet at Area 51, the Retro Air Force had not been defeated. More of these deadly craft were arriving from whatever factory was churning them out. How long would it be before the entire fleet was replaced so they could continue their ghastly purge of the planet’s population?
From the sky we had seen the wrecks of hundreds of SYLO fighter jets strewn across the desert floor that had tried to destroy this monstrous structure . . . and that were blasted out of the sky by drones and antiaircraft guns.
The dome was untouchable, the Retros were still very much in business, and I was their prisoner. The war, or at least my part in it, was over.
I found myself wishing I hadn’t been thrown free of the crashing helicopter. I wanted to be together with my mother and my friends, however dire their fates were.
The guard pushed me toward a long half-completed wooden building that would eventually look like all the others. Next to it was a deep trench that looked to be the beginnings of the foundation for yet another building. This pit was being dug by hand, painstakingly. A large group of tortured-looking men and women in orange coveralls used simple shovels to move the dry desert sand. They methodically filled wheelbarrows that were carted off by other equally exhausted-looking prisoners.
The Retros were at it again, forcing the survivors of their attack into slave labor. Seeing the vacant stares of the beaten and abused prisoners as they worked under the hot desert sun made my heart race with anger. How could a group of people who said they were trying to right the course of civilization treat their fellow men so badly?
A Retro wearing camouflage, but unarmed, stood next to the growing pit, monitoring what looked like an oversized iPad in her hand. She was a severe-looking woman with short, steely hair and broad shoulders. The guard I had been following approached her and said a few words I couldn’t hear. The woman gave me a quick look and turned away, shaking her head. I guess she didn’t need any more workers, which was fine by me.
The guard came back to me and said, “This is your unit. Unit Blue. Do whatever your supervisor orders you to do. The more productive you are, the easier it will be for you. More food. Better food. Shorter shifts. Better bunks. If you don’t produce, then . . .” He let his voice trail off and he shrugged.
I wanted to hit him, and might have, if he hadn’t made eye contact with me.
Up until that moment he had been totally cold, as if I were an annoying dog that needed training. But in that brief moment I thought I saw something in his eyes that looked strangely like sympathy.
Or maybe I just imagined it.
He gave me a slight nod and headed off, leaving me alone with the silver-haired supervisor who didn’t look any happier about being there than I was.
The guard hadn’t told me the supervisor’s name and I didn’t dare ask. Maybe her name was as irrelevant as mine supposedly was.
“Grab a shovel,” the woman barked without looking at me. “We need to move two tons of earth before nightfall. Get to work.”
Nightfall. Was that how it was going to be? Were the prisoners forced to work until it was too dark to see? I picked up a shovel from a pile near the edge of the pit and gazed over the side to see at least twenty people laboring in the furnace that was to be the foundation of yet another bunkhouse. The hole was roughly six feet deep. Grave depth. But it was only half the size of one of the long buildings. There was a lot of work to be done.
I didn’t want to go down there. I feared that I might never come out. In that one moment, all the horror I’d been through since the night of Marty Wiggins’s death on Pemberwick Island came flooding back in a rush of violent images that sprang from my memory. I couldn’t catch my breath. My heart raced. What was going on? Was I suddenly overcome by sorrow? Or was it fear?
No, it was anger. Who were these Retros and how were they able to use the United States Air Force to take over the world and enslave the survivors? They had turned the world upside down. For what? Nothing could justify the deaths, the destruction, the loss. To make it worse, they were treating the survivors like animals in a slaughterhouse. We were given numbers. Numbers had no personality. No history. No humanity. What was next? Would they brand us with a burning hot iron?
I gripped the shovel tighter as my rage grew. I glanced at the silver-haired Retro supervisor who still didn’t think enough of me to make sure I was climbing down into that pit. She was busily scanning her tablet. In that one second I felt as though she alone represented the heartless force that had destroyed our world. I wanted her to suffer for what they had done. I raised the blade of the shovel and strode toward her. I’m not crazy, or a killer, but in that moment I didn’t feel like myself. I was a number. Zero Three One One. If they could treat me like I was nothing, then I could do the same to them. I raised the shovel, poised to bash it over her head and exorcise the demons that had taken control of my emotions.
