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By Julianna Baggott
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2013 Julianna Baggott
All right reserved.
Lying on a thin coat of snow, she sees gray earth meeting gray sky, and she knows she’s back. The horizon looks clawed, but the claw marks are only three stunted trees. They stand in a row like they’re stapling the ground to the sky.
She gasps, suddenly, a delayed reaction, as if someone is trying to steal her breath and she’s pulling it back into her throat.
She sits up. She’s still small, still just a ten-year-old girl. She feels like she’s lost a lot of time, but she hasn’t. Not really. Not years. Maybe only days, weeks.
She tugs her thick coat in tight around her ribs. The coat is proof. She touches its silver buttons. There’s a scarf tucked down into the coat, wound twice around her neck. Who dressed her? Who wound the scarf twice? She looks at her boots—dark blue with thick laces, new—and her hands fitted into gloves, each finger encased in a taut cocoon.
A curl of her dark red hair sits on her jacket, her hair shining. The end of each strand is thick and perfect as if newly cut.
She pulls up the sleeve of the coat, exposing her arm. Just as it was under the bright light, the bone is no longer warped. There are no thin plastic ridges bubbled along the skin. She isn’t stippled with shards. Not even a mole or a freckle. Her skin is white—white, the way snow should be, maybe even whiter. She’s never seen really white snow with her own eyes. The light veins ride blue beneath the white. She touches the soft inner skin of one wrist to her cheek, then her lips. Smooth skin on smooth skin.
She looks around and knows they’re close; she can feel the electricity of their bodies filling the air. She remembers what it was like when they first took her from the other strays; motherless, fatherless, they slept in a handmade lean-to near the markets. She isn’t sure why she was chosen, lifted into the air, clutched. One cradled her in its arms and hurdled across the rubble while the others bounded around them. Its breath chugged, mechanically. Its legs pumped. Her eyes teared in the wind, so its angular face was blurry. She wasn’t afraid, but now she is. They’re here, their strong bodies buzzing like massive bees, but they’re leaving her. She feels like a child in a fairy tale. In her mother’s stories—she had a mother once—there was a woodsman who was supposed to take a girl’s heart back to an evil queen, but he couldn’t force himself to do it. Another sliced open a wolf to save the people it had eaten. The woodsmen were strong and good. But they left girls in woods sometimes, girls who then had to fend for themselves.
Light snow falls. She stands slowly. The world lurches as if it’s suddenly grown heavy. She falls to her knees and then hears voices in the woods; two are people walking toward her. Even from this distance, she can see the red scars on their faces. One wobbles from a limp. They’re carrying sacks.
She tugs the scarf over her nose and mouth. She’s supposed to be found. She’s a foundling; she remembers this word was used in the room with the bright light. “We want her to be a foundling.” It was a man’s voice, quavering over a speaker. He was in charge, though she never saw him. Willux, Willux, people whispered—people with smooth skin who weren’t fused to anything. They moved easily around her bed, surrounded by metal posts where clear sacs of fluid were clamped and dripped into tubes, among little beeping machines and wires. It was like having mothers and fathers, too many to keep track.
She remembers the wide light in the room, its brilliant bulb, so bright and close it kept her warm. She remembers how she first ran her hand over her skin, and when she touched her stomach, it too was smooth. Her navel—the thing her mother always called the button of her belly, and what the voices in that room called her umbilicus—was gone.
She reaches up under her coat and shirt and runs her hand over her stomach. Like before, there’s only a stretch of skin and more skin.
“Healed,” the voices said behind white masks, but they were concerned. “Still, a success,” they said. Some wanted to keep her for observation.
She starts to open her mouth to call to the distant figures carrying sacks, but her mouth doesn’t open all the way. It’s as if her lips are slightly stitched on either side—the edges sealed.
And what would she say? She can’t think of any words. The words whirl in her mind. They’re furred. She can’t line them up or utter them. Finally she calls out, but the only words that form in her mouth are “We want!” She doesn’t know why. She tries again to call for help, but again she shouts, “We want!”
They walk up, two young women. They’re pickers; she can tell by the warts and scars on their fingers. They’ve touched a lot of poisonous bulbs, berries, morels. One of them has silver prongs, like those on an old fork, in place of two of her fingers. She’s the one with the limp, and her face, though seared a deep red, is strangely pretty, mostly because of her eyes, which glow a golden orange like liquid metal—stained by the brightness of the bombs themselves. She’s blind. She clutches the other picker’s arm and says, “Who’s you?” It sounds like a birdcall. The girl heard birds in the bright room, recorded and piped in by the unseen speakers. Cooing, the girl thinks, and then she hears other birds in the woods. These birds have the kinds of calls she grew up with—not clear, sweet notes as in the bright room, but scratches and rattles.
The two young women are scared of her. Can they already tell she’s different?
She wants to tell them her name, but it’s gone. The only words in her mind are Fire Flower. That’s what her mother used to call her sometimes; born from fire and destruction, she took root and grew. She’s never known her father, but she’s pretty sure that he was lost in the fire and destruction.
And then her name appears: Wilda. She is Wilda.
She puts her hand on the cold ground. She wants to tell them that she’s new. She wants to tell them that the world has changed forever. She says, “We want our son.” The words startle her. Why did she say this?
The young women look at each other. The blind one says, “What was that? Whose son?”
The other has a scar running down one cheek as if she had a braid fused to her face now covered in a layer of skin. She says, “She’s not right in the head.”
“Who’s you?” the blind one says again.
The girl says, “We want our son.” These are the only words that she can say.
The pickers look around suddenly, even the blind one. They hear the electrical synapses now, firing through the air. The creatures who took her are restless. “There’s many,” the one with the braided scar says, wide-eyed. “They’re protecting her. Can you feel ’em? They been sent by our Watchers to look over her.”
“Angels,” the blind one says.
They start to back away.
But then Wilda pulls up her sleeve and exposes her arm—so white it seems to glow. “We want,” she says again, slowly, “our son returned.”
The lobby at OSR headquarters is dotted with a few glowing handmade oil lamps strung from the exposed beams of the high ceiling. The survivors are bedding down on blankets and mats, curled together to keep warm. Their bodies hold a collective humid heat despite the fact that the tall windows haven’t been boarded. Their bare casements are fringed with the gauzy remains of curtains. Snow starts to flutter and gust, flutter and gust, in through the windows as if hundreds of moths have been lured in by the promise of lit bulbs to bash themselves against.
It’s dark outside, but almost morning, and some of the early risers are waking. Pressia’s stayed up all night again. Sometimes she gets so lost in her work that she loses track of time. She’s holding a mechanical arm she’s just made from scraps that El Capitan brings her—silver pincers, a ball-bearing elbow, old electrical cord to cinch it, and leather straps that have been measured to cuff the amputee’s thin biceps. He’s a nine-year-old with all five fingers fused together, almost webbed. She whispers the boy’s name hoarsely. “Perlo! Are you here?”
She makes her way through the survivors, who shift and mutter. She hears a sharp, mewling hiss. “Hush it!” a woman says. Pressia sees something writhe beneath the woman’s coat and then the silky black head of a cat appears at the side of her neck. A baby cries out. Someone curses. A song rises up from a man’s throat, a lullaby…The ghostly girls, the ghastly girls, the ghostly girls. Who can save them from this world? From this world? The river’s wide, the current curls, the current calls, the current curls…The baby goes quiet. Music still works, music calms people. We’re wretches but we’re still capable of this—songs rising up inside us. She’d like the people of the Dome to know this. We’re vicious, yes, but also capable of shocking tenderness, kindness, beauty. We’re human, flawed, but still good, right?
“Perlo?” she tries again, cradling the prosthetic arm to her chest. Sometimes in crowds like this she now looks for her father—even though she doesn’t remember his face. Before Pressia’s mother died, she showed Pressia the pulsing tattoos on her chest—one of which belonged to Pressia’s father, proof that he’s survived the Detonations. Of course, he isn’t here. He probably isn’t even on this continent—or what’s left of it. But she can’t help searching the faces of survivors for someone who looks a little like her—almond-shaped eyes, black shiny hair. She can’t stop from searching, no matter how irrational it is to believe she might one day find him.
She’s made it all the way across the lobby and comes to a wall plastered with posters. Instead of the black claw, which once struck fear in survivors, this is a poster of El Capitan’s face—stern and tough-jawed. She looks down the row of posters, his eyes all lined up, his brother Helmud a small lump behind El Capitan’s back. Above his head, it reads: able and strong? join up. solidarity will save us. El Capitan made that up and he’s proud of it. At the bottom, fine print promises an end to Death Sprees—the teams of OSR soldiers assigned to cull the weak, collect their dead in an enemy’s field—and mandatory conscription at sixteen. For those who volunteer, El Capitan promises Food without Fear. Fear of what? OSR has a dark history. People were captured and hauled in, untaught how to read, used as live targets…
All of that is over. The posters have worked. There are more recruits now than ever. They wander up from the city, ragged and hungry, burned and fused. Sometimes, they come as families. He’s told Pressia that he’s got to start sending some back. “This isn’t a welfare state. I’m trying to build an army here.” But, so far, she’s always talked him into letting them stay.
“Perlo!” she whispers, walking along the wall, letting her hand slide over the rippled edges of the posters. Where is he? The curtains kick into the room. The snow is drawn in as if the large room were drawing in a deep breath.
One family has propped a blanket on a stick, creating a little tent to block the wind. She used to make little tents in the back of the burned-out barbershop when she was little, with a chair and her grandfather’s cane to prop a sheet, playing house with her best friend, Fandra. Her grandfather called them pup tents, and she and Fandra would bark like puppies. He’d laugh so hard the fan in his throat would spin wildly. She feels a pang of loss—for her grandfather and Fandra, who are both dead, and her childhood, which is dead too.
Outside the windows, guards keep watch at fifty-foot intervals surrounding OSR’s headquarters because Special Forces, released by the Dome, are multiplying. A few weeks ago, they were spotted bounding through the woods—their hulking figures bulked with animal muscle, their skin covered in something synthetic and camouflaged. They’re agile, nearly silent, incredibly fast and strong, and well armed; their weapons are embedded in their bodies. They dart over the Rubble Fields, sprint among trees, light down alleys—quiet and stealthy, making routine sweeps of the city. They want Partridge—Pressia’s half brother—most of all. Partridge is being protected by the mothers, along with Lyda—who is Pure, like Partridge, and was sent out of the Dome and as a pawn—and Illia, who was married to the top leader of the OSR, her twisted husband, whom she killed. They get bits of information from sketchy reports sent in from OSR soldiers, who all deeply fear the mothers. One report noted that the mothers are teaching Lyda to fight. She’s just a girl from the Dome with no preparation for the ashen wilds, much less life with the mothers, who can be loving and loyal but also barbaric. How is she doing? Another report mentioned that Illia wasn’t holding up. She’d been protected in the farmhouse all these years, and now her lungs are struggling with the onslaught of swirling ash.
