"Wickner. We're going to miss the water cut-off."
He doesn't answer me.
"It's been three whole days. If I don't