Walker nods. But he’s agreeing with the first statement, not the second. “After our awakening, we were enhanced with a technology that makes us nearly indestructible. We turned ourselves into killing machines, Ben.” And then he takes a deep breath and finally spits it out, the obtuse bastard. “There’s no way they could have survived this long, not against us. Your friends are dead.”
I left anyway. Fuck it. Fuck him. Fuck everything. I’ve sat around long enough waiting for the world to end.
Ringer hasn’t kept her promise, so I’m keeping it for her.
SENTRIES ARE WAITING for me at the gates. I’m escorted immediately to the watchtower overlooking the landing field, another circle completed, where Vosch waits for me—as if he hasn’t moved from the spot in the last forty days.
“Zombie is alive,” I said. I looked down and saw I was standing on the bloodstain that marked where Razor fell. A few feet away, beside the console, that’s where Razor’s bullet cut Teacup down. Teacup.
Vosch shrugged. “Unknown.”
“Okay, maybe not Zombie, but someone who knows me is still alive.” He didn’t answer. It’s probably Sullivan, I thought. That would be just my luck. “You know I can’t get close to Walker without someone he trusts to vouch for me.”
He folded his long, powerful arms across his chest and peered down his nose at me, bright birdlike eyes glittering. “You never answered my question,” he said. “Am I human?”
I didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”
He smiled. “And do you still believe that means there is no hope?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “I am the hope of the world. The fate of humankind rests upon me.”
“What a terrible burden that must be,” I said.
“You are being facetious.”
“They needed people like you. Organizers and managers who knew why they came and what they wanted.”
He was nodding. His face glowed. He was pleased with me—and pleased with himself for choosing me. “They had no choice, Marika. Which means, of course, that we had no choice. Under every likely scenario, we were doomed to destroy ourselves and our home. The only solution was radical intervention. Destroy the human village in order to save it.”
“And it wasn’t enough to kill seven billion of us,” I said.
“Of course not. Otherwise, they would have thrown the big rock. No, the best solution is the child in the wheat.”
My stomach rolled at the memory. The toddler bursting through the dead grain. The little band of survivors taking him in. The last remnant of trust blown apart in a flash of hellish green light.
On the day I met him, I got the speech. Every recruit did. The last battle of Earth will not happen on any plain or desert or mountaintop . . . I touched my chest. “This is the battlefield.”
“Yes. Otherwise the cycle would merely repeat itself.”
“And that’s why Walker’s important.”
“The program embedded in him has fundamentally failed. We must understand why, for reasons that should be obvious to you. And there is only one way to accomplish that.”
He pressed a button on the console next to him. Behind me, a door opened and a middle-aged woman wearing lieutenant’s bars on her collar stepped into the room. She was smiling. Her teeth were perfectly even and very large. Her eyes were gray. Her hair was sandy blond and pulled back into a tight bun. I immediately disliked her. It was a visceral response.
“Lieutenant, escort Private Ringer to the infirmary for her predeployment checkup. I will see you in Briefing Room Bravo at oh four hundred.”
He turned away. He was done with me—for now.
In the elevator, the sandy-haired woman asked, “How are you feeling?”
Her smile persisted as if I’d answered, Fine, and you? “My name’s Lieutenant Pierce. But call me Constance.”
The bell dinged. The doors slid open. She slammed her fist into my neck. My vision went black; my knees buckled.
“That’s for Claire,” she said. “You remember her.”
I came up, driving the heel of my hand into her chin. The back of her head hit the wall with a satisfying crack. Then I punched her in the gut with all the force my enhanced muscles could muster. She collapsed at my feet.
“That’s for the seven billion. You remember them.”
IN THE INFIRMARY I was given a thorough physical. Diagnostics were run on the 12th System to ensure it was fully operational. Then an orderly brought in a tray groaning with food. I tore into it. I hadn’t had a decent meal in over a month. When the plate was empty, the orderly came back carrying another. I knocked that off, too.
They brought my old uniform. I stripped. I washed up the best I could in the sink. I could smell the stench of forty unwashed days hovering around me, and for some reason I felt embarrassed. There was no toothbrush, so I rubbed my finger over my teeth. I wondered if the 12th System protected my enamel. I pulled on the clothes, laced the boots tight. I felt better. More like the old Ringer, the blissfully ignorant, naïve, unenhanced Ringer who left Zombie that night with the unspoken promise: I will come back. If I can, I will.
The door swung open. Constance. She’d changed out of her lieutenant’s uniform and into a pair of mom jeans and a tattered hoodie.
“I feel like we started off on the wrong foot,” she said.
“We’re partners now,” she said sweetly. “Buddies. We should get along.”
I followed her down three flights of stairs into the underground bunker, a snarl of gray-walled passageways pocked with unmarked doors, under fluorescent lights that bled a constant, sterile glow, reminding me of the hours with Razor while my body fought its losing battle against the 12th System. Playing chaseball and creating secret codes and plotting the phony escape that would lead me back beneath this ghastly light, another circle bound by uncertainty and fear.
Constance was a half step in front of me. Our footfalls echoed in the empty space. I could hear her breathe. It would be so easy to kill you right now, I thought idly, then pushed the thought away. That time would come, I hoped, but it wasn’t now.
She pushed open a door identical to the fifty or so other unmarked doors we’d passed, and I followed her into the conference room. A projection screen against one wall. A long table in front of the screen. A small metal box on the center of the table.