Everyone who was there at the end of Pressia’s mother’s life has to be careful. They’re the ones who know the truth about Willux and the Dome, and perhaps they have something that Willux is still after—the vials. Bradwell and El Capitan stripped as much as they could from her mother’s bunker after she was gone. Partridge has the vials now, and hopefully he’s keeping them safe. They would mean a lot to Willux—with these vials and another ingredient and the formula of how to put them together, he could save his own life. Her mother’s vials are potent, yes, but, out here, they’re too dangerous and unpredictable to be of use. They’re souvenirs.
How long can the mothers keep Partridge hidden? Long enough for Partridge’s father to die? This is the great hope—that Ellery Willux will die soon, and Partridge can take over from within the Dome itself. Sometimes Pressia feels like they’re all held in a state of waiting, knowing that something is bound to give, and only then will the future take shape.
Freedle flutters in the pocket of her sweater. She slips her hand inside and runs a finger down the robotic cicada’s back. “Shhh,” she whispers. “It’s okay.” She didn’t want to leave him in her small bedroom, alone. Or was it that she didn’t want to be alone?
“Perlo!” she calls. “Perlo!”
And, finally, she hears the boy. “Here! I’m here!” He scuttles over to her, weaving around survivors. “Did you finish it?”
Pressia kneels. “Let’s see if it fits.” She tucks the leather cuff around his upper arm, tightens it into place by the electrical-cord laces. His fused hand can make a tapping motion. She tells him to apply pressure to a small lever.
Perlo gives it a try. The pincer opens and then closes. “It works.” He opens and closes the pincer quickly again and again.
“It’s not perfect,” she says, “but it’ll help, I think.”
“Thank you!” He says it so loudly that he gets hushed by someone on the ground nearby. “Maybe you can make something for yourself,” he whispers, looking at the doll head. “I mean, maybe there’s something…”
She tilts the doll so its eyes blink—one is slightly gummed with ash and so it clicks more slowly, out of sync with the other. “I don’t think there’s anything that can be done for me,” she says. “But I get by.”
The boy’s mother whisper-calls for him. He whips around, raising the arm in the air triumphantly, and he darts off to show her.
And then there’s a far-off gunshot, its rippling report. Pressia crouches instinctively and reaches into her pocket to protect Freedle. She lifts him and holds him to her chest. Perlo’s mother pulls her son in close. Pressia knows it was probably an OSR soldier taking aim at shifting shadows. Errant gunshots aren’t unusual. But that doesn’t stop her chest from tightening around her heart. It’s Perlo and his mother and a gunshot—the mix of it all—and she remembers the weight of the gun in her arms, lifting the gun, taking aim, firing Even now her ears ring and she sees the bloody mist rising. It fills her vision. Red blooms before her eyes like the bursting flowers that shoot up in the rubble fields. She pulled the trigger, but now she can’t remember if it was the right thing to do. She can’t get it straight in her head. Her mother’s dead. Dead.
She walks quickly, sticking to the edges of the lobby, the posters stretching on and on. She cups Freedle gently. When she comes to a window, she looks out, tentatively.
Wind. Snow. The clouds like clods of ash scuttling across the sky, she can see one bright star—a rarity—and below it, the edge of the woods, the brittle trees huddled and stooped. She can make out the soldiers’ uniforms, and the occasional glint of a gun, the thin veils of their breath rising in the cold on the sloping hill. She sees her mother’s face lying on the forest floor and then it’s obliterated. Gone.
Beyond the soldiers, her eyes stutter through the trees. Is something out there—something that wants in? She imagines Special Forces hunkered down in the snow. Do they even need sleep? Are they, in part, cold-blooded, their skins covered in thin scrims of ice? It’s quiet, eerily so, but still there’s a certain coiled energy. It snowed three days ago—a fine dusting at first, it turned heavy—and now the lawn is iced, dark and glassy, in three inches or more and snow is still flitting down.
She feels someone grab hold of her elbow. She turns. It’s Bradwell, the double scars running up his cheek, his dark lashes, his full lips chapped by the cold. She looks at his hand, all ruddy and rough. His broad knuckles are scarred and beautiful. How can knuckles be beautiful? Pressia wonders. It’s like Bradwell invented them.
But it’s not like that between them anymore.
“Did you hear me calling you?” he says.
She feels like he’s talking to her from underwater. Once, while the farmhouse burned, she had the courage to make him promise to find a home for them, but that was only because she didn’t actually believe the moment would last. “What is it?”
“Are you okay? You look dazed.”
“I just had to get an arm to a boy, and there was a gunshot. But it was nothing.” She wouldn’t admit to seeing bright red bursting before her eyes any more than to her fear of falling in love with him. This is one thing Pressia knows is true: Everyone she’s ever loved has died. In light of that fact, how could she ever love Bradwell? She looks at him now and the words drum in her head: Don’t love him. Don’t love him.
“Have you been up all night?” he asks.
“Yes.” She notices his hair is standing up messily on his head. They both have the ability to disappear for days. Bradwell gets devoured by his obsession with the six Black Boxes that tunneled up from the char and rubble of the farmhouse and holes up for days on end in the old morgue, where he now lives in the headquarters’ basement. Pressia gets wrapped up in making the prosthetics. Bradwell is still bent on understanding the past, while she has devoted herself to helping people here and now. “Have you been up all night too?”
“Um, yes. I guess so. It’s morning?”
“Yeah, then I was. I had a breakthrough with one of the Black Boxes. One of them bit me.”
“Bit you?” Freedle flits nervously in her hand.
He shows her a small puncture wound on his thumb. “Not hard. Maybe just a warning. It likes me now, I think. It started following me around the morgue like a pet dog.” She starts walking down the hall, passing more of El Capitan’s recruitment posters, and Bradwell follows. “I’ve taken them all apart, put ’em back together. And they contain information about the past—as far as I can tell—but they aren’t wired to transmit. They aren’t spies for the Dome or anything like that, which I had to rule out. If they ever had those abilities, they’ve been lost.” Bradwell is on a tear, but Pressia isn’t interested in the Black Boxes. She’s tired of Bradwell’s desire to prove his parents’ Dome conspiracies right, his version of the truth, Shadow History, all of that. “And this one, I can’t explain it—this one is different. It’s like it knows me.”
“What did you do to make it bite you?”
“I was talking.”
“I don’t think you want to know.”
She stops and looks at him. He shoves his hands in his pockets. The birds in his back flutter their wings, agitated. “Of course I want to know. It’s how you unlocked the box, right? It’s important.”
He takes a deep breath and holds it for a moment. He looks at the floor and shrugs. “Okay, then,” he says, “I was rambling about you.”
She and Bradwell have never talked about what happened at the farmhouse. She remembers the way he held her, the feel of his lips on hers. But this kind of love can’t survive. Love’s a luxury. He looks at her now, his head bowed, his eyes locked on hers. She feels heat drill through her body. Don’t love him. She can’t even look at him. “Oh,” she says. “I see.”
“Nope, you don’t see. Not yet. Come with me.” He leads her down another hallway and then turns. And there, sitting by the door, waiting patiently, is a Black Box. It’s about the size of a small dog, actually—the kind her grandfather used to call a terrier, the kind that likes to kill rats.
“I told him to stay and he stayed,” Bradwell says. “This is Fignan.”
Freedle noses up from her palm to see for himself. “Does he know how to sit and shake hands?” Pressia asks.
“I think he knows a hell of a lot more than that.”
The root cellar smells like pooled rain water and mildew. Bright red mold spores dot the walls and dirt floor. The walls are lined with the mothers’ jars of strange vegetables pickling in vinegar. Mother Hestra, heavily armed, paces overhead. Each of her footsteps reminds him he’s locked underground. Sometimes, he feels like her footsteps are heartbeats and he’s trapped in the ribs of some enormous Beast.
He hasn’t seen Lyda in six days. Time is hard to measure while he’s alone and bent over the maps of the Dome he’s been making, with only a crack in a cellar door to measure the light of day occasionally interrupted by the skimpy meals the mothers deliver—pale broths, clods of white roots, and occasionally a bite-size cube of meat.
He tells himself that aboveground is no better—the wasted detritus of suburbia. But, by God, he feels trapped, and worse than the feeling of being trapped is the boredom. The mothers gave him an old lamp so he has enough light to work by, and they’ve supplied large sheets of paper, pencils, and plywood that he’s set on the floor and uses as a hard-top desk. He’s making maps, trying to recall all the details of the blueprints that he memorized to get out of the Dome, trying to get everything down as quickly as possible. But hour after hour, minute after minute, footstep overhead after footstep…the boredom becomes blinding.
The truth is he’s forced to rely on the mothers’ protection at least until he decides on a plan. Part of him wants to wait until his father dies. His father is weakening. Decades of brain enhancements have caused a palsy, and skin deterioration. Partridge’s mother told him these were the signs of Rapid Cell Degeneration. Soon, his father’s body will shut down, which might be the perfect time to return. The Dome would likely respect Partridge as his father’s legacy. His father has ruled like a monarch, after all.
But the other part of him would like to take down his father while he’s alive, defeat him for the right reasons. Don’t the people of the Dome deserve to know the truth about what his father did? If he can get that truth to them and explain that there’s another way to live—one in which they aren’t just sheep following his father’s orders, one in which they don’t see the survivors as evil wretches who deserve their fate—they’d choose it over his father’s reign. Partridge is sure of it.
He’s got to find time with Lyda to make a plan. It feels inevitable that they’ll go back, together.
Meanwhile, he focuses on finishing the maps, pushing through the solitary confinement, the blunt force of boredom, mold and spores, rationed food, and, stripped of all weapons, the awful feeling of needing the mothers, who treat him like a child and, at the same time, a dangerous criminal. They still consider him the enemy, especially because he comes from the Dome; he’s a Death—a man, but, worse, a man from the Dome—and can’t be trusted.
The mothers are interested in the maps, which is why they’ve given him supplies, but Partridge wants to get them to El Capitan. It’s the one gift Partridge has to give. They may never be of use; what are the chances El Capitan will ever form a viable army capable of taking down the Dome? Still, it’s something Partridge can contribute. As he works on the maps, he lets his mind drum over all the things his mother told him before she died. He’s written down every word he could recall; all of it feels embedded with information, coded.
He puts down his pencil, opens and closes his fist. His hand’s cramping, even his partially chopped-off pinky, which has healed to a shiny red nub. He rubs his fingers together, feeling the slickness of the waxy serum that the mothers recently had him bathe in, as preparation for an upcoming journey. The serum, extracted from a camphor tree and beeswax, is supposed to lock in his scent and mask it. His skin is stiff and shiny. There are reports that Special Forces have an excellent sense of smell, as do some of the other Beasts and Dusts. The mothers never let Partridge and Lyda stay in one place too long. They’re protective, yes, but also Mother Hestra told Partridge that they can’t risk Special Forces closing in on Partridge, putting them all in danger. Nomadic living is best.
He wonders if Lyda has been bathed in the serum too. He’s always afraid that, one day, she won’t come on the journey to the next place. So far she always has. He tries to imagine the feel of her skin encased in this waxiness.
