|File size:||1 MB|
Read an Excerpt
JAN. 4. 1932 HOURS.
OCEAN STANDARD TIME.
THIRTY-FIVE DAYS AFTER METIAS'S DEATH.
DAY JOLTS AWAKE BESIDE ME. HIS BROW IS COVERED with sweat, and his cheeks are wet with tears. He's breathing heavily.
I lean over him and brush a wet strand of hair out of his face. The scrape on my shoulder has scabbed over already, but my movement makes it throb again. Day sits up, rubs a hand wearily across his eyes, and glances around our swaying railcar as if searching for something. He looks first at the stacks of crates in one dark corner, then at the burlap lining the floor and the little sack of food and water sitting between us. It takes him a minute to reorient himself, to remember that we're hitching a ride on a train bound for Vegas. A few seconds pass before he releases his rigid posture and lets himself sag back against the wall.
I gently tap his hand. “Are you okay?” That's become my constant question.
Day shrugs. “Yeah,” he mutters. “Nightmare.”
Nine days have passed since we broke out of Batalla Hall and escaped Los Angeles. Since then, Day has had nightmares every time he's closed his eyes. When we first got away and were able to catch a few hours of rest in an abandoned train yard, Day bolted awake screaming. We were lucky no soldiers or street police heard him. After that, I developed the habit of stroking his hair right after he falls asleep, of kissing his cheeks and forehead and eyelids. He still wakes up gasping with tears, his eyes hunting frantically for all the things he's lost. But at least he does this silently.
Sometimes, when Day is quiet like this, I wonder how well he's hanging on to his sanity. The thought scares me. I can't afford to lose him. I keep telling myself it's for practical reasons: we'd have little chance of surviving alone at this point, and his skills complement mine. Besides . . . I have no one left to protect. I've had my share of tears too, although I always wait until he's asleep to cry. I cried for Ollie last night. I feel a little silly crying for my dog when the Republic killed our families, but I can't help myself. Metias was the one who'd brought him home, a white ball of giant paws and floppy ears and warm brown eyes, the sweetest, clumsiest creature I'd ever seen. Ollie was my boy, and I'd left him behind.
“What'd you dream?” I whisper to Day.
“Nothing memorable.” Day shifts, then winces as he accidentally scrapes his wounded leg against the floor. His body tenses up from the pain, and beneath his shirt I can tell how stiff his arms are, knots of lean muscle earned from the streets. A labored breath escapes his lips. The way he'd pushed me against that alley wall, the hunger in his first kiss. I stop focusing on his mouth and shake off the memory, embarrassed.
He nods toward the railcar doors. “Where are we now? We should be getting close, right?”
I get up, glad for the distraction, and brace myself against the rocking wall as I peer out the railcar's tiny window. The landscape hasn't changed muchendless rows of apartment towers and factories, chimneys and old arching highways, all washed into blues and grayish purples by the afternoon rain. We're still passing through slum sectors. They look almost identical to the slums in Los Angeles. Off in the distance, an enormous dam stretches halfway across my line of vision. I wait until a JumboTron flashes by, then squint to see the small letters on the bottom corner of the screen. “Boulder City, Nevada,” I say. “Really close now. The train will probably stop here for a while, but afterward it shouldn't take more than thirty-five minutes to arrive in Vegas.”
Day nods. He leans over, unties our food sack, and searches for something to eat. “Good. Sooner we get there, sooner we'll find the Patriots.”
He seems distant. Sometimes Day tells me what his nightmares are aboutfailing his Trial or losing Tess on the streets or running away from plague patrols. Nightmares about being the Republic's most wanted criminal. Other times, when he's like this and keeps his dreams to himself, I know they must be about his familyhis mother's death, or John's. Maybe it's better that he doesn't tell me about those. I have enough of my own dreams to haunt me, and I'm not sure I have the courage to know about his.
“You're really set on finding the Patriots, aren't you?” I say as Day pulls out a stale hunk of fried dough from the food sack. This isn't the first time I've questioned his insistence on coming to Vegas, and I'm careful about the way I approach the topic. The last thing I want Day to think is that I don't care about Tess, or that I'm afraid to meet up with the Republic's notorious rebel group. “Tess went with them willingly. Are we putting her in danger by trying to get her back?”
