Alenna escaped. It was expected that she would die on the wheel, the island where would-be criminals are sent as directed by the UNA—the totalitarian supercountry that was once the United States, Mexico, and Canada. But Alenna and her boyfriend, Liam, made it to safety. Except safety, they will soon learn, is relative.
In order to bring down the UNA, they must first gain control of the wheel. If the mission succeeds, the wheel will become a base of revolution. But between betrayals, a new Monk leading a more organized army of Drones, and the discovery of a previously unknown contingent, Alenna, Liam, and their allies might be in over their heads. One thing Alenna knows for sure: There will be a reckoning. And not everyone she loves will make it out alive.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I SIT IN AN uncomfortable metal chair, facing a row of six scientists in white lab coats. These are my inquisitors. I’m deep inside Destiny Station, sequestered in a small chamber carved into the massive sandstone mesa that I’ve called home for the past three weeks. The rebel scientists who run the station use this room for depositions and debriefings. It’s one of many such rooms and tunnels dug like burrows into the strange rock formation.
Large digital screens are mounted in a row on the wall behind the scientists. The screens show different images. Many of them display footage of Prison Island Alpha—the colony for banished teens that Liam and I escaped from. A desolate tropical island known as “the wheel,” where life expectancy is eighteen years of age. I was only on the wheel for two weeks, but every day was a fight for survival.
Supposedly, we were sent to the wheel after failing a test meant to predict a tendency for future violent and criminal behavior. Instead, we were actually exiled there by our corrupt government, because we were immune to mind-control drugs that they deployed to subdue the population. This meant we were a risk. We might rebel against the government, so they wanted us gone for good. After Liam and I managed to flee the wheel, we were rescued by the rebel scientists in Australia, who gave us refuge in Destiny Station.
I glance up at the digital display screens. They now show an array of faces that I recognize from my time on the wheel. Many of these kids were my friends. I’m wearing a row of electrodes around my left wrist, like a bracelet made of wires and sensors. This is to monitor my subconscious physiological reactions to these images. One of the scientists is crouched over a computer, noting and analyzing my responses.
Dr. Vargas-Ruiz, who helps run Destiny Station, sits directly in front of me, leading the deposition. I’ve been in this room for two hours already today. And for three hours every afternoon since I arrived here.
The scientists ask me questions about every detail of my life on the wheel. Often, it’s the same questions over and over, until I feel like I’m going crazy. The scientists mean well. They’re trying to get as much data as they can from those of us who got rescued. But these individual depositions are grueling, like a test that never ends.
I’m struggling to adjust to life in general at the station. After so many years living in the United Northern Alliance—that wretched nation known as the UNA, where most personal freedoms were banned—it’s hard to adapt to normal life again. Not that Destiny Station is anything close to normal.
Mornings are spent training for the battle ahead when we return to Prison Island Alpha. Nights are spent strategizing. Twelve weeks from now, we will be leaving Destiny Station. The scientists believe this is the optimum time frame for departure. If we leave any sooner than that, we might not be prepared. But if we wait much longer, the scientists fear that the UNA will figure out our plans and bomb Destiny Station.
After we leave Australia, we will join up with other rebel bases scattered around the globe and then return to the wheel. There, we will take control of the island, and then use it as a new home base to launch an assault on the continental UNA.
“Alenna?” Dr. Vargas-Ruiz suddenly says, adjusting her glasses. “Please pay attention. Look at the photos.”
“I am,” I snap back. “But can’t we hurry this up?”
A single face flashes onto all the screens at once. A beautiful, blond-haired girl with wide blue eyes.
“Meira,” I say absently, before the scientists can even ask me who it is. “The co-leader of our village on the wheel. Still alive, unless our village has been destroyed.”
Dr. Vargas-Ruiz nods. “And you never saw any sign that she was secretly working for the UNA? As a spy?”
“No. I already told you. She was kind of cold and calculating, but she and her boyfriend Veidman kept everything running. They were a few years older than me. I never thought they were spies.”
I can picture our village perfectly in my mind. The wooden shacks, the hammocks slung between trees, and the dark river where we bathed. On the wheel, us banished kids formed two tribes: the villagers and the drones. Liam and I were villagers. We only wanted to make the best of things, and find a way to escape the island. In fact, Liam was our village’s most respected and fiercest hunter and explorer.