Sitting on the dirt floor beside him is his mother’s metal music box, first found in her drawer in the Personal Loss Archives; Bradwell charred it in the butcher-shop basement. But he made sure that Partridge got it back. Bradwell’s more sentimental than Partridge thought, and when it comes to things your parents have left behind, Bradwell has a soft spot. Partridge has rubbed the soot from the music box, but the gears are still blackened. Because all its parts are metal it still works, though it’s off-key and a little muted now. It’s the only thing the mothers let him keep—maybe because they’re mothers themselves. He lifts the box, winds it, lets it play—the notes tinking in the close damp air. He misses his mother. He missed her for so much of his childhood, he’s gotten good at missing her. Maybe it’s why he’s so good at missing Lyda. Years of practice.
When the notes die out, he looks at this most recent map, a cross section of the Dome’s three upper tiers—Upper One, Upper Two, and Upper Three—and three subfloors called Sub One, Sub Two, and Sub Three, which include a section for the massive power generators. The ground floor is called Zero—home to the academy, where he spent most of his time.
He misses the academy with relentless longing. He shouldn’t want to be back in his dorm room, hanging out with Hastings, begging Arvin Weed for his notes, hoping to avoid the herd—a group of boys who pretty much hate him—but he does. He even misses his classes. He thinks of Glassings, his history teacher, in that moment he pulled him aside in the hallway outside the dance. Partridge was just about to steal the knife, so, in retrospect, it was the moment when he could have turned back, continued on with his familiar life.
That’s not how it went. Somehow he ended up here, powerless.
The irony is he has the vials, his mother’s life’s work—the vials are powerful. His father murdered for them—Pressia’s adoptive grandfather, as well as his father’s own oldest son and the woman his father supposedly loved, Partridge’s mother.
The vials remind him of what his mother wanted him to become—a revolutionary, a leader.
Partridge walks to the mothers’ pickled jars and picks one up, third from the corner. Under it there’s a narrow, deep hole, and a few beetles skitter away. He fits his hands down in and lifts a tightly wrapped bundle, lightly caked in moist dirt. He carries the bundle to his cot and unwraps his mother’s vials, four of them attached to syringes with hard plastic covers over the needles. After the farmhouse burned, Bradwell and El Capitan took them from his mother’s bunker, along with anything else that might be of use—computers, radios, medicine, supplies, guns, ammunition. Afterward, it seemed smart to split the group in two—El Capitan, Helmud, Bradwell, and Pressia went to headquarters; and Lyda, Partridge, and Illia with the mothers because they have the greatest ability to keep Partridge hidden and heavily guarded. If one group was found by Special Forces, at least the others could carry on. Bradwell and El Capitan took the bulk of his mother’s stuff, but Partridge hid the vials under his jacket.
He checks each vial. They’re cool to the touch. Partridge’s mother took Partridge to Japan as a baby at Partridge’s father’s urging, because the Japanese were ahead of everyone else in creating biomedical nanotechnology to repair trauma from detonations, in particular self-generating cells that would move into the body to repair it.
From a very young age, Partridge’s father used brain enhancements—so much so that he lit up his brain with firing synapses—and now he has the telltale signs of Rapid Cell Degeneration: the palsy and skin deterioration, and eventual organ failure and death. It’s not just him. Partridge remembers how, in the Dome, anyone who is sick, old, or weary is quickly whisked away to a cordoned-off wing of the medical center. In the last few weeks, he’s realized one very dark truth: Rapid Cell Degeneration will also eventually affect Special Forces and all the academy boys who’ve been enhanced, including, one day, Partridge himself.
Before his mother died, she told him that if what’s in these vials is paired with another substance as dictated by a formula—a formula that’s gone missing—then this concoction could reverse Rapid Cell Degeneration. At the time, he’d been too overwhelmed with emotions—he hadn’t seen his mother since he was a little boy—to fully grasp what she was telling him. But now, he wishes he’d been more clear-minded, more rational. He wishes he’d asked more questions.
His mother showed him a list of people within the Dome who were on her side, including Arvin Weed’s parents, Algrin Firth’s father, even Durand Glassings. They’re part of a network within the Dome. When Lyda was sent out of the Dome as bait to lure Partridge, one of the people in the network whispered a message to her: Tell the swan we’re waiting. When Partridge told his mother this, she whispered, “The Cygnus,” which he still doesn’t understand.
She told him that the liquid in these vials contains powerful cell-generating material. But also that the serum is unwieldy, imperfect, dangerous.
Holding up one of the vials to the dim light, he wants to know how, exactly, this liquid is unwieldy, imperfect, and dangerous. What would happen, for example, if it touched a living creature’s skin? He wants to test it. Once the idea is there in his head, there’s no talking himself out of it.
First, he needs something living to test the serum on.
He walks to the jars again and pulls one out quickly. Again, a few beetles dash off, but he cups his hand over one of them. It has a glossy green back and a bright red head spiked with thornlike horns. Its legs fan out, knotted, bristled with spikes. He holds it in place until he feels the beetle tickling up his fingers.
“Sorry,” he whispers to the beetle. “I really am.”
He carries it to the plywood, opens his mother’s music box, gently nudges it into the box, and closes the lid. He hears the beetle scratching within it. He wishes Arvin Weed, the boy genius of the academy, were here. God, Partridge regrets not paying attention in labs.
He picks up one of the syringes, uncaps it. The needle shines. He knows that this means he’ll waste a drop. Just one, he tells himself. Only that.
He upends the music box. The beetle starts skittering across the plywood, but he pinches it and holds it delicately in place.
While its legs scurry, getting nowhere, a sharp tail curls up from under its wings, revealing a swaying stinger. Its small, rounded black eyes seem wet. Partridge looks at the needle, starts to depress the stopper when he feels the sting. His finger and thumb poised on either side of the beetle’s shelled back are quickly covered with tiny prickles of searing heat. The burning moves up into his hand, and the shock of it causes him to shout, but he keeps his hold on the beetle.
As fast as he can, he moves the needle toward the beetle, but his hand feels so rigid with pain he has to let the beetle go. It clicks across the plywood, but not before a drop of liquid from the needle falls, landing—thick and wet—on one of its hind legs. The leg goes limp from the weighty trap of the liquid. The beetle drags itself forward.
The shout has alerted Mother Hestra. Her knuckles rap the cellar door. “What was that noise?”
“Nothing!” Partridge wraps the syringes, his burning hand blotched now, and he crawls to the jar, lifts it, and slides the bundled syringes in the hole. The beetle pulls itself under the plywood to darkness.
The cellar door opens wide with a clang. Mother Hestra is backlit, dimly.“What’s the noise down here?” she asks.
“It’s just a chant from the academy. It can get too quiet down here.” He rubs his burning hand but then stops. He doesn’t want any more questions.
Mother Hestra has a thick body. Her son, Syden, a five-year-old, is permanently fused to her leg. She’s wearing furs stitched together and fitted to the shape of her body with a hole for the boy’s blotched head, just above her hip. Most of the mothers are Groupies, fused to children, and Partridge has never gotten used to it. During the Detonations, the mothers were holding their children or protecting them from the bright flashes, bent to them, tending to them. Partridge can’t quite imagine being stunted in that form, never growing up, always locked into place within the confines of your mother’s body. Syden’s face has begun to age. Will he grow old like this?
Mother Hestra glares at Partridge. One of her cheeks is seared with words—a backward script burned into her skin during the Detonations—the impression of a blackened tattoo. Partridge doesn’t let himself stare at it long enough to try to read it. He doesn’t want to be rude. “Well, stop with all that,” she says.
“I was just going to sleep anyway.”
“Good. We leave in the morning. I’ll call on you early.”
“Lyda and Illia are coming too?” He’d rather not have Illia coming along. She’s crazy. He can’t fault her. She was locked away in the farmhouse, abused by her husband, forced to hide her scars beneath a stocking made to look like a second skin. Recently, she’s reverted to wrapping herself in swathes of cloth—because she’s ashamed of her skin? Or is it simply a habit? She murdered her husband—a scalpel to the back, and it messed her up good. Lyda is the only one he wants to see. Lyda.
“Lyda, yes. Illia? I don’t know,” Mother Hestra says.
“Where are we going?” Partridge asks.
“Can’t say.” And with that, she heaves herself out of view. The cellar door slams shut. For a second, Partridge is blinded by the news. No more confinement. He’ll see Lyda tomorrow. Everything will be different, soon; it’s coming. He can feel it. God, he misses her.
That’s when he hears the rasp, low and heavy. And then there’s a noise like a shovel in dirt. But that’s not it either—a thick scraping noise.
He’s feels like he’s not alone.
His mother’s music box lies in the dirt. He reaches for it and sees a long black talon, on a thin spoke—the leg of an insect—a massive insect—sticking out from under the plywood. It’s too big to be the beetle’s leg. Still there’s rasping.
He puts his hand on the plywood and begins to lift it. The leg crimps, disappears from view.
He takes a breath and yanks the plywood so hard it flips over; he forgets he’s been coded with extra strength sometimes.
There’s the beetle. Its tail clicking against its own shell, its wings convulsing wildly and uselessly, rasping as it struggles for breath.
It has one spiny, thick, massive leg.
The liquid in the vial worked. The cells of its leg weren’t injured, and so, with incredible speed, the cells didn’t repair trauma, they built on healthy tissue and bone; even the ornate spikes on this one hind leg have ordered themselves perfectly. And, for some reason, this seems familiar to him—the delicacy of rebuilding a small limb? Has he ever heard of something like it before?
Partridge doesn’t want to touch it. His hand still tingles with heat. Unwieldy, imperfect, dangerous. That’s what his mother called the serum. The beetle’s leg jerks uncontrollably, gouging a claw mark in the dirt.
And Partridge feels a strange rush of power. He made this happen with one tiny drop of liquid. His head pounds and his ears ring, and he thinks of his father’s power. What did the old man feel when the Detonations hit—blast after blast of bright blinding light pulsing around the earth?
My God, Partridge thinks. What if Partridge’s father loved the power of it all? What if it made him feel like he was lit up? What if it felt like this infinitesimal moment expanded exponentially, infinitely, inside of him?
The beetle’s wings fold in tightly to its body. The leg spasms a few more times, and then the beetle digs its powerful leg into the dirt like a knife and pushes itself up. Its small legs dart beneath it, and the massive leg contracts, then extends. The beetle springs into the air and flaps its wings. The leg is too heavy for the wings to support. It falls to the ground, but the massive leg is there to soften the landing. It contracts again, springs forward, flaps, lands, contracts, springs forward…
The beetle is no longer what it was moments ago.
It’s a new species.
It’s been snowing off and on, and now it’s started up again. Snow shudders down from the sky, lightly drifting between the dark trees and scrub, settling on gnarled boughs. Many of the limbs have grown thick coats of fur this cold autumn. El Capitan runs his fingers up the spindly limb of a sapling, and there it is—not a fuzzy coating of something plantlike. No, this is the downy fur you’d find on the belly of a young cat. “One day they’ll grow legs and walk off,” he says to his brother, Helmud, the weight forever rooted to his back.