Day doesn't answer right away. He tears the fried dough in half and offers me a piece. “Take some, yeah? You haven't eaten in a while.”
I hold a hand up politely. “No, thanks,” I reply. “I don't like fried dough.”
Instantly I wish I could stuff the words back in my mouth. Day lowers his eyes and puts the second half back into the food sack, then quietly starts eating his share. What a stupid, stupid thing for me to say. I don't like fried dough. I can practically hear what's going through his head.
Poor little rich girl, with her posh manners. She can afford to dislike food. I scold myself in silence, then make a mental note to tread more carefully next time.
After a few mouthfuls, Day finally responds, “I'm not just going to leave Tess behind without knowing she's okay.”
Of course he wouldn't. Day would never leave anyone he cares about behind, especially not the orphan girl he's grown up with on the streets. I understand the potential value of meeting the Patriots tooafter all, those rebels had helped Day and me escape Los Angeles. They're large and well organized. Maybe they have information about what the Republic is doing with Day's little brother, Eden. Maybe they can even help heal Day's festering leg woundever since that fateful morning when Commander Jameson shot him in the leg and arrested him, his wound has been on a roller coaster of getting better and then worse. Now his left leg is a mass of broken, bleeding flesh. He needs medical attention.
Still, we have one problem.
“The Patriots won't help us without some sort of payment,” I say. “What can we give them?” For emphasis, I reach into my pockets and dig out our meager stash of money. Four thousand Notes. All I had on me before we made a run for it. I can't believe how much I miss the luxury of my old life. There are millions of Notes under my family name, Notes that I'll never be able to access again.
Day polishes off the dough and considers my words with his lips pressed together. “Yeah, I know,” he says, running a hand through his tangled blond hair. “But what do you suggest we do? Who else can we go to?”
I shake my head helplessly. Day is right about thatas little as I'd like to see the Patriots againour choices are pretty limited. Back when the Patriots had first helped us escape from Batalla Hall, when Day was still unconscious and I was wounded in the shoulder, I'd asked the Patriots to let us come with them to Vegas. I'd hoped they would continue to help us.
“You paid us to get Day out of his execution. You didn't pay us to carry your wounded asses all the way to Vegas,” Kaede had said to me. “Republic soldiers are hot on your trail, for crying out loud. We're not a full-service soup kitchen. I'm not risking my neck for you two again unless there's money involved.”
Up until that point, I'd almost believed that the Patriots cared about us. But Kaede's words had brought me back to reality. They'd helped us because I'd paid Kaede 200,000 Republic Notes, the money I'd received as a reward for Day's capture. Even then, it had taken some persuasion before she sent her Patriot comrades in to help us.
Allowing Day to see Tess. Helping Day fix his bad leg. Giving us info about the whereabouts of Day's brother. All these things will require bribes. If only I'd had the chance to grab more money before we left.
“Vegas is the worst possible city for us to wander into by ourselves,” I say to Day as I gingerly rub my healing shoulder. “And the Patriots might not even give us an audience. I'm just trying to make sure we think this through.”
“June, I know you're not used to thinking of the Patriots as allies,” Day replies. “You were trained to hate them. But they are a potential ally. I trust them more than I trust the Republic. Don't you?”
I don't know if he means for his words to sound insulting. Day has missed the point I'm trying to make: that the Patriots probably won't help us and then we'll be stuck in a military city. But Day thinks I'm hesitating because I don't trust the Patriots. That, deep down, I'm still June Iparis, the Republic's most celebrated prodigy . . . that I'm still loyal to this country. Well, is that true? I'm a criminal now, and I'll never be able to go back to the comforts of my old life. The thought leaves a sick, empty feeling in my stomach, as if I miss being the Republic's darling. Maybe I do.
If I'm not the Republic's darling anymore, then who am I?
“Okay. We'll try to find the Patriots,” I say. It's clear that I won't be able to coax him into doing anything else.
Day nods. “Thanks,” he whispers. The hint of a smile appears on his lovely face, pulling me in with its irresistible warmth, but he doesn't try to hug me. He doesn't reach for my hand. He doesn't scoot closer to let our shoulders touch, he doesn't stroke my hair, he doesn't whisper reassuringly into my ear or rest his head against mine. I hadn't realized how much I've grown to crave these little gestures. Somehow, in this moment, we feel very separate.