But the drones were wild, and susceptible to new, experimental drugs that the UNA secretly dropped on the wheel. The drones followed a masked prophet who called himself “the Monk”—a man who turned out to be Minister Harka, the exiled leader of the UNA. He had been secretly banished to the wheel by traitors in his own government, and had taken on a new identity there. A body double had taken his place back in the UNA so that no one even knew that he was gone. His followers on the wheel caused chaos and constantly attacked our village in an attempt to gain control of the island. They wanted to enslave us, and make us fight one another for their entertainment.
Another photo appears on the screens. A girl with dyed-blue hair, a sleeve of tattoos down one arm, and a knowing gleam in her dark brown eyes.
“Gadya,” I say, swallowing hard. Her absence makes my heart ache the most. She was my best friend on the wheel, and she saved my life more times than I can remember. “I told you, the last time I saw her, she was alive but injured. Do we really have to go through this again?”
Dr. Vargas-Ruiz nods.
I know that the scientists will show me everyone. Including the faces of the other friends we left behind, either trapped or captured, like David, Markus, and Rika. And the faces of the dead, like Veidman and Sinxen. I’m still in mourning for them. Seeing their faces on the screens makes the pain more acute.
But what the scientists show me next surprises me. It’s a topographic map of the wheel. From above, it resembles a large, jagged circle. The different sectors, which look like misshapen pie slices, are marked with their respective colors.
Our village was inside a region called the blue sector, which was the last remaining area of the wheel not controlled by drones. The other sectors—orange, purple, yellow, and red—had already been taken over by them. And the gray zone, which houses the machinery that transports kids to and from the island, was uninhabitable.
I lean in for a closer look at the map. I try to imagine what my friends on the wheel are doing right now. Probably some of them are battling the drones. And I know that others are cryogenically frozen in pods in the specimen archive—a giant hive located inside the gray zone. Flying machines called selection units kidnap kids and take them there to store until UNA doctors can dissect their brains.
When I return to the wheel with the rebel scientists, I know we will face battles with both the drones and the selection units before we can conquer the island. I’m not certain that we’ll win. Most of us might end up getting killed or getting snatched by the machines.
“Alenna, what are you thinking about? You have to tell us,” Dr. Vargas-Ruiz prompts.
“I’m thinking about the specimen archive. About how the UNA will keep dissecting kids until they discover how to synthesize some kind of ultimate drug—one that will brainwash everyone on the planet. And if we fail in stopping them, then no one will be able to prevent the UNA from dominating the entire globe. . . .”
My stomach lurches. Suddenly, I can’t take it anymore. All the questions. All the photos of my missing friends. All the stress. I feel the jagged rock walls closing in on me like they want to devour me. I can’t catch my breath.
“Tell us more,” Dr. Vargas-Ruiz keeps saying.
“Yes—” another scientist begins, excitedly motioning to a colleague to look at the computer screen displaying my reactions. “You think we’ll fail in our mission?”
I stand up, shoving back my metal chair with a loud clatter. Everyone stops talking at once. The screens go black. I rip off my electrode wristband and throw it onto the table.
“Alenna?” Vargas-Ruiz asks. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m sick of this!” I say. “You already know the answers to everything. You’ve already asked me these questions before!”
“Depositions are a normal part of life at the station for new arrivals like yourself,” Vargas-Ruiz says calmly. “You know that.”
“But I’ve been here almost a month! When are you going to stop?”
“When we’re certain that we’ve learned every detail about your experiences on Island Alpha, and how you feel about them.”
A bearded scientist gazes at me balefully over his glasses. “If it weren’t for us, you wouldn’t be alive right now. You’d be cut up in a UNA lab somewhere. Isn’t this a better option?”
I glare back at him. The scientists are just watching me. Staring at me like I’m a lab animal.
“I need to find Liam,” I say, the words coming out in a burst. He’s the only one who understands exactly what I’ve been through. No one else shares our bond, or knows how strong it is. “I’m taking a break.”
“Alenna, wait—” Vargas-Ruiz begins, but I don’t want to hear what she has to say. I just want to get out of this room. I know exactly where Liam is—waiting for me on the roof deck on top of the station.
I spin and head straight for the door. I swing it open and plunge out into the rock tunnel.