“Walk off,” Helmud whispers. He looks out over one of El Capitan’s shoulders then bobs to the other. He seems anxious today.
“Stop shifting around,” El Capitan orders.
“Shifting around,” Helmud says.
El Capitan has given Helmud things to keep his hands busy. Helmud has always had nervous hands. Used to be that his brother was secretly fashioning a lariat to kill El Capitan, but then Helmud saved El Capitan’s life. After that, El Capitan decided that he had to trust Helmud. He had no choice. To keep his hands busy, El Capitan gave Helmud a little penknife and things to whittle. “You sure you want to do that?” Bradwell asked him once. El Capitan said, “Of course I’m sure. He’s my brother!” But the knife might just be a test, as if he’s saying, Go ahead. You want to kill me? You sure? I’ll make it easy. Sometimes when El Capitan leans forward, a small flurry of wood chips flutters to the ground. Helmud is whittling today, quite madly.
El Capitan sits down on the large root of a tree and sets his rifle at his boots. They left without breakfast and now he’s hungry. From a sheet of waxed paper, he unwraps a sandwich made of bread heels. He prefers the heels—the extra toughness in his teeth. He says to Helmud, “Time to eat, brother.”
El Capitan is used to Helmud’s constant repetitions; usually they’re just a dim-witted echo. Sometimes, though, the words mean something. And this time, Helmud repeats the phrase slightly differently. “Time to eat brother,” he says, as if Helmud intends to devour El Capitan. It’s a little joke, meant to keep El Capitan on his toes.
“Now, now,” El Capitan says, “is that nice, Helmud? Is it?”
“Is it?” Helmud says.
“I shouldn’t even share this sandwich with you. You know that?” Before they’d gotten involved with Pressia, El Capitan wouldn’t have shared, but he’s changed some. He feels it throughout his body, as if change happens cell by cell. He wonders if Helmud notices the change too, since they share so many cells. It’s not that he’s gotten sweet all of a sudden. No, El Capitan still feels a near-constant, fiery rage in his chest. But it’s more about having a purpose, that there’s something worth protecting. Is it Pressia herself?
Maybe it starts with her, but, no, it’s larger than that.
El Capitan rips off a hunk of the bread and the small wedge of meat between the heels. He hands it to Helmud. He has to share with Helmud. Their hearts pump with shared blood, and if El Capitan is going to help bring down the Dome—and he’d like to live to see that day—he needs Helmud on his side and healthy. Being cruel to Helmud is the same as being cruel to himself. And maybe that’s it. El Capitan hated himself plenty before he met Pressia, but that’s eased up a little. He thought of himself as an abandoned kid. First abandoned by his father—some pilot kicked out of the air force for going mental. El Capitan tried to be like him—figuring out everything he could about flying jets—as if that could make him worthy of a father. Then his mother died. It seemed he wasn’t worthy of having parents at all. He went a little mental himself, but he doesn’t have to get stuck that way. Right? Pressia sees something worthwhile in him, and she could be right. “See how nice I am?” he says to Helmud.
“Nice I am,” Helmud says.
El Capitan set out earlier this morning to follow the electrical pulses. He doesn’t like the way they seem to be circling closer to headquarters. They’ve been eluding him. But now he’s sure he senses something. Although he can’t read the pulses, he can tell when they’re moving at a higher rate, which means that one of them has sent out a call of some sort and the others are responding.
He folds a cloth over the remains of the sandwiches, shoves them in his sack, and heads toward the pulses. He sees a set of tracks in the snow—each footprint crisscrossed with treading. A few figures darting up ahead in the distance. He follows at a respectful distance.
He comes to a clearing and stops. A few Special Forces cluster. They’re beautiful and strong—almost majestic. Some are bulky, others sinewy. They seem unaffected by cold, as if their thin second skins are regulated to insulate them. They have a profound sense of smell. One lifts his head and tenses his nostrils, smelling El Capitan and Helmud, and then he locks eyes with El Capitan, who doesn’t move but doesn’t stiffen either. He doesn’t want to seem fearful.
He’s noticed over the last few weeks that this new group isn’t as robust as the ones he and Helmud battled in the woods alongside Bradwell and Lyda. They seem not as fully formed, as if the changes to their bodies were rushed. They’re not as agile. They sometimes lurch. They seem less comfortable with the weapons locked into their arms. When they cluster like this, it’s like they need one another, a closeness—the way humans do.
The other three creatures also look at Helmud and El Capitan, alerted in some unseen way by the first. They never say a word to him, though he knows they can speak. It’s as if they accept his presence as part of the environment, as they do the sharp scree-scree of an occasional wing-warped bird with a metal beak or the humanlike child-cry of an animal caught in one of El Capitan’s traps. They aren’t looking for him. That’s not why they’re here. They want Partridge, El Capitan is sure of it, and he’s afraid they might be attuned to Pressia too—she shares a bloodline with her brother and she could be of use to the Dome, particularly to draw Partridge in.
El Capitan would like to talk to them. He knows their loyalty to the Dome is programmed, but there was one who went rogue when they fought near the bunker, Partridge’s brother, Sedge. They’re human, on the most buried level. He feels that one small connection would help. He’s been waiting for the right moment.
He walks out from the trees and kneels down in the snow, the cold and wet seeping through his pants. He opens his arms, a gesture of supplication. He lowers his head, a bow of sorts.
He hears the scuttling of footsteps, the snapping of branches. He looks up and they’re gone.
He sits back on his heels. “Shit.”
“Shit,” Helmud says.
“Don’t talk that way,” he says to his brother. “It’s a bad habit.”
He stands up, but then hears a sound behind him. He slowly pulls his rifle around to his chest. He turns.
A solitary Special Forces creature stands in the middle of the path not more than twenty feet away. El Capitan has never seen him before. He isn’t sending out any low pulses, which reverberate off other Special Forces in the area. Interesting. Maybe he doesn’t want anyone else to know where he is.
He’s tall and the thinnest Special Forces soldier El Capitan has seen. In fact, his face still holds on to its humanness—and not just in the eyes, which always seem human in Special Forces, but also in the delicacy of his jaw and small nose and nostrils. His shoulders and thighs are strong but not hulking. He has two weapons embedded in his forearms, still shiny with polish—never used.
This one is very new.
He eyes El Capitan warily.
El Capitan raises his hands slowly. “Listen, let’s take this easy and calm.”
“Calm,” Helmud says, whittling nervously behind El Capitan’s back.
“What do you want?” El Capitan says.
The creature cocks his head, sniffs the air.
“You want something to eat? If I’d known you were coming, I’d have packed more.”
The creature shakes his head. He leans down, clearing dead leaves from the path, exposing the bare, ashen dirt. He stands, then lifts his foot. One thick dagger pops from the boot’s toe. El Capitan flinches, wondering if he’s going to get gutted, but then the creature sticks the dagger into the dirt, raises his chin, looking out through the trees, and starts to claw out a word. El Capitan is fairly sure that the creature’s eyes and ears are bugged—as Pressia’s once were. He’s played this game before. The creature wants to tell him something without recording it.
Beneath the word, the creature seems to draw some kind of symbol.
It’s all too far away to read. Plus, it’s upside down.
The creature backs away, takes a few leaps into the woods, then jumps, gripping the girth of a tree—its top half gone and its pulp dug out by bugs.
El Capitan takes a tentative step forward. He looks at the creature, who is still staring off into the trees. El Capitan walks around the word and reads it to himself—hastings. Is it a name? A place? He thinks of the word battle. Doesn’t Hastings have to do with war somehow? El Capitan knows not to say the word aloud. He stares at the symbol. It’s a cross, which is the way the Dome ended its Message—just after the Detonations—on small slips of paper that fell down from the sky. A cross with a circle around the center.
“I don’t know what he wants from me,” El Capitan says to Helmud.
The soldier leaps from the tree and starts to run. But then he pauses.
“He wants us to follow,” El Capitan says.
“Follow,” Helmud says.
El Capitan nods and follows the soldier through the woods for almost a mile, keeping a brisk pace. Finally he comes to a clearing that overlooks the city, or what used to be the city. From this height, it’s easy to see how it’s been reduced to Rubble Fields, black markets, hulls of old buildings, a grid of alleys, and nameless streets.
El Capitan looks around for the soldier. He’s gone. El Capitan is breathless. Helmud’s heart is beating fast too, but maybe only because El Capitan’s heart has pumped the blood so hard. “Damn it,” El Capitan mutters. “Why’d he bring me here?”
“Bring me here,” Helmud says.
El Capitan can see the Dome too, the white curve of it on the distant hill, its cross glinting through the ashen sky. “Did he think I didn’t know where he came from?” He rubs his eyes with his knuckles.
“Where he came from,” Helmud says, and he points out across the barren, near-desert land that surrounds the Dome to a clump of people dragging timber and arranging it on the iced ground.
“Some crazies trying to build something out in front of the Dome?”
“In front of the Dome?” Helmud repeats.
Why in front of the Dome? Is this what the soldier wanted him to see? If so, why? El Capitan watches the way the people move. They’re organized, shuttling things along like ants in ordered rows. “I don’t like it,” he says. “Almost looks like they’re going to try to build a fire.”
“Fire,” Helmud says.
El Capitan looks up at the Dome. “Why the hell would they do that?”
The morgue is cold and bare with one long steel table. Since the last time she was here, a couple of weeks ago, Bradwell has spread out even more papers and books. Portions of his parents’ unfinished manuscript are arranged in piles. On the wall, Bradwell has taped the Message, an original her grandfather kept for years. She gave it to Bradwell after he went back to the barbershop to pick up what was left. He’s the archivist, after all.
We know you are here, our brothers and sisters.
We will, one day, emerge from the Dome
to join you in peace.
For now, we watch from afar, benevolently.
When the Message first fell from the hull of an airship to the ground in the days after the Detonations, it must have felt like a promise. Now it feels like a threat.
Bradwell slides a heavy bar across the door—a handmade lock bolted to the wall.
“Nice place you’ve got here,” she says.
He walks to his pallet and straightens the covers. “No complaints.”
Pressia moves to the table and picks up the bell she gave him in the farmhouse. She found it in the burned-out barbershop just before she left home. It has no clapper. It sits on a news clipping that must have survived the Detonations, probably in Bradwell’s parents’ footlocker. It’s not as ashen and charred as some of the other documents. He’s taken good care of it. Bradwell has always taken care of the things from the past. After his parents were murdered before the Detonations—shot in their beds—Bradwell found their footlocker, which was sealed off in a hidden, reinforced room. It was filled with his parents’ unfinished work, trying to take down Willux, as well as things Bradwell has preserved—old magazines, newspapers, packaging. The footlocker is shoved under a rusty stainless-steel sink. The bell hides part of the headline. The rest reads: drowning ruled accident. There’s a photograph of a young man in uniform, stone-faced, staring into the camera. Bradwell is using the bell as a paperweight. Is that all it means to him?