Maybe his nightmare had been about me.
It happens right after we reach the main strip of Las Vegas. The announcement.
First of allif there's one place in Vegas that we shouldn't be, it's the main strip. JumboTrons (six packed into each block) line both sides of the city's busiest street, their screens playing an endless stream of news. Blinding clusters of searchlights sweep obsessively along the walls. The buildings here must be twice as large as the ones in Los Angeles. The downtown is dominated by towering skyscrapers and enormous pyramid-shaped landing docks (eight of them, square bases, equilateral triangle sides) with bright lights beaming from their tips. The desert air reeks of smoke and feels painfully dry; no thirst-quenching hurricanes here, no waterfronts or lakes. Troops make their way up and down the street (in oblong square formations, typical of Vegas), dressed in the black, navy-striped uniforms of soldiers rotating out to and back from the warfront. Farther out, past this main street of skyscrapers, are rows of fighter jets, all rolling into position on a wide strip of airfield. Airships glide overhead.
This is a military city, a world of soldiers.
The sun has just set when Day and I make our way out onto the main strip and head toward the other end of the street. Day leans heavily on my shoulder as we try to blend in with the crowds, his breath shallow and his face drawn with pain. I try my best to support him without looking out of place, but his weight makes me walk in an unbalanced line, as if I'd had too much to drink. “How are we doing?” he murmurs into my ear, his lips hot against my skin. I'm not sure if he's half-delirious from the pain, or if it's my outfit, but I can't say I mind his blatant flirtation tonight. It's a nice change from our awkward train ride. He's careful to keep his head down, his eyes hidden under long lashes and tilted away from the soldiers bustling back and forth along the sidewalks. He shifts uncomfortably in his military jacket and pants. A black soldier's cap hides his white-blond hair and blocks a good portion of his face.
“Well enough,” I reply. “Remember, you're drunk. And happy. You're supposed to be lusting over your escort. Try smiling a little more.”
Day plasters a giant artificial smile on his face. As charming as ever. “Aw, come on, sweetheart. I thought I was doing a pretty good job. I got my arm around the prettiest escort on this blockhow could I not be lusting over you? Don't I look like I'm lusting? This is me, lusting.” His lashes flutter at me.
He looks so ridiculous that I can't help laughing. Another passerby glances at me. “Much better.” I shiver when he nudges his face into the hollow of my neck. Stay in character. Concentrate. The gold trinkets lining my waist and ankles jingle as we walk. “How's your leg?”
Day pulls away a little. “Was doing fine until you brought it up,” he whispers, then winces as he trips over a crack in the sidewalk. I tighten my grip around him. “I'll make it to our next rest stop.”
“Remember, two fingers against your brow if you need to stop.”
“Yeah, yeah. I'll let you know if I'm in trouble.”
Another pair of soldiers pushes past us with their own escorts, grinning girls decked out in sparkling eye shadow and elegantly painted face tattoos, their bodies covered thinly by dancer costumes and fake red feathers. One of the soldiers catches sight of me, laughs, and widens his glazed eyes.
“What club you from, gorgeous?” he slurs. “Don't remember your face around here.” His hand goes for my exposed waist, hungering for skin. Before he can reach me, Day's arm whips out and shoves the soldier roughly away.
“Don't touch her.” Day grins and winks at the soldier, keeping up his carefree demeanor, but the warning in his eyes and voice makes the other man back off. He blinks at both of us, mumbles something under his breath, and staggers away with his friends.
I try to imitate the way those escorts giggle, then give my hair a toss. “Next time, just go with it,” I hiss in Day's ear even as I kiss him on the cheek, as if he were the best customer ever. “Last thing we need is a fight.”
“What?” Day shrugs and returns to his painful walk. “It'd be a pretty pathtic fight. He could barely stand.”
I shake my head and decide not to point out the irony.
A third group of soldiers stumbles past us in a loud, drunken daze. (Seven cadets, two lieutenants, gold armbands with Dakota insignias, which means they just arrived here from the north and haven't yet exchanged their armbands for new ones with their warfront battalions.) They have their arms wrapped around escorts from the Bellagio clubsglittering girls with scarlet chokers and B arm tattoos. These soldiers are probably stationed in the barracks above the clubs.
