And then, to Delalieu:
“Lieutenant, please tell our visitor that I’ll be down in a moment.”
“Yes, madam.” Another nod, and Delalieu’s gone.
Unfortunately, my bravado walks out the door with him.
I ignore Castle as I search the room for Kenji’s face; for all my big talk, I don’t actually want to do this alone. And Kenji knows me well.
“Hey—I’m right here.” He’s crossed the room in just a few strides, by my side in seconds.
“You’re coming with me, right?” I whisper, tugging at his sleeve like a child.
Kenji laughs. “I’ll be wherever you need me to be, kid.”
I have a great fear of drowning in the ocean of my own silence.
In the steady thrum that accompanies quiet, my mind is unkind to me. I think too much. I feel, perhaps, far more than I should. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that my goal in life is to outrun my mind, my memories.
So I have to keep moving.
I used to retreat belowground when I wanted a distraction. I used to find comfort in our simulation chambers, in the programs designed to prepare soldiers for combat. But as we’ve recently moved a team of soldiers underground in all the chaos of the new construction, I’m without reprieve. I’ve no choice now but to go up.
I enter the hangar at a brisk pace, my footsteps echoing in the vast space as I move, almost instinctively, toward the army choppers parked in the far right wing. Soldiers see me and jump quickly out of my way, their eyes betraying their confusion even as they salute me. I nod only once in their direction, offering no explanation as I climb up and into the aircraft. I place the headphones over my head and speak quietly into the radio, alerting our air-traffic controllers of my intent to take flight, and strap myself into the front seat. The retinal scanner takes my identification automatically. Preflight checks are clear. I turn on the engine and the roar is deafening, even through the noise-canceling headphones. I feel my body begin to unclench.
Soon, I’m in the air.
My father taught me to shoot a gun when I was nine years old. When I was ten he sliced open the back of my leg and showed me how to suture my own wounds. At eleven he broke my arm and abandoned me in the wild for two weeks. At age twelve I was taught to build and defuse my own bombs. He began teaching me how to fly planes when I was thirteen.
He never did teach me how to ride a bike. I figured that out on my own.
From thousands of feet above the ground, Sector 45 looks like a half-assembled board game. Distance makes the world feel small and surmountable, a pill easily swallowed. But I know the deceit too well, and it is here, above the clouds, that I finally understand Icarus. I, too, am tempted to fly too close to the sun. It is only my inability to be impractical that keeps me tethered to the earth. So I take a steadying breath, and get back to work.
I’m making my aerial rounds a bit earlier than usual, so the sights below are different from the ones I’ve begun to expect every day. On an average day I’m up here in the late afternoon, checking in on civilians as they leave work to exchange their REST dollars at local Supply Centers. They usually scurry back to their compounds shortly thereafter, weighted down with newly purchased necessities and the disheartening realization that they’ll have to do it all again the following day. Right now, everyone is still at work, leaving the land empty of its worker ants. The landscape is bizarre and beautiful from afar, the ocean vast, blue, and breathtaking. But I know only too well our world’s pockmarked surface.
This strange, sad reality my father helped create.
I squeeze my eyes shut, my hand clutching the throttle. There’s simply too much to contend with today.
First, the disarming realization that I have a brother whose heart is as complicated and flawed as my own.
Second, and perhaps most offensive: the impending, anxiety-inducing arrival of my past.
I still haven’t talked to Juliette about the imminent arrival of our guests, and, if I’m being honest, I’m no longer sure I want to. I’ve never discussed much of my life with her. I’ve never told her stories of my childhood friends, their parents, the history of The Reestablishment and my role within it. There’s never been time. Never the right moment. If Juliette has been supreme commander for seventeen days now, she and I have only been in a relationship for two days longer than that.
We’ve both been busy.
And we’ve only just overcome so much—all the complications between us, all the distance and confusion, the misunderstandings. She’s mistrusted me for so long. I know I have only myself to blame for what’s transpired between us, but I worry that the past ugliness has inspired in her an instinct to doubt me; it’s likely a well-developed muscle now. And I feel certain that telling her more about my ignoble life will only make things worse at the onset of a relationship I want desperately to preserve. To protect.
So how do I begin? Where do I start?
The year I turned sixteen, our parents, the supreme commanders, decided we should all take turns shooting each other. Not to kill, merely to disable. They wanted us to know what a bullet wound felt like. They wanted us to be able to understand the recovery process. Most of all, they wanted us to know that even our friends might one day turn on us.
I feel my mouth twist into an unhappy smile.
I suppose it was a worthwhile lesson. After all, my father is now six feet under the ground and his old friends don’t seem to care. But the problem that day was that I’d been taught by my father, a master marksman. Worse, I’d already been practicing every day for five years—two years earlier than the others—and, as a result, I was faster, sharper, and crueler than my peers. I didn’t hesitate. I’d shot all my friends before they’d even picked up their weapons.
That was the first day I felt, with certainty, that my father was proud of me. I’d spent so long desperately seeking his approval and that day, I finally had it. He looked at me the way I’d always hoped he would: like he cared for me. Like a father who saw a bit of himself in his son. The realization sent me into the forest, where I promptly threw up in the bushes.
I’ve only been struck by a bullet once.
The memory still mortifies me, but I don’t regret it. I deserved it. For misunderstanding her, for mistreating her, for being lost and confused. But I’ve been trying so hard to be a different man; to be, if not kinder, then at the very least, better. I don’t want to lose the love I’ve come to cherish.
And I don’t want Juliette to know my past.
I don’t want to share stories from my life that only disgust and revolt me, stories that would color her impression of me. I don’t want her to know how I spent my time as a child. She doesn’t need to know how many times my father forced me to watch him skin dead animals, how I can still feel the vibrations of his screams in my ear as he kicked me, over and over again, when I dared to look away. I’d rather not remember the hours I spent shackled in a dark room, compelled to listen to the manufactured sounds of women and children screaming for help. It was all supposed to make me strong, he’d said. It was supposed to help me survive.
Instead, life with my father only made me wish for death.
I don’t want to tell Juliette how I’d always known my father was unfaithful, that he’d abandoned my mother long, long ago, that I’d always wanted to murder him, that I’d dreamt of it, planned for it, hoped to one day break his neck using the very skills he’d given me.
How I failed. Every time.
Because I am weak.
I don’t miss him. I don’t miss his life. I don’t want his friends or his footprint on my soul. But for some reason, his old comrades won’t let me go.
They’re coming to collect their pound of flesh, and I fear that this time—as I have every time—I will end up paying with my heart.
Kenji and I are in Warner’s room—what’s become my room—and we’re standing in the middle of the closet while I fling clothes at him, trying to figure out what to wear.
“What about this?” I say to him, throwing something glittery in his direction. “Or this?” I toss another ball of fabric at him.
“You don’t know shit about clothes, do you?”