Pressia checks on Freedle. She lifts him from her pocket and sets him on the table. His eyes blink open and he looks around.
The Black Box motors past her feet. “It is kind of like a pet dog,” Pressia says. “You’re right.”
“I had a dog once,” Bradwell says.
“You never told me that.”
“I told Partridge when we were looking for you out in the Meltlands. A friend of the family, Art Walrond, talked my parents into giving me a dog. He told them that an only child needs a dog. I named the dog Art Walrond.”
“Weird name for a dog.”
“I was a weird kid.”
“But when Art Walrond, friend of the family, and Art Walrond, family dog, were both in the room at the same time, and you said, ‘Sit down, Art Walrond,’ which one would sit?”
“Is that a philosophical question?”
“Maybe.” And it feels almost okay again between them. Maybe they can be friends, the kind who banter back and forth.
He reaches down and pats the Black Box on the head like it’s a dog. “It’s not quite the way I remember it.” She’d like to imagine him as a kid with a dog, weird and all. She’d like to know about herself as a child too. She spent most of her childhood trying to remember things that never happened, the life her grandfather invented for her. But he wasn’t even her grandfather; he was a stranger who rescued her and made her his own. Was this lie hard for him? Maybe he’d had a wife and children who died and she was supposed to stand in for these losses. He’s gone now, so she’ll never know.
If the Detonations hadn’t ever happened, she’d have liked to have met Bradwell—a reality in which there are no doll-head fists or scars or embedded birds, before all the losses. They might have had a first kiss under mistletoe—something her grandfather once told her about.
On the other side of the table, the room extends with three rows of what look like small square doors, three deep on one wall—nine total. She walks up to them, curiously. She touches one of the handles.
“That’s where they kept the bodies,” Bradwell says. “And the metal table was used for autopsies.”
The dead. Pressia imagines her mother’s face—there and then gone. She draws her hand away from the drawers and looks at the far wall, its broken cinder block cracked through with dirt pushing in on the other side.“It’s a morgue. Of course they stored dead bodies here,” she says, more to herself than to him.
“And they still do every once in a while.”
She tries to lighten things. “I guess that would be like having a roommate.”
“Kind of,” Bradwell says. “I’ve had only one so far.”
“A kid who died out in the woods,” Bradwell says. “Do you want to meet him?”
It’s like an intruder has suddenly appeared. “He’s here now?”
“Soldiers on patrol found him. Cap brought the body here. He wants to know what killed the boy. And they’re trying to find the family to come identify the body.”
“What if he doesn’t have family?”
“I guess it’ll be a fresh recruit’s job to bury him.” He pulls one of the handles. She expects to see the boy’s body. “A morgue also happens to be the perfect place to lock up Black Boxes.” As the long slab slides out, she sees it’s filled with the other five Black Boxes. They’re still, their lights off. Each has a piece of paper covered with notes taped to the slab. Each note has a heading; he’s named the boxes—Alfie, Barb, Champ, Dickens, Elderberry, alphabetical order. Fignan’s on the floor, buzzing close to Bradwell’s heels. Freedle flutters from the table and flaps around Fignan. A camera lens on a small arm extends from the top of the box and seems to take footage of Freedle in flight.
“Did you have to name them?”
“Easier to talk with them if they have names. I grew up alone. I can strike up a conversation with anything,” he says. With that, Pressia glimpses his childhood. At ten, he lived alone in the basement of a butcher shop and fended for himself. It was lonesome. How could it not have been? “It doesn’t really matter what I’ve named them, though. These five are all identical inside, designed to withstand extreme heat, pressure, radiation. They have this series of plugs.” He picks up one of the boxes and shows Pressia the small holes that the plugs revealed. “I wedged the plugs off with the help of one of Cap’s rigged-up blowtorches and then…” He picks up three pieces of wire and, simultaneously, fits them into the holes, a delicate operation. “There you go.” The Black Box’s lid is pulled back with a buzzing sound, and there inside is something red, oval, and made of heavy metal.
“What is it?”
“It’s where all the information is stored. It’s the brain. It responds to simple commands,” he says. “Open egg.”
The red egg hums. Small sliding metal doors retract, revealing chips, wires, a vast network of synaptic-like connections.
“This is its brain. A thing of beauty.” He picks up the red egg, turns it in his hand. “It holds an entire library of data.”
“Libraries,” Pressia says, awed. “They were buildings that housed books, room after room of books, and they had people who tended to the books.”
“I’ve heard of them.” The concept is hard to fathom. “And you could take the books home if you promised to bring them back.”
“Exactly,” Bradwell says. “I had a library card as a kid. My name typed up next to my picture.” He looks wistful for a second. Pressia’s jealous of the memory. She built a childhood from the things her grandfather told her, and now she has to dismantle that world, to un-remember. She wishes she could recall something as simple as a library card with her name and picture. She thinks of her real name. Emi—two sounds that hum for that brief second in her lips. Brigid—like a bridge spanning a wide cold lake. Imanaka—the sound of sticks being struck together. Who was Emi Brigid Imanaka supposed to become?
Maybe that version of herself—Emi—could have fallen helplessly in love with Bradwell. She can’t, not when it seems to guarantee losing him.
Bradwell turns his attention back to the boxes. “I had to open the box to activate the egg, but now it can sit inside the Black Box and answer any question you can dream up.” He puts the egg back into the Black Box. “Close.” The egg seals itself up and the box locks into place around it.
“What did you ask it?”
“First, I asked it what it was.”
He leans over the box. “What are you?”
A series of clicks rattle up from its center, and a mechanical, camera-like eyeball appears from its top. A beam of light shoots up above the eyeball, and an image of the egg itself appears and turns in the air. A young man’s voice recites a brief history of recording devices, including Black Boxes, which were usually painted red or orange for easy recognition at a crash site. “This box is part of a series of identical Black Boxes, a government-sanctioned and federally funded project to record cultural history and data in the case of a holocaust—nuclear or otherwise.” It gives the specific measurements of its aluminum housing, high-temperature insulation, stainless-steel shell, and radiation-resistant nanotechnology tubing.
“Wow,” Pressia says.
“They contain images of art and movies, science, history, pop culture,” Bradwell says. “Everything.”
The idea of everything makes her feel almost light-headed. “The Before,” Pressia says, awed.
“They contain a version of the Before. A digitized, cleaned-up version. Information isn’t necessarily the truth.”
“My grandfather explained how the universe worked by rotating rocks in circles on the floor—the sun, planets, stars. He pretended to know things, because when he didn’t, he could tell it made me nervous.”
“What is the universe?” Bradwell asks the Black Box.
Another widening beam of light shows planets and moons orbiting the sun, constellations dotting the air. Pressia reaches for a moon, expecting to nudge it, but her fingers glide through it. Freedle flutters up through the image too, then lands on his pronged feet and gazes at it, confused. “This was what my grandfather was trying to explain. The universe.”
“Pretty hard to capture with rocks on the ground.”
Pressia feels lost. There’s so much she doesn’t know, can’t even imagine. “It’s amazing! The amount of information we can have access to. It can really change people’s lives. We’ll have access to medical information, technology, science. We’ll be able to make a real difference.”
“It’s more than that, Pressia.”
“What do you mean? How can it be more than everything?”
“These boxes know only what they’ve been fed, and all of them were put on the same diet. Except Fignan. He’s different.” Bradwell picks up the Black Box at his feet. “Each of these boxes has a serial code on the bottom. But Fignan has only a copyright symbol.” He flips it over, showing her a circle around a crude three-line C.
Pressia runs her finger over it. “What’s a copyright?”
“It’s a symbol to show ownership. It was widely used in the Before, but was usually followed by a year. This one isn’t.”
Pressia gives the box a quarter turn. “It could also be a U in a circle.” She turns it again, halfway this time. “Or an unfinished square or a table.”
“Black Boxes aren’t just boxes that happen to be black. They’re the name of anything—a device or process—that’s thought of in terms of input and output, when you can’t see how it’s being processed, what’s going on inside. A white box or a glass box, those are things where you can put information in and you can see what happens to it.”
“The Dome is a Black Box,” Pressia says.
“From our perspective, it is,” Bradwell says. “And so is the human brain.”
And so are you, she thinks. And so am I. She wonders if two human beings can ever be white boxes for each other.
He puts Fignan on the table. “Fignan is an impostor. He’s supposed to fit in, but he was made with a different audience in mind. But he won’t just hand that information over to anybody. Some word made him light up and then he talked to me.” He puts his hands in his pockets and lowers his head. “Should I recite what I was saying? About you? I mean, it’s just us trying to figure this out. Nothing more than that, right?”
“Right.” She wants to stall. “But first, it lit up and talked to you. What did it say?”
“It said seven.”
“The number seven?”
“It said seven over and over and then it stopped and beeped as if waiting for a response while seconds were ticking off a clock, and then it stopped. Time’s up, like a game show.”
“A game show?” she asks. She knows that this is a reference to the Before, but she can’t place it.
“You know, TV shows where people answered questions asked by a host who had a microphone and prizes like sets of luggage and Jet Skis, while the audience shouted things at them and clapped wildly. There was one where they gave electric shocks when the contestants answered wrong. People loved it.”
“Right, game shows,” she says, as if she remembers them. What’s a Jet Ski? “But why do we care if this one box opens up or not? We have everything we could possibly want from the other five!”
“Fignan holds secrets,” Bradwell says. “He was programmed to guard them carefully.”
Pressia shakes her head. “This is about uncovering the truth, the past, more lessons in Shadow History? Don’t you know enough already?”
“Of course I don’t know enough! How many times do I have to tell you that we have to fully understand the past or we’re doomed to repeat it? And if we can understand Willux, the enemy, then—”
Pressia is furious. “We can improve people’s lives with what’s in these boxes, but you have to go after the mystery, the holdout? Okay, fine. So do it again. Make him do the game-show thing again.”
Bradwell shakes his head and runs his hands through his hair. “That’s just it. I don’t remember what I said exactly. Maybe I should retrace my verbal steps. You sure you’re okay with that?”
“Of course.” Is he needling her?
“Well, I was…rambling…about you. It was the middle of the night, and I was, well, describing you…I was talking about what you looked like—your dark eyes, the shape of them, and how they look like liquid sometimes, and I was talking about the shine of your hair, and the burn around one of your eyes. I mentioned your hand, the lost one, but that it’s not really gone, that it exists inside the doll, that the doll is as much a part of you as anything else.”
Pressia’s cheeks flush. Why would he talk about her scars, her deformity? If he were in love, wouldn’t his vision erase her flaws? Wouldn’t he see only the best version of her? She turns away from him and looks at the rows of boxes. Their lights blink dimly, small twinkling repetitions.
He says, “I might have mentioned your lips.”
The room is quiet now.
The flush in her cheeks spreads across her chest. She pinches the swan pendant and twists it nervously. “Okay, so it said seven. Why do we care? Let’s concentrate on the good boxes. Let it keep its secrets.”