The air here is hot and stale. It never feels bright enough in these tunnels, no matter how many lights are turned on. I can’t wait to find Liam and get some sunlight.
I start racing down the tunnel, brushing past a group of scientists. They stare at me, frowning, but I don’t care. I just keep moving, in case Vargas-Ruiz sends someone after me. I reach a set of rough-hewn rock stairs, and I start running up it.
When I get to the top level of the station, I’m panting for air—both from exhaustion and from an increasing sensation of claustrophobia. I don’t know how the scientists living here have managed to cope. Some of them have been here for years inside the mesa. I tear through a tunnel on this level until I reach a metal ladder leading up into a narrow, vertical shaft. My fingers clasp at the rungs.
I start climbing the ladder, determined to reach the roof deck as soon as possible. I feel like I’m crawling up a chimney. I finally see a circular metal hatch above me.
When I reach the hatch, I turn the handle and fling the door open, blinking against the harsh glare of the sun. I crawl up and out of the shaft and onto the surface of the rock.
“Liam!” I call out, looking around for him as I get to my feet.
I close the hatch door behind me, basking in the light. Here, on top of Destiny Station, I’m nearly two hundred feet above the ground. The wind whips through my long, dark hair. I take a deep breath.
“Liam?” I call out again. I don’t see him, but the top of the mesa is vast, and it has a few jagged rocks and boulders on it.
I stare out at the horizon. From up here, I can see the harsh Australian outback sprawling in every direction. The splintered rocks and sand dunes below me make it look like the surface of an alien planet. Everything is desolate and abandoned.
“Alenna,” a familiar voice says right behind me.
I startle, spinning around. It’s Liam. “Thank god! I thought I was alone.”
“Yeah, I could tell.”
I hug him, wrapping my arms around his lean, muscular body. I nestle against his chest, fitting my body against his. He puts his arms around me. I shut my eyes for a moment. Falling in love with Liam was the best thing to happen to me on the wheel.
“What are you doing up top?” he asks. “Aren’t you supposed to be in a deposition for another hour?”
“I couldn’t take it anymore, and I kind of freaked out,” I admit. “I had to find you.” I sigh. “Everyone’s going to be mad at me now. For running out of the room.”
“They’ll get over it.”
I lean up, staring into Liam’s beautiful blue eyes. The wind is ruffling his brown hair. I suddenly close my eyes again and kiss him. My lips melt into his, making me shiver, and for a moment I start to lose myself. Then I feel self-conscious, and I pull back, looking around. “There’s no one else up here with us, right?”
He smiles. “Worried about your mom catching us?”
“It’s okay. I saw her down on level three, working.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me? My mom is always working.”
In some ways it’s comforting to know that her personality hasn’t changed since I was a little kid and she spent her days sequestered in her genetics lab. But in other ways, it’s annoying. I was hoping she’d want to spend more time with me after we were separated for six years because of the UNA. Still, I know that the survival of Destiny Station depends on her. Unlike some of the other rebel scientists here, she doesn’t take part in the depositions. Her work is too crucial—trying to reverse-engineer the UNA’s drugs in order to find an antidote.
I also know that after our recent reunion, things remain awkward between us. When the government snatched her and my dad for being dissidents all those years ago, I thought she was dead and that I was an orphan. I have to get used to the idea that I have a mother again.
“So how was your deposition today?” I ask Liam. He had his a few hours before mine. “Same old stuff?”
He nods. “They showed me a bunch of pictures of Minister Harka and his body doubles.” He pauses. “Honestly, I’m not even sure what they want from us anymore.”
We stand there for a moment, getting buffeted by the wind. Then Liam pulls an object from the back pocket of his jeans. “Here, look. I found this for you.”
It’s an old paperback book. I grin as I take it from him. Because books and most digital media were banned in the UNA, I’ve been trying to read as much as I can to make up for lost time. There are plenty of books here that the scientists and other refugees pass around among themselves. “Thanks,” I tell him.
I glance at the cover, and read its title out loud: “The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus.”
Liam nods. “I remember how you told me that the myth kept you going on the wheel.”
He’s right. The story of Sisyphus endlessly pushing his boulder up a mountain, which my dad used to tell me as a child, helped me find meaning in the repetitive, painful journey we faced on the island. I turn the book over in my hand, contemplating it. This thin paperback looks like some kind of strange philosophical essay about the meaning of that Greek myth. I wonder if my dad ever read this book.