I check my own costume again. Stolen from the dressing rooms of the Sun Palace. On the surface, I seem like any other escort. Gold chains and trinkets around my waist and ankles. Feathers and gold ribbons pinned into my scarlet (spray-painted), braided hair. Smoky eye shadow coated with glitter. A ferocious phoenix tattoo painted across my upper cheek and eyelid. Red silks leave my arms and waist exposed, and dark laces line my boots.
But there's one thing on my costume that the other girls don't wear.
A chain of thirteen little glittering mirrors. They're partially hidden amongst the other ornaments wrapped around my ankle, and from a distance it would seem like another decoration. Completely forgettable. But every now and then, when streetlights catch it, it becomes a row of brilliant, sparkling lights. Thirteen, the Patriots' unofficial number. This is our signal to them. They must be watching the main Vegas strip all the time, so I know they'll at least notice a row of flashing lights on me. And when they do, they'll recognize us as the same pair they helped rescue in Los Angeles.
The JumboTrons lining the street crackle for a second. The pledge should start again any minute now. Unlike Los Angeles, Vegas runs the national pledge five times a dayall the JumboTrons will pause in whatever ads or news they're showing, replace them with enormous images of the Elector Primo, and then play the following on the city's speaker system: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the great Republic of America, to our Elector Primo, to our glorious states, to unity against the Colonies, to our impending victory!
Not long ago, I used to recite that pledge every morning and afternoon with the same enthusiasm as anyone else, determined to keep the east coast Colonies from taking control of our precious west coast land. That was before I knew about the Republic's role in my family's deaths. I'm not sure what I think now. Let the Colonies win?
The JumboTrons start broadcasting a newsreel. Weekly recap. Day and I watch the headlines zip by on the screens:
REPUBLIC TRIUMPHANTLY TAKES OVER MILES OF COLONIES LAND IN BATTLE FOR AMARILLO, EAST TEXAS.
FLOOD WARNING CANCELLED FOR SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA.
ELECTOR VISITS TROOPS ON NORTHERN WARFRONT, BOOSTS MORALE.
Most of them are fairly uninterestingthe usual headlines coming in from the warfront, updates on weather and laws, quarantine notices for Vegas.
Then Day taps my shoulder and gestures at one of the screens.
QUARANTINE IN LOS ANGELES EXTENDED TO EMERALD, OPAL SECTORS
“Gem sectors?” Day whispers. My eyes are still fixed on the screen, even though the headline has passed. “Don't rich folks live there?”
I'm not sure what to say in return because I'm still trying to process the information myself. Emerald and Opal sector . . . Is this a mistake? Or have the plagues in LA gotten serious enough to be broadcast on Vegas JumboTrons? I've never, ever seen quarantines extended into the upper-class sectors. Emerald sector borders Rubydoes that mean my home sector is going to be quarantined too? What about our vaccinations? Aren't they supposed to prevent things like this? I think back on Metias's journal entries. One of these days, he'd said, there will be a virus unleashed that none of us will be able to stop. I remember the things Metias had unveiled, the underground factories, the rampant diseases . . . the systematic plagues. A shiver runs through me. Los Angeles will quell it, I tell myself. The plague will die down, just like it always does.
More headlines sweep by. A familiar one is about Day's execution. It plays the clip of the firing squad yard where Day's brother John took the bullets meant for Day, then fell facedown on the ground. Day turns his eyes to the pavement.
Another headline is newer. It says this:
MISSING SS NO: 2001963034
JUNE IPARIS Agent, Los Angeles City Patrol
15, Female, 5 ft 4 in HAIR: Brown, Eyes: Brown Last seen near Batalla Hall, Los Angeles, CA
350,000 Republic Notes REWARD If Seen, Report Immediately to Your Local Official That's what the Republic wants their people to think. That I'm “missing,” that they hope to bring me back safe and sound. What they don't say is that they probably want me dead. I helped the country's most notorious criminal escape his execution, aided the rebel Patriots in a staged uprising against a military headquarters, and turned my back on the Republic.