Bradwell walks up to her and lightly cups her wrist. He stares at the necklace. His hand rough but warm. “Wait,” he says. “I also mentioned the necklace, how the pendant sits right in the dip between your two collarbones. The swan pendant.”
The Black Box lights up. It beeps a short punctuated alarm, and says, “Seven, seven, seven, seven, seven, seven, seven.” They both stare at it, startled. The beeping continues as the clock ticks down, and then it goes silent.
“This has to do with my mother,” Pressia says. Her mother told her a lot of things that Pressia didn’t understand. She spoke quickly, almost in a kind of shorthand. Pressia didn’t ask her to clarify because she assumed there would be time later to hear everything she needed to know. But she does remember her mother talking about the importance of the swan as a symbol and the Seven. “The Best and the Brightest,” Pressia says. “It was a large, important program, recruiting the smartest kids they could find. And from that group, they made another, more elite group of twenty-two—and, from that, Willux formed an inner seven. This was when they were our age. Early on.”
“The Seven,” he says.
“The swan was their symbol.” Fignan starts up again. “Remember, I told you that they got tattoos, when they were all still together and young and idealistic, a row of six pulsing tattoos that ran over their own hearts, which was the seventh pulse.” Three of the pulsing heartbeats had stopped, but not her father’s. Pressia knows she should be content that he survived. She shouldn’t long to see him, but she can’t stop herself from longing. Sometimes all she wants is to get out, to search for him. Even now, the thought of it makes her heart pound with extra beats, like the pulsing tattoos themselves.
Bradwell, El Capitan, and Partridge latched on to the idea of heartbeats still pulsing. It meant that other survivors, maybe other civilizations, exist beyond the Deadlands. But how far? For Pressia, it’s personal.
She walks back to the box, leans down, and stares at it. “Swan,” she says and it starts up again, repeating the word seven, seven times, then beeping. “It’s asking us for a password—or seven of them.”
“Do you know their names?” Bradwell asks.
She shakes her head. “Not all of them.”
“Swan,” Bradwell says.
The Black Box says seven again and when it’s done and the beeping starts, Bradwell says, “Ellery Willux.” A green light blinks from a row of lights near the camera eye. “Aribelle Cording.” Another green light sparks.
“Hideki Imanaka,” Pressia says, and it accepts this name too. She’s said her father’s name aloud so few times that this small green light feels like an affirmation. He truly exists. He is her father. She feels hopeful in a way she hasn’t in a long time.
“And the others?” Bradwell asks.
She shakes her head. “Caruso would have helped. He would have known.” Caruso lived in the bunker with her mother. When Bradwell and El Capitan went back to the bunker after the farmhouse burned, they thought they’d talk him into coming with them. But he’d killed himself. Bradwell never said how he did it, and Pressia didn’t ask. “I wish he’d known how much he could have helped us. If he’d known, maybe he wouldn’t have…”
“Was Caruso one of them?” Bradwell asks.
“Try to remember,” Bradwell says.
“I can’t remember!” She squeezes her forehead. “I don’t even know that she said all the names.” Her mind is blank except for the image of her mother’s death—her skull, the mist of blood.
“If we can get these passwords, who knows what we’ll have access to?”
“No!” She’s angry now. “We have to focus on what we can do here, now, today, for these people. They’re suffering. They need help. If we let ourselves get pulled into the past, we’re turning our backs on the survivors.”
“The past?” Bradwell is furious. “The past isn’t just the past. It’s the truth! The Dome has to be held accountable for what they did to the world. The truth has to be known.”
“Why? Why do we have to keep fighting the Dome?” Pressia has given up on the truth. “What could the truth possibly matter when there’s all this suffering and loss?”
“Pressia,” Bradwell says, his voice going soft. “My parents died trying to get at the truth!”
“My mother’s dead too. And I have to let her go.” She walks up to Bradwell. “Let your parents go.”
He walks down the rows and stops in front of the drawer at the end. “You should see the dead boy.”
He grips a chest-high handle. “I want you to see him.”
She takes a deep breath. He pulls the handle, and the slab slides out. She walks to his side.
The boy is about fifteen years old, bare chested, his lower half wrapped in a sheet. His skin has turned the color of a dark bruise, his lips purpled as if he’d eaten blackberries. His hands are curled up around his neck, twisted claws, and one foot pokes out of the bottom of the sheet. He has short, dark hair. What’s most striking is that embedded in his bare chest is a silver bar that stretches from one side of his ribs to the other. He was a little kid when the Detonations hit, a kid on a tricycle. The handlebars are mottled with rust. They curve around him like an extra pair of ribs. His skin attached to the metal is thin, almost like webbing.
Pressia closes her eyes. She wraps her arms around her own ribs. “What happened to him?”
“No one knows.” Bradwell pulls up the bottom of the sheet. The boy has only one leg. The other is newly gone. The rupture is so jagged with exposed bone that Pressia gasps. “The leg exploded,” Bradwell says, “and he bled to death.” He walks to a counter near the sink, picks up a small cardboard box, and brings it to Pressia. The only thing she can imagine is a human heart, still beating.
He lifts the lid. The box is filled with scraps of metal and plastic. One piece has a metal joint connecting two smaller pieces of broken metal—each about an inch long. Bradwell says, “This stuff was found near his body. Some shards were still embedded in what was left of the flesh on his leg.”
“What was it?”
“We don’t know.” He closes the lid on the box and looks at the dead boy. “The Dome did this. They aren’t going away. Special Forces are only becoming more aggressive, hungrier. I’m not turning my back on anybody, Pressia. We have to find a way to push back.”
The room is airy with nothing in it but two large metal industrial-looking tubs and two chairs, lit by the dusky sunlight illuminating the battered windows. They’ve been bathing at night, but they were on lockdown during the last dark hours. Special Forces were buzzing nearby, so the baths were delayed.
Illia was let into the room first because she can’t be naked in front of anyone. She doesn’t even like to bare her face, which is now draped in gray cloth as she reclines in one of the tubs. As Lyda is led in, Illia says, “You’re here,”
“And so are you,” Lyda says, and she means not just here physically but emotionally too. The baths were first a recommendation for Illia. The ash of the Meltlands has collected in her lung pockets, the mothers fear, and bacteria has taken root. Illia needs rest and special care.
But then five nights ago, in these tubs, something miraculous happened. Illia, who’d been so vacant and silent, came to, like a fever broke. She started telling Lyda stories, odd, nameless, placeless stories about the woman and the man, myths or memories, perhaps from her own childhood.
Lyda told Mother Hestra about Illia’s breakthrough, and Mother Hestra called it a healing. Lyda loves this. They never used the word healing in the rehabilitation center. Unlike her own mother, the mothers here are fierce but also fiercely loving. Ironically, for the first time in her life, she feels protected in a way that she never did within the protective bubble of the Dome.
Each day since the healing, they’ve bathed in the hope that it would continue. And it has. During the day, Illia is a dimmed light, coughing in a private room, but the bath changes her.
“Yours is not water tonight,” Illia says. Her voice is meek and soft, a little hoarse from disuse. “It’s something else.”
One of the mothers told Lyda that she needed to go all the way under. “The serum must cover every inch of your skin, every hair on your head.” The air smells syrupy and medicinal. Lyda takes off her cape and hangs it on the back of a chair. She dips her fingers in the warm, cloudy bath. They turn slick and dry quickly, leaving a strange film.
“They say it’ll mask the human scent,” Illia says. “Safer for traveling tomorrow.”
“How does it feel?”
“Mine is water. I can’t go and I don’t want to.”
“Neither do I!” Lyda wants to see Partridge, desperately, but she likes it here. They’ve started her on combat training and hunting. Her muscles have grown strong. Her aim is good. She’s learned to lie in wait silently. It’s dangerous, but strangely peaceful. Even now, undressing, she isn’t bashful like she was in the girls’ academy locker room. She feels like she’s in her skin, and that’s good. She folds her clothes on the chair and climbs over the edge of the tub, lowering herself into the strange mixture.
“I’d prefer to die here,” Illia says.
“You’re sick, not dying.” Lyda doesn’t want to talk about death. In the Dome, it was rarely mentioned. The word itself wasn’t appropriate. Lyda’s father was escorted to the medical center, the quarantined wing, at the first sign of sickness, and she never saw him again. Disease and death are shameful, and she wonders now if her father, like Willux, had taken some enhancements that had started to wear him down. Your father has passed on, her mother told her. Passed on.
“Tell me a story! I look forward to them all day.” This is a half-truth. The stories also scare Lyda. There’s something doomed about the telling—it’s not a story that’s going to end well.
“You told me last time that the woman worked as the keeper of knowledge in the quiet place, and the man came to her and asked her to protect the seed of truth, a seed that would grow in the next world to come. What’s next?”
“Did I tell you that the woman fell in love with the man?”
“Yes. You said it was like her heart was spinning.” Lyda understands. She feels this way when she thinks of Partridge, especially when she imagines him kissing her.
“Did I tell you that the man loved her?”
“Yes. That’s where we left off. He wanted to marry her.”
She shakes her head. “He can’t marry her.”
“He’s going to die.”
“And she can’t die with him. She has to survive because she’s the keeper of knowledge, she has the seed of truth. It holds secrets.”
“What kind of secrets?”
“Secrets that could save them all.”
Is the story true? Is it set during the Before? “And how does he die?”
“He’s dead. And she dies inside.”
“What happens to the seed of truth?” Lyda feels anxious. She tells herself that it’s only a story, but she’s not sure she believes that.
“She marries someone who is chosen to survive so the seed of truth can live. She marries a man who has connections. The End is coming.”
A chill runs through Lyda. Illia is talking about herself. The man who has connections must be, in fact, Ingership—Illia’s husband, the one she killed. If Lyda brings up Ingership by name, she fears that Illia will retreat again. Isn’t she telling the story this way because she can’t face the truth of it, which is why it’s healing? “Tell me about the End,” Lyda whispers.
“An explosion of the sun. Everything became iridescent. Everything broke open as if objects and humans all contained light. It was the brightest entry into darkness.”
“And the keeper survived?”
Illia looks at Lyda now with her hooded eyes. “I’m here, aren’t I? I’m here.”
Lyda nods. Of course. But if Illia knows that she’s the keeper, why tell the story this way? “Illia,” Lyda says. “Why not just say I fell in love with a man? Why not just tell me everything? Don’t you trust me?”
“What if I’m not who you think I am? Some little housewife, all knit up in her stocking. Some little beaten housewife who never knew anything, who had no past, who’d never known love, who had no power.” She lifts her arms, shiny and wet, her hands clenched in fists. “You don’t know the difference between these scars and these? Do you? You don’t know anything of scars.” Her arms are pocked and burned—a row of burns up one arm and a spray of shards in the other.
Lyda shakes her head. “I don’t.”
“I’m the keeper! So where’s the seed? Huh? I ask you that. Where’s the goddamn seed now?” Illia is furious. Her fists are shaking in the air.
“I don’t know,” Lyda says. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know what you mean.” She grips the edge of the tub. “Tell me. Tell me what you mean.”
“I couldn’t deliver the truth to dead people. I had to keep it.” Her voice sounds distant and haunted.