“So, are you ready for the concert tonight?” Liam asks me, brushing a strand of hair out of my eyes.
“I’ve been trying not to think about it,” I confess. “I mean, there’s a lot more stuff to worry about than that. Besides, holding concerts is just some dumb thing they do here to put us at ease.”
“It’s not dumb. And I know you’ll do great.”
“And if I don’t?”
Liam flashes me a crooked grin. “I’ll still love you.”
I hug him again.
Tonight will be the first time that I play guitar in public. And it’s the first concert I’ll attend since the UNA banned any music not approved by the government back when I was eight. Because the arts were censored and repressed so much in the UNA, the scientists prioritize them here. The concert tonight is a chance for kids to gather and get onstage and perform.
“I wish I had that guitar you made for me,” I tell Liam. I’m thinking about the one that he carved out of wood on the wheel. That guitar was what let me know how he really felt about me. And the night he gave it to me was the first time we kissed.
“I’ll make you another guitar,” he says. “A better one. They’ve got way more tools here. I should have done it already.”
He walks to the edge of the mesa and stares down at the barren landscape below. “Might be hard to find any trees around here, though.”
“Hey, don’t get too close,” I call out.
He glances back. “After everything we’ve been through, you’re worried about me falling off this thing?”
“Maybe.” I walk over to join him at the edge, staring at the red desert, with its arroyos and dunes. There are no towns or cities here. No roads. Only this stark landscape burning under the sun. There is nothing here but Destiny Station.
I know that Liam and I should make more of an effort to fit in at the base. We’ve kept mostly to ourselves over the past few weeks, despite the fact that there are three hundred other rescued kids here. But our experiences on the wheel have taught us caution.
In addition, despite what Vargas-Ruiz told us when we first got here, the divisions between the two different tribes on the wheel have not dissolved. The rescued villagers stick together, and so do the rescued drones. It’s generally not hard to tell the two groups apart. Often the drones have teeth chiseled into points and short hair from shaving their heads on the wheel. Their eyes often look haunted as well, although I get the sense they barely remember how they once behaved.
I rarely see members of one group interact with the other. Heavy, unspoken tension hangs in the air between them. Now, far from the wheel and the UNA’s drugs, us villagers and drones should be able to set our differences aside. But old animosities die hard. I understand why. If it weren’t for the drones, a lot more villagers would be alive.
“You okay?” Liam asks, putting his arm around my shoulders.
“Just thinking about the wheel, and our friends. I mean, especially Gadya. They showed me a photo of her again today. I feel guilty that we left her behind in the archive. She probably got frozen, or worse.”
“We don’t know that. I mean, I got captured once and I survived. The same thing might have happened to her.”
“But if no one goes back and saves her, she’s never going to make it off the island.”
Liam turns to face me. “I know. That’s why we have to do something. When we get back to the wheel with the rebels, we have to make it our first priority to rescue everyone from our village who got left behind.”
I nod in agreement. “And we need to find David, too.”
Liam glances at me, his brow furrowed. “I’m not sure about that kid.”
I know that Liam thinks my friend David is just a drone, or a spy, so he doesn’t trust him. But he doesn’t know David like I do. David and I woke up on the wheel together the very same day. I was lucky and got rescued by Gadya and the villagers, but David got captured by drones. The last time Liam saw him, David was escaping from the prison kennels in our village. Liam never saw David save Rika on the frozen lake, or sacrifice himself so that Gadya and I could get inside the specimen archive. Liam never really got an opportunity to know David at all.
“David is on our side.” I lean into Liam’s body. “You have to give him a chance.”
It’s then I notice an unusual object in the sky. A dark speck flitting across the horizon, miles away from us.
“Hey, do you see that?” I ask Liam.
Then I realize that his eyes are already tracking it, squinting against the sun.
“Is it a transport plane from the wheel?” I hold my book up to shield my eyes against the glare. No planes have arrived since the one that brought me and Liam here. I know that the scientists are expecting another one soon; Vargas-Ruiz mentioned it in a deposition a few days ago. From what I’ve learned, planes from the wheel turn up roughly every three weeks.
Liam is peering at the approaching speck. “It’s too small to be a transport plane. Could be some kind of satellite.”