I lifted the shovel higher, ready to strike . . .
. . . as a military jeep came screaming out from behind the last of the completed barracks. The sound jolted me back to my senses. I assumed it was carrying Retro guards who were coming to stop me from beaning the unwary supervisor.
I was a heartbeat away from dropping the shovel and running when the jeep turned hard and an orange-clad body was thrown out. He hit the ground with a sickening thud and tumbled in the sand like a broken doll before coming to rest.
Three Retro soldiers sat in the jeep. One behind the wheel, the second in the passenger seat. The third Retro was in back. That was the guy who had tossed the prisoner to the dirt. The jeep slid to a stop near the edge of the foundation pit, kicking up sand and dust that hung in the air and giving a coughing fit to a few of the workers.
The unit supervisor stood there staring. Apparently she didn’t understand what was going on any more than I did.
The guy in the passenger seat twisted and pulled himself out. He wore black-and-gray Retro fatigues but carried himself more casually than the other soldiers. He rolled more than walked, as if every joint in his body was loose—the exact opposite of the ramrod-straight Captain Granger. His shirt was unbuttoned to the middle of his chest, showing off deeply tanned skin. Though he looked to be about my dad’s age, he had longish, bleached-blond hair that had to be constantly swept out of his eyes. Other than the uniform there was nothing military-like about this guy. He looked more like somebody who played tennis at the uppity Arbortown Racquet Club with Kent Berringer than a soldier at a military prison camp.
The other three soldiers were on high alert. They kept their eyes locked on this guy as he strolled toward the pit. He may not have looked like a respected military leader, but from the body language of his own soldiers, he was somebody you didn’t dare mess with.
He stood on the edge of the pit and leaned forward slightly to get a full view of the workers toiling below.
“Hello!” he called down in an overly friendly tone. “Come up here for a moment, would you please? Take a break. All of you!”
The workers in the pit looked to one another, confused. But they weren’t about to pass up a chance to take a breather, so they quickly dropped their shovels and climbed out to stand in a loose group on the edge of the hole.
I stood apart from them, closer to the woman supervisor who still hadn’t moved since the jeep arrived.
“Thank you,” the blond guy said with a slight bow. “Forgive me for taking you from your work.”
Right. Like they were upset.
“We don’t use names here,” he announced. “But I want you to know mine. It’s Bova. Simon Bova. Major Bova, if you’d prefer to be formal. I share that information only because I believe you should know who your host is.”
He smiled at the prisoners as if he wanted them to like him. The guy came across like a gracious host, rather than the commander of a work camp. His eyes had the silver sparkle of someone who was either seriously smart, or dangerously insane.
“Now!” he announced. “A bit of business. I trust you all know . . .” he slid over to the guy lying in the dirt and leaned over to take a look at his back “. . . Eight Six Seven Five.”
“Of course you do,” Bova said with a wink. “You’ve worked next to him for days. I’m sorry to have to tell you that he has been a very naughty boy.”
Bova motioned to the soldier in the back of the jeep. Instantly, the soldier jumped down, ran to the prisoner, and pulled him up to his knees.
Bova took a quick step back as if he didn’t want to risk coming in contact with the filthy sand that swirled around the poor guy.
The prisoner was a mess, but he was conscious. His hair was tangled and blood dripped from the corner of his mouth. Caked sand clung to his face, surrounding a pair of swollen eyes.
He’d been beaten. Badly.
Bova bent down so his face was close to the prisoner’s, but not close enough to risk contact. “You know you’ve been very bad, don’t you?”
The prisoner didn’t react.
“Go ahead, you can admit it,” Bova said, cajoling. “We have no secrets here.”