“What dead people? Which ones?”
“There were so many…”
“Illia! I want you to tell me what this means. I want you to tell me the true story. Tell me. For your sake and mine. Get it out. Tell me everything.”
“And now I can’t die until I have fulfilled my duty, until I have handed it over. I can’t die until then, Lyda.” She looks at Lyda as if maybe she’d like to die. Lyda can’t understand it. “But I can’t die,” she says, as if confessing a deep sadness. “Not yet.”
“You’re not dying, Illia. Tell me what happened to you. Tell me, please. Don’t talk about dying.”
“Don’t talk about dying? You want me to talk about love. They’re one and the same, child. One and the same.”
The room goes quiet. Lyda shrinks into the tub and closes her eyes and when she does, all she sees are Illia’s wet arms—the spray of debris in one and the strange orderly row of risen welts on the other. It’s the orderly scars that disturb her. The Detonations caused erratic fusings and scars, not tidy rows. She thinks of Ingership. She knows the difference between the two kinds of scars, after all. Some are from the Detonations. The others are from torture, nine years of torture.
She hears Illia muttering to herself now. Illia draws in a sharp breath, the scarf pulled into her mouth. At first she says, I miss the truth. I miss art. I miss art. Life would be worth living if I had art. Was Illia an artist? Lyda loves art. She once made a sculpture of a bird made from wire. Illia then starts in about death. I want to die! I want death. But the keeper can’t die. The keeper can’t die until she has fulfilled her role. The keeper must find the seed. It’s not a myth or even a story anymore; it’s more like a mantra or a prayer.
But a dark prayer, a terrifying prayer. Lyda closes her eyes—the serum must cover every inch of her body, every hair on her head, the mother explained. She slides down, her backbone bumping the metal. Submerged, everything is quiet. She feels like she’s being held by the serum, the tub. Her held breath starts to burn her lungs. Just another second of peace, she thinks. Just one more.
Partridge is packed and ready. The maps are rolled up in his backpack, the music box is in his coat pocket, and the vials are bound into place with a strip of cloth from his bedsheet, wrapped around his stomach. Still, when the cellar door slams open in the morning, he’s shocked by the dusty light pouring in and the gust of cold air.
“It’s time!” Mother Hestra shouts.
He barely slept. The beetle scrambled to the corner and shook spastically until finally it found a rat hole and disappeared. The image stuck in his head—the massive leg. But even without that pulsing behind his lids, he doesn’t like sleeping because he dreams of finding his mother in the academy again and again; her bloody, amputated body under the bleachers by the playing fields, in the hushed library, and, worst of all, in the science lab—as if she’s something his teacher expects him to dissect. He’s sure she’s dead, but then an eye will blink. Better not to sleep much.
He walks up the small set of wooden stairs. The wind gusts. The sky is shot through with dark, billowing sashes. This was once a nice subdivision—rows of cream-colored houses that now look like bleached bones.
He sees Lyda standing by the corner of a fallen house. Her cape billowing around her hips, she holds a spear with a sharp blade tethered to its tip. She looks at him at first like she’s scared but then she breaks into a smile that lights her face. Her skin shines from the waxy serum too. Her blue eyes are tearing—because she’s happy to see him, or is it the wind? Her hair is growing in, a soft fuzz on her head. With her hair short like this, he sees more of her beautiful face. He has the urge to run to her, lift her up, kiss her. But Mother Hestra would misinterpret it as aggression and might attack. Partridge and Lyda aren’t allowed to be alone. This was another one of the conditions—total protection of the girl.
He smiles and winks. She winks back.
Lyda walks to Mother Hestra, and ruffles Syden’s hair.
Mother Hestra says, “We’ll travel in a line.”
“Illia isn’t coming?” Partridge asks.
“The ash in her lungs has taken on disease. She’ll stay here in the hope of recovery.”
“Has a doctor seen her?” Partridge asks.
“What doctor are they going to call?” Lyda says sharply.
“She is another victim of the Deaths,” Mother Hestra says coldly, eyeing Partridge. “They created this ash, and her lungs are sickened by it. One day, she will likely die of it. Another murder.”
“I’m not a Death,” Partridge says defensively. “I was a kid when the Detonations hit. You know that.”
“A Death is a Death,” Mother Hestra says. “Get in line.”
Lyda is behind Mother Hestra and Partridge is at the end, but he’s within three feet of Lyda. His stomach feels light. His heart pounds. “Hi,” he whispers.
Lyda puts her hand behind the small of her back and waves.
“I missed you,” he whispers.
She glances over her shoulder and smiles.
“No talking!” Mother Hestra shouts. How did she hear him?
He wants to tell her about the vials, the beetle’s leg, the strange feeling that it’s familiar to him somehow. We need a plan, he wants to tell her. That’s how they first got together, after all, his plan to steal the knife from the Domesticity Display, her keys to the knife case. He can’t stay here, guarded by the mothers for the rest of his life. And there’s no place for him and Lyda to run away to. They’re stuck. Does she feel it too? She has to.
They’re leaving the Meltlands, heading toward the Deadlands, which are barren, windy, and dangerous. He imagines what they look like—Mother Hestra dressed in furs limping with the weight of her son, Lyda with her billowing cape, and him glancing around nervously.
Weaponless, he’s vulnerable and useless. Mother Hestra has a leather sack of lawn darts strapped to her back. He’d like to have something, anything, really. He’d gotten used to Bradwell’s various butcher-shop knives and hooks. In fact, he feels weirdly relieved that, while still in the Dome, he got some special coding into his muscles—strength, speed, agility. The strange gratitude to his father for dosing him twists his stomach.
The Deadlands that lie before them were incinerated during the Detonations. They were stripped bare and still are—no trees, no new vegetation, only the remains of a crumbled highway, rust-rotted cars, melted rubber, toppled tollbooths.
Partridge rubs his face, stiff with cold. He clenches his fists. The one stung by the beetle is still taut with pain. Cold radiates through his bones even down into the lost tip of his pinky, which seems impossible but he would swear to it.
They have to be careful now. Curved spines arch in the sand, which whips in spirals. Dusts are creatures that, during the Detonations, fused with the earth and rubble itself, and now they’re trawling. Encrusted with dirt, stone, sand, they come in all sizes and shapes. They blink up from the ground, and can circle and attack. But Dusts know the mothers. They fear them.
Lyda has slowed, allowing space between her and Mother Hestra to grow so that she’s closer to Partridge. On purpose? He picks up his step.
“Was it this bitter cold when we were little?” he asks.
“I had a blue parka and mittens that were connected by yarn and wound through the sleeves of my coat so I wouldn’t lose them. We should be attached,” she says. “So one of us doesn’t get lost.” She stops. He keeps walking up to her. She glances at Mother Hestra and then she turns toward him. He kisses her. He can’t help it. She quickly touches his cheek—their skins coated in that waxy ointment feel strange. “Something happened,” she says, “with Illia.”
“What is it?” Partridge says.
“She knows things. She says she can’t die until she plays her role. She kept talking about the seed of truth.”
“Is she hallucinating or something? What does that mean?”
“I don’t know,” Lyda says. Before Mother Hestra has a chance to yell at them, Lyda turns and strides quickly to reclaim her place in line.
Mother Hestra stops at the edge of a rise. Below is a splintered gas station and billboard half devoured in sand. “Stay here. I’ll call you when it’s safe to follow.”
Partridge looks at Mother Hestra’s son’s head bobbing beside her as she heads down an incline toward the beaten highway. “I’m still not used to it.”
“Used to what?”
“Children fused to the mothers’ bodies. It’s, I don’t know, disturbing.”
“I think it’s nice to see kids for a change,” Lyda says. Because of limited resources in the Dome, only certain couples are granted procreation rights. But still this exchange feels like a rift between Lyda and him. “There were so many children during the Before,” she adds. “Gone.” The Before, that’s a phrase that the wretches use. She’s already picking up the mothers’ habits and language? The change makes him feel uneasy. She’s the only one who really understands him here. What if she becomes one of them? He hates himself for even thinking this way—us, them—but it’s ingrained.
“Are you happy here?” he asks.
She glances back at him again. “Maybe.”
“It might not be that you’re happy here. But just happy in general. You know, one of those people who starts whistling the moment they wake up.” She can’t really be happy because she’s here, can she?
“I don’t know how to whistle.”
“Lyda,” he says, his voice so forceful it surprises him, “I don’t want to go back. But it’s inevitable. Home is no longer a place.” Partridge hears his father’s voice in his head saying, Partridge, it’s over. You’re one of us. Come home. There is no home.
“If home isn’t a place, what is it?”
He tries to imagine what this place was like before it was wrecked and the drifts of sand blew in.“A feeling,” Partridge says.
“Like something perfect just out of reach. It was stolen. Home used to be simple.” He can see Mother Hestra and Syden making their way to the next rise. She might wave to them to follow at any second. He says to Lyda, “I know what’s in the vials. I experimented a little.”
“I saw the stuff grow cells, build them up. I doused a beetle’s leg and it grew and grew. My father wants what’s in those vials, and now I know how potent it is.”
“Like that kid who won first prize in the science fair last year.”
“I don’t know his name. He was the kid who always won, every year.”
“Yes! That’s his name.”
“What the hell did Weed win for?”
“Did you go?”
“Yeah, I think so. I vaguely remember walking around the booths with Hastings.”
“I was on a team that made a new kind of sensitive-skin detergent.”
“Don’t patronize me.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t make anything for it, not even a volcano with baking soda.”
“Well, Arvin Weed was documenting how he’d regrown the leg of a mouse that had lost a limb in a trap.”
“Are you kidding me?” But then he remembers it, how Hastings said something sarcastic like “Excellent work, Weed, you’ve discovered the three-and-a-half-legged mouse. An incredible species.” Weed had glared at him, and as Hastings had loped off, Weed grabbed Partridge’s arm and told him that he should care about his experiment, that it could save people.
“Save people from three-and-a-half-legged mice?” Partridge said.
The memory jolts Partridge. “Jesus,” he whispers. “He’s already figured it out! So the Dome already has access to what’s in these vials. When my father had me followed to my mother’s bunker, he was after the other two things—the missing ingredient and the formula. He was already a step ahead. He has one of the three things he needs to reverse his Rapid Cell Degeneration and save his own life.” It’s a race suddenly, and his father’s winning. Partridge’s mother told him that his father knew the brain enhancements would catch up to him, but he thought he could find a solution, and once he had it, he could live forever. “What if my father never dies?”
“All fathers die.”
Partridge thinks of the thick black muscular leg of the beetle. “My father’s not like other fathers.” He reaches out and grabs Lyda’s hand. She seems surprised by the suddenness. He says, “We need a plan on how we’re going to get back into the Dome, how we’re going to get the truth out once we’re there.”
She stares at him, her eyes watery with fear.
“It’s okay,” he says. “We’ll figure it out.”
“It wasn’t okay for Sedge,” she says.