We both keep watching it. For some reason, the object unnerves me. Maybe because it reminds me of the selection units—those flying masses of metallic tentacles that pulled kids into the sky on the wheel. In the village, we called the selection units “feelers,” and I still think of them that way.
“It could be some kind of Australian thing,” I point out uneasily. “Something their government is testing, like a new aircraft or weapon.” The object is larger now, and moving even faster. Getting closer.
It appears to be heading straight at Destiny Station. I know that the scientists inside the rock must already be following it on their radar system. Nothing dangerous can approach Destiny Station without being detected far in advance. So, if no alarms are blaring, we’re most likely going to be fine.
But the object keeps heading our way, slicing through the air with incredible speed. I squint at it, struggling to make out its contours. The sunlight sparkles and shimmers off its gleaming surface.
Liam turns to me. “Maybe we should go back inside for a bit. Just in case.”
“You’re only saying that because I’m out here with you,” I reply. “If you were alone, or with your hunter friends on the wheel, you’d never want to go back in. Am I right?”
Our eyes meet. He can’t deny it. “What’s wrong with being protective?” he asks.
“Nothing,” I say. “Except I know I can handle this. Don’t forget that I’m a fighter too. Remember, I rescued you back at the archive.”
Liam grins. “Yeah, and I rescued you from the feeler attack in the forest before that. So we’re even.” He pauses. “And I’m not just trying to be protective. I figured we should tell someone what we’re seeing.” His grin fades a bit as he stares out at the sky again. The object is going to pass directly overhead if it keeps moving along the same trajectory.
“It’s weird there aren’t any sirens yet,” I say to Liam.
I’ve gotten used to warning sirens going off at least twice a day—each time the radar or satellite feeds pick up any suspicious activity. Their loud, wailing sounds echo through the tunnels like the baying of subterranean wolves. The sirens startled me at first, but now I barely notice them.
It’s been years since anyone tried to attack Destiny Station, but the scientists are hyper-vigilant right now. Which makes sense—given that they’re hijacking UNA aircrafts from the wheel and landing them here in the desert. It’s only a matter of time before the UNA figures out what’s going on and comes after them. This is another reason why the scientists moved up their plan for us to return to Island Alpha, from one year to twelve weeks.
The object in the sky keeps cutting its path toward the station. I finally get a better look at it.
What I see makes my heart nearly stop beating.
It’s some kind of military machine. Similar to a feeler, but even more terrifying. Tentacles whip out from either side of it, centered around a large spinning disc. To my horror, I watch sharp blades flash out from the tentacles. Even though it hasn’t tripped any alarms yet, this is definitely a weapon sent from the UNA.
Liam sees the lacerating blades too. He grabs my arm and yells, “Run!” We both start racing for the closed hatch. My heart pounds in fear.
I hear a faint hissing sound behind me, as the object shoots through the sky down toward us.
Liam and I reach the hatch just as the noise grows even louder. It’s the sound of blades slicing through air.
I duck and race sideways, getting another glimpse at the machine. Now I can see the blurry outlines of the UNA’s bloodred logo on the bottom of the disc—an eye hovering over a globe. The machine’s tentacles have large blades running up and down their lengths. The blades buzz like miniature saws. Like they’re meant to cut and destroy anything they come in contact with.
The thing is almost on us now. Liam throws open the door of the hatch leading down into the station. “Go!” he yells at me.
“Not without you!” I scream back. After being kept apart once before on the wheel, I refuse to be separated from him again.
“I’ll be right behind you!” he yells, pushing me forward. Trying to save me.
Now I hear the warning sirens start up.
But the sirens are too late.
The disc zooms through the air straight at us. Like it can sense our presence. There’s no time to get in the tunnel.
Liam presses me down behind the open door of the hatch, which is sticking upright at a ninety-degree angle. It provides us with some shelter. I feel Liam’s warm, protective body over mine. The machine hammers through the air at us, its tentacles slamming against the door. I press myself flat against the rock, shutting my eyes for a second.
Then a loud grinding noise makes me look up. To my shock, the thick metal door to the hatch has been shorn in two. The churning blades on the tentacles have sliced right through it, like chain saws through a tree branch. The machine circles back up into the sky, preparing to attack again.
Liam helps me up. “We have to get back inside!” he yells.