Bova was talking to him in a singsong voice, as if he were a little kid.
The prisoner looked to the ground. I couldn’t imagine what he might have done that deserved getting beaten like that.
“Tell you what,” Bova exclaimed with excitement. “We’ll play a game.” He gave a broad smile to the group and added, “One of my favorites. I used to play it with my parents. It’s simply called Please.”
The prisoner started to collapse back down to the ground but the soldier grabbed him and pulled him to his knees again.
“Now, my friend,” Bova said to the prisoner, who was anything but his friend. “The rules of my game are quite simple. You must answer my questions and do as I say . . . but only if I say please. That’s all. A simple courtesy. I believe that even under the most difficult circumstances we should always do our best to maintain civility. This game helps us remember that. Agreed?”
The prisoner wet his parched lips. He needed water, badly.
“Agreed!” Bova announced for him.
He strode to the jeep and grabbed a canteen from the passenger seat and walked back to the prisoner. He held the canteen out close to his face and said, “Take a drink.”
The prisoner reached out for the canteen . . . and Bova kicked his hand away. Violently. So violently that it made most of the other prisoners jump with surprise. It threw the guy off balance and he fell down onto his elbows.
Bova shook his head and chuckled. “You’ve forgotten already? I didn’t say please.”
He motioned to one of his soldiers, who ran over quickly. I thought he was going to help the prisoner back up to his knees, but instead he wiped Bova’s boots with his sleeve, taking away any offending grime that may have come off of the prisoner.
“Very good, let’s try this again,” Bova said, holding out the canteen. “Won’t you have a drink of water?”
The prisoner pushed himself off the ground until he was back on his knees. One side of his sweat and blood-covered face was encrusted with dirt. It was gut-wrenching to see.
He glared at Bova but didn’t move.
“Very good!” Bova exclaimed with joy. “Now we’re on the same page. This is going to be fun.”
There were a lot of words to describe what was going on. “Fun” wasn’t one of them.
“Now. Please lift your right arm.”
After a painfully long few seconds, the prisoner raised his right hand. Barely.
“Wonderful!” Bova declared.
He really was having fun.
For the record, he was the only one, including the other Retro soldiers, who watched with no expression. “Now,” Bova continued. “Tell us all what you did that was so naughty.”
I willed the guy not to answer.
The prisoner didn’t say a word. His eyes seemed unfocused, as if he were about to pass out.
“Very good!” Bova declared. “Tell us what you did that was so naughty . . . please.”
All eyes were focused on the poor, tortured guy.
His eyes flashed around, looking for some clue as to what he should do.
“You have to tell me,” Bova said, wagging his finger. “I said please. Those are the rules of etiquette.”
“I . . .” the man said, sounding as though his throat was on fire. “I tried to bring water to my unit.”
“Precisely!” Bova exclaimed giddily. “You tried to bring water to your unit. Extra water. Now, please tell me, is this your unit?”
Bova gestured to the group at the edge of the hole.
Reluctantly, the prisoner nodded.
“Of course it is. Please tell me, did anyone in this unit drink the water?”
I felt the people in the group stiffen. What had been a sadistic torturing of a single prisoner now had the potential to include them.
The prisoner shook his head.
“No,” he whispered. “I never made it back.”
Bova walked up to the unit supervisor, who looked ready to faint. He got right in her face and said, “Is this true? There were no extra water rations distributed to your unit?”
The woman blinked a few times. She was terrified of this man.
“No sir,” she said with a shaky voice. “No extra water was given to this unit today.”
Bova stared directly into her eyes. Into her brain.
I was standing ten feet away, but I saw a bead of sweat grow on her temple that slowly trickled down her cheek.
He kept his eyes locked on hers for a solid ten seconds, then grinned.
“I know it wasn’t,” he said with happy lilt. “We discovered his treachery long before he had the chance to come back here.”
Bova stepped away from her.