For years, Partridge’s father let him believe that his older brother, Sedge, had killed himself. But the truth was that Partridge’s father killed Sedge, his oldest son. How many times had Partridge imagined Sedge fitting the muzzle of a gun into his mouth? It was a lie. But now his brother is truly dead. Partridge, it’s over. You’re one of us. Come home. Partridge despises, most of all, the way his father said it—his voice going soft as if he loved Partridge, as if his father could ever understand something like that. It’ll never be over. He isn’t one of them. There is no home.
“He could kill you,” Lyda says. “You know that.”
Partridge nods. “I know.”
One of the Dusts suddenly rears from the ground so close to Lyda’s foot that the earth crumbles and she loses her footing.
Partridge’s enhanced vision crystallizes. As the Dust’s jaws widen, he jumps and, midair, kicks the Dust in its rocky head. The Dust’s head cracking against his boot feels good.
Lyda is on her feet, spear in hand.
The Dust now has its eyes locked on Partridge. “Come on,” Partridge urges. “Come on!” His body burns to be put to fighting use. His heart pounds in his chest; his muscles feel coiled, ready to spring loose.
But Mother Hestra shouts from the ridge on the other side of the highway, drawing the Dust’s attention. As it turns, she whips out a lawn dart, launches it expertly from a great distance, hitting the Dust’s forehead, dead-on. The Dust sags.
Partridge shouts, “Why’d you do that? I had it!”
Lyda walks to the Dust, the living element of its body sifting into the dirt, and pulls out the dart, wipes the dark blood on her skirt. “Did you really have it?”
“Of course I did.”
She shakes her head, as if scolding him. “I would have taken care of it myself.”
Partridge lets out a deep breath. “Are you okay?”
“Fine.” She dusts off her cape. There’s some look in her eye that he doesn’t recognize.
Mother Hestra waves them on, and when they’re close enough Lyda shouts, “How much farther?”
“A couple of miles. Keep the line straight. No talking.”
They walk in silence for what seems like hours until finally they come to a row of fallen prisons—two of them are still standing. Their steel structures and parts of the foundation are still there, but the rest is crumbled. Across from the prisons lie the remains of a factory of some sort. One smokestack still stands, but the other two are felled like trees, smashed on impact.
Mother Hestra stops at a long, jagged scar in the earth and a sheet of metal staked to the ground on two homemade hinges. She searches the distant skeletons of the steel. A mother must be up there, somewhere, as a lookout, because Mother Hestra raises her arm and seemingly waits for a sign. Partridge scans the structure but doesn’t see a soul.
Eventually, Mother Hestra must be satisfied by a kind of all clear. She lowers her hand and says, “We’re here.” She pulls the metal sheet up from the ground against the tide of the wind.
The opening leads to a dark tunnel.
“What’s down there?” Lyda asks.
“Subway train,” Mother Hestra says. “We knew it was out here by tracing the route of the subway line that ran in and out of the suburbs. During the Detonations, the train tunnels jacked underground.” Partridge imagines the cars shouldering up hunks of earth, creating this buckle. “We knew what the long tear in the ground was when we saw it and then dug down to it.”
“Weren’t people trapped in there?” Lyda asks, peering into the slanted hole.
“Long dead by the time we found them. We gave them proper burials. Our Good Mother wanted to honor them as they gave us something we needed. There’s bounty out in the Deadlands. Often you have to dig for it.”
Lyda crawls in on her hands and knees. Partridge isn’t as eager. If people didn’t die on impact, they were buried alive. He glances at Mother Hestra. “Ladies first?”
She shakes her head. “You go.”
Partridge gets down on his hands and knees too, the ground cold and hard. Mother Hestra, now inside the tunnel behind him, slams the door. The tunnel goes dark.
Then, suddenly, a bright glow illuminates the end of the tunnel. Lyda’s face appears, bathed in golden light. “It’s perfect,” she says, and, for a moment, Partridge imagines that his entire childhood is waiting for him at the end of the tunnel—dyed Easter eggs, baby teeth, his father just a hardworking architect, a middle-aged bureaucrat, his mother feeding damp clothes into the open mouth of the dryer. A home, the thing that was stolen. Perfect, as if perfect ever existed.
El Capitan trudges downhill. Brambles catch on his pants like small claws nicking his pants, but he keeps his pace. The wind cuts in, but he feels charged. Hastings. Maybe it’s not a battle or a greeting, but something as simple as the soldier’s name. It didn’t come to him at first, because El Capitan doesn’t think of Special Forces as being human enough to have names, but of course they were once just normal kids—actually, better than normal. They turned out to be the most privileged kids in the world.
Or was El Capitan supposed to recognize some meaning? Haste—he knows the meaning, to go quickly. Tidings are greetings. They’re always glad tidings, never hostile tidings, which would be more appropriate here. Haste and tidings equals Hastings, right? El Capitan wasn’t ever good with words. He likes guns, engines, and electricity.
“Hastings,” he says aloud. Helmud doesn’t repeat it; El Capitan figures he’s asleep. In the cold, Helmud tucks his chin behind El Capitan’s shoulders and pulls his long skinny arms in tight and dozes. At a distance, El Capitan might even look like a man, all alone. He imagines Pressia seeing him this way. She looks at Helmud sometimes when they’re talking, but not like everyone else does—glancing at some deformity. She looks at him more like he’s part of the conversation. Still, El Capitan would like Pressia to see just him for once. Just him alone.
He wonders if Hastings will show up again, if he’ll offer real information. Damn, El Capitan thinks, what if I’ve got an informant? Someone on the inside? He thinks of telling Bradwell and Pressia, but he likes the idea of knowing something they don’t—the little rush of power.
He’s closing in on the survivors building the pyre and can see that they’ve collected sticks, dragged in split logs, arranged narrow saplings in such a way that they could get a big fire going, though the wood looks green and damp. There are a few men with handcarts. They glance at him out of the corners of their eyes but keep moving.
Three girls are sitting on the ground, making up a song together. The girls are all Posts—born during the After—and yet like all Posts, they’re still deformed. The Detonations impacted cells down to the spirals of DNA. No one was spared—not even generations from now. One of the girls has a closely shorn head as if she’d been recently deloused, which lays bare her skull’s knotted bones, bowed on one side as if there’s more than just a brain lodged within it. Another girl’s shoulder juts forward under her coat. All three have mottled skin and pinched eyes.
When the girls see him, they stand and bow their heads. The OSR uniform has been associated with fear for a long time, and there isn’t much he can do about it, so he uses the fear. Fear can be an asset.
“At ease,” he says. The girl with the jutted shoulder looks up and shudders, frightened by Helmud, who must have just lifted his head. “Just my brother is all.”
One of the men walks up. He has a bloated belly, maybe a growth that’s widened his ribs. “We don’t mean any harm. We’re for the greater good.”
“Just curious what might be going on here,” El Capitan says, swinging the rifle around in front of him.
“We got word,” the man says.
A tall, older girl with a raised braid of skin on the side of her face says, “She’s real! They can save us. She’s the living proof. I was one that found her. That’s what. Not far from here.”
“Hold on,” El Capitan says. “It seems like you want to build a fire.”
“Fire,” Helmud says, and everyone gawks at him.
“We want them to see that we found her and we got these three to offer,” the young woman with the braided face says. “We’ll line ’em up and wait.”
“That one in the middle’s mine,” the wide-ribbed man says, pointing to the girl with the shorn head.
“Who’d you find out here?” El Capitan says. “What girl?”
“What girl?” Helmud says.
“The Girl with the New Message,” the young woman says. “Proof they can save us all!”
“When did you find this girl?”
“This is the third holy day,” the young woman says.
“And who can save us, exactly?” El Capitan asks, but he knows the answer. The Dome has sent a message through a child. Is this why Hastings led him here?
The young woman smiles, the braid on her cheek bunching up. She lifts her hands to the Dome. “The Benevolent,” she says. “Our Watchers.” El Capitan has heard this kind of talk before—the Dome followers, the ones who’ve confused Willux and his people with gods and the Dome with heaven.
He rubs the muzzle of the rifle, just to remind them that there are more powers than the Dome to contend with. “I don’t think this is a good idea,” he says calmly. “I’m going to have to ask you to disperse.”
“But we’re preparing the Girl with the New Message for the pyre,” the young woman says. Her face is lit up like she’s been stricken by something. Her eyes have lost focus.
“Are you going to burn her?”
“Burn her?” Helmud whispers. El Capitan hears Helmud’s penknife click open.
“We’re going to worship and adore her. And hope they take the others.” She sways as she speaks and her skirt brushes her shins, which are pale and ashen.
El Capitan looks over at the three girls again. They squint and tilt their heads. They don’t even seem scared, which makes El Capitan nervous.
“The angels,” the wide-ribbed man says, “are never far off.”
The young woman says, “Can’t you hear the buzz of their holy spirits?”
“Special Forces? That’s no holy buzzing, I can guarantee that.”
“Guarantee,” Helmud says.
“You don’t believe,” the young woman says. “But you will.”
He points the gun at the man with the wheelbarrow. “How about somebody brings me the girl, now!”
“Now,” Helmud whispers.
The young woman looks at the man with the wheelbarrow.
“She’s in the city, being kept,” the young woman says. “I can show you.” She starts to walk toward the other edge of the woods. El Capitan follows her. She looks over her shoulder, showing the bulbous, braided cheek, and says, “She’s real, I tell you. She’s proof. She’ll tell you herself.”
But as soon as the young woman with the braided face finishes her sentence, her eyes dart behind El Capitan and then widen. Her voice awed, she whispers, “Look!”
El Capitan doesn’t want to look. This can’t be good. Helmud arches on his back, pivoting to see what’s behind them. El Capitan takes a deep breath and turns.
Beyond the pyre, the massive Dome stands on a hill, its bulk lording over them, the cross piercing coal-dark clouds. At first he doesn’t see anything unusual, except for a few small black dots. Then he sees that the dots are moving. They have legs. They’re not dots but small, black, spiderlike creatures, crawling out of a small opening at the base of the Dome. Shiny and robotic, they skitter over and around one another.
“They’re sending gifts!” the young woman says.
“I don’t think so. No, not gifts,” El Capitan says.
Helmud says, “Not gifts.”
Even from this far off, El Capitan swears he can hear the clicking of their metallic bodies, the rustling of sand under their pronged feet. Wicked creatures, Dome creations. He’ll need to get word to Bradwell and Pressia. “We don’t have much time,” he says to the young woman. “Let’s move.”
On the walk into the city, El Capitan learns that the young woman with the braided face is named Margit. She talks the entire time—about picking morels and finding the girl with her blind friend—but El Capitan barely listens. If she slows down, he nudges her in the back with his gun. How long before the robotic spiders make it to the city? Their legs were small but swift.
El Capitan and Margit walk quickly down alleys of darkened shanties built from piled rocks, plywood, tarps. The city is always rotting—the sharp stench of death, the sick-sweet ripening of bodies, meat churning on spits.
Excerpted from Fuse by Julianna Baggott Copyright © 2013 by Julianna Baggott. Excerpted by permission.
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