I hear the buzzing sound of the machine. It’s descending again.
I fling my legs down into the open hole, grabbing at the ladder rungs with my fingers. But I slip and miss.
I start sliding down the shaft, crashing against the rock sides and the metal rungs as I cry out in pain.
There’s a flash of light above me, and Liam careens into the shaft as well, right behind me.
Then my legs crash into the rock floor, and I fall backward, hitting my head and elbows. I roll out of the way as Liam comes slamming down after me.
I hear grinding noises above us, and I gaze up, trying to catch my breath. The churning blades of the machine plow into the remains of the hatch. It’s trying to get down into the station with us. Tentacles whir and gnash, their blades grinding the sandstone into dust and sparking against the metal ladder. The opening isn’t wide enough for the machine. It’s trying to expand the hole.
I struggle to sit up. Liam is right there next to me. We start crawling away from the bottom of the shaft.
“You okay?” Liam asks, staggering to his feet and giving me a hand.
“Yeah,” I gasp. “You?”
We stand there in the tunnel, both gazing up at the dust and debris raining down from the roof of the station. The sirens continue to wail. Men rush past us, heading toward the shaft. They are all wearing helmets and carrying guns.
More figures race toward us, including Dr. Terry Elliott, one of the other chief scientists here, specializing in anthropology. He’s tall, with thinning gray hair. “What did you see up there?” he calls out urgently.
“I don’t know!” I tell him. “It was kind of like a feeler. I mean, a selection unit. But with blades on its tentacles.” My knees and elbows are throbbing. I can hear the machine grinding away above us, mindlessly trying to cut through metal and rock.
Then a volley of gunshots begins.
The noise explodes through the tunnels. The guards are firing at the machine, trying to destroy it. It squeals in mechanical agony as the men blast away.
The tunnel starts filling with dust and smoke. “We need to get out of here, and deeper into the station,” Liam says.
I nod. We start stumbling away, heading down the tunnel, both of us dazed. More gunshots ring out behind us.
Vargas-Ruiz rushes out of another tunnel that intersects with ours. Her eyes are wide and her curly hair is disheveled. This attack clearly took everyone by surprise. “What’s going on?”
“You should know,” Liam says. “Alenna and I were up on the roof deck. Something came after us.” He gestures toward the tunnel behind us. “And it’s still here.”
“Our radar failed to track it,” Vargas-Ruiz says, staring at us. “It appeared out of nowhere.”
“We wanted to fight it,” I tell her. “But we weren’t ready.”
“I’m glad you didn’t fight,” Vargas-Ruiz replies. “You’re not trained, and you don’t have any weapons. Let our security team deal with events like this.”
“You could give us weapons if you wanted,” Liam points out.
Vargas-Ruiz doesn’t respond.
“So what does this mean?” I ask her. “Why did that thing come here from the UNA? Why now?”
“I don’t know,” she replies. “And it could mean nothing. Or it could be the start of an onslaught. I won’t know until I see it. Until we can take it apart and study it in the lab, and find out exactly what it is.”
The words “an onslaught” are still ringing in my ears. I thought that Liam and I were safe in Australia, at least for a while. Clearly, I was wrong.
Vargas-Ruiz sees the look on my face and sighs. “Don’t worry. It could just be an exploratory probe. We’ve been concerned that the UNA would send something out to follow the hijacked planes, and relay data back.” She pauses. “We’re planning on realigning our radar and satellite controls so that nothing like this can happen again.”
“What do we do until then?” I ask.
“Nothing. Destiny Station is safe. But this isn’t the first time we’ve been attacked, and it won’t be the last. Until we leave to join the other rebel bases and go back to Prison Island Alpha, you’re stuck here.” She starts to walk away. But then she stops and turns back to us. “Just be careful about going up top from now on. And, Alenna, you shouldn’t have left the deposition room today. I expect a lot better from you.”
Before I can think of a good response, she turns away again, heading toward the crowd of people and guards. The machine is silent now, and there are no more gunshots. I take a deep breath and try to calm down.
“So what do you think?” I ask Liam softly as we begin walking down the tunnel.
“I wish we could leave and fight the UNA right now.” He looks at me, his blue eyes flashing for an instant. “I don’t want to sit on the sidelines anymore. But there’s nothing we can do right now. When the time comes, we’ll get out of this rock and back to the wheel.” He kisses me on the forehead. “Then we’ll give it everything we have.”