But they wouldn't want that information going public, so they hunt for me quietly. The missing report shows the photo from my military IDa face-forward, unsmiling shot of me, barefaced but for a touch of gloss, dark hair tied back in a high ponytail, a gold Republic seal gleaming against the black of my coat. I'm grateful that the phoenix tattoo hides half of my face right now.
We make it to the middle of the main strip before the speakers crackle again for the pledge. Day and I stop walking. Day stumbles again and almost falls, but I manage to catch him fast enough to keep him upright. People on the street look up to the JumboTrons (except for a handful of soldiers who line the edges of each intersection in order to ensure everyone's participation). The screens flicker. Their images vanish into blackness, and are then replaced by high-definition portraits of the Elector Primo.
I pledge allegiance
It's almost comforting to repeat these words with everyone else on the streets, at least until I remind myself of all that's changed. I think back to the evening when I'd first captured Day, when the Elector and his son came to personally congratulate me for putting a notorious criminal behind bars. I recall how the Elector had looked in person. The portraits on the JumboTrons show the same green eyes, strong jaw, and curled locks of dark hair . . . but they leave out the coldness in his expression and the sickly color of his skin. His portraits make him seem fatherly, with healthy pink cheeks. Not how I remember him.
to the flag of the great Republic of America
Suddenly the broadcast pauses. There's silence on the streets, then a chorus of confused whispers. I frown. Unusual. I've never seen the pledge interrupted, not even once. And the JumboTron system is hooked up so one screen's outage shouldn't affect the rest.
Day looks up to the stalled screens while my eyes dart to the soldiers lining the street. “Freak accident?” he says. His labored breathing worries me. Hang on just a little longer. We can't stop here.
I shake my head. “No. Look at the troops.” I nod subtly in their direction. “They've changed their stances. Their rifles aren't slung over their shoulders anymorethey're holding them now. They're bracing themselves for a reaction from the crowd.”
Day shakes his head slowly. He looks unsettlingly pale. “Something's happened.”
The Elector's portrait vanishes from the JumboTrons, and is immediately replaced with a new series of images. They show a man who is the spitting image of the Electoronly much younger, barely in his twenties, with the same green eyes and dark, wavy hair. In a flash I recall the touch of excitement I'd felt when I first met him at the celebratory ball. This is Anden Stavropoulos, the son of the Elector Primo.
Day's right. Something big has happened.
The Republic's Elector has died.
A new, upbeat voice takes over the speakers. “Before continuing our pledge, we must instruct all soldiers and civilians to replace the Elector portraits in your homes. You may pick up a new portrait from your local police headquarters. Inspections to ensure your cooperation will commence in two weeks.”
The voice announces the supposed results of a nationwide election. But there's not a single mention of the Elector's death. Or of his son's promotion.
The Republic has simply moved on to the next Elector without skipping a beat, as if Anden were the same person as his father. My head swimsI try to remember what I'd learned in school about choosing a new Elector. The Elector always picked the successor, and a national election would confirm it. It's no surprise that Anden is next in linebut our Elector had been in power for decades, long before I was born. Now he's gone. Our world has shifted in a matter of seconds.
Like me and Day, everyone on the street understands what the appropriate thing to do is: As if on cue, we all bow to the JumboTron portraits and recite the rest of the pledge that has reappeared on the screens. “to our Elector Primo, to our glorious states, to unity against the Colonies, to our impending victory!” We repeat this over and over for as long as the words stay on the screen, no one daring to stop. I glance at the soldiers lining the streets. Their hands have tightened on their rifles. Finally, after what seems like hours, the words disappear and the JumboTrons return to their usual news rolls. We all begin walking again, as if nothing had happened.
Then Day stumbles. This time I feel him tremble, and my heart clenches. “Stay with me,” I whisper. To my surprise I almost say, Stay with me, Metias. I try to hold him up, but he slips.
“I'm sorry,” he murmurs back. His face is shiny with sweat, his eyes shut tightly in pain. He holds two fingers to his brow. Stop. He can't make it.
I look wildly around us. Too many soldierswe still have a lot of ground to cover. “No, you have to,” I say firmly. “Stay with me. You can make it.”
But it's no use this time. Before I can catch him, he falls onto his hands and collapses to the ground.