A voice suddenly calls out, “Hey!”
I turn my head, startled. Liam turns too.
A girl is standing there in the tunnel behind us. She’s pretty, with gentle brown eyes, dark skin, and a thin, lithe physique that makes her look taller than she really is. She has short-cropped black hair, only an inch long at most, and she’s wearing a black tank top and jeans. I’ve seen this girl around, but never spoken to her. She’s a year or so older than I am.
I know that she’s a former drone. On the wheel she probably lived in a frenzy of madness, her mind clouded by UNA drugs and enthralled by the Monk’s deranged teachings. In the dim light, I can see long, raised scars on both of her wrists.
Liam and I stare at her. It’s hard for us to trust anyone who was once a drone, after we fought them so many times in battle. Even though the drugs are gone from their systems, it has become an ingrained response for me to think of them as enemies.
But this girl is smiling, and her eyes look lucid and kind. She walks closer and holds something out to me. I glance down and see that it’s the book that Liam gave me. The Myth of Sisyphus. I must have dropped it during the attack. I take it from her, grateful but a bit confused. The cover is scorched on one corner.
“You’re safe now,” the girl says. “They blasted that machine into confetti. And a guard found your book on the rocks up top. I thought I’d give it back.”
“My name’s Cass.” The girl looks from me to Liam and back again. “Cass Henning. I know it’s a weird time for you guys right now. I mean, you probably just see me as some crazy drone. But that’s not who I really am.” She pauses. “I’ve been here for two months. Everything on the wheel just seems like a dream to me now. Like it didn’t actually happen . . .” Her words trail off awkwardly. She crosses her arms, looking a bit nervous. I wonder what the other former drones here would think of her talking to us like this.
“It’s okay,” I tell her. “My name’s Alenna.”
“I know. Your mom works here, right?”
I nod. The girl seems relieved that I’m being nice to her.
Cass glances at Liam. He’s remained silent this whole time. He spent much longer on the wheel than I did. More than a year. And he lost many more friends at the hands of the drones. I haven’t seen him talk to one of them yet.
“Go on,” I prod him gently. I can tell that this girl isn’t a threat to us. At least not right now.
“I’m Liam,” he says, reluctantly shaking her hand.
Cass nods. “Nice to meet you.” Then she looks back at me. “You ready for the concert tonight?”
“They’re still going to have it?” I ask her. “Even after what just happened? Seriously?”
“Of course. That’s how they do things here. They just keep going, no matter what. Pretending everything’s normal.”
“Like we did on the wheel,” Liam says. “We just kept going—no matter how many times your kind destroyed our village.”
Cass looks at him. “I’m sorry. For the insane stuff that happened on Island Alpha. But you’ll see that things are different here. I’ll prove it to you, and so will the other ex-drones. We’ve detoxed from the UNA drugs, and we know that the Monk was a fake. And the scientists make us ex-drones go through counseling sessions, in addition to the depositions. I’m a totally different person than I was on the wheel.”
Liam nods, relenting a little. “Okay.”
Cass glances back at me. “I’m a musician too. So I’ll be seeing you tonight at the concert.”
Before I can respond, I hear a boy’s voice calling her name from another tunnel.
I peer down its depths and see the boy, dimly lit by some yellow utility lights hanging along the wall. He’s just a shadowy figure, but if he’s one of her friends, he’s most likely a former drone.
“I’d better get going,” Cass says, turning away from us. “Good talking to you.”
She heads down the tunnel toward the boy. Liam and I stand there, watching her retreating figure. The boy waits for Cass. When she reaches him, the two of them turn and walk off down another side tunnel together, out of view.
“I never thought I’d shake a drone’s hand,” Liam says to me, sounding thoughtful. “No matter what they say, I still don’t trust them.”
I hold up my book. “She brought me this. She can’t be all bad.”
Liam and I start walking down the tunnel again, heading to the stairs that lead back to our quarters down on level two. Despite Liam’s reaction to Cass, I’m comforted by how nice she was. I know that eventually we’ll have to put aside our tribalism if we want any chance at reclaiming the wheel and freeing our friends.
“C’mon. Let’s go,” I say to Liam, taking his hand and leading him forward. “If we’re stuck here, we need to make the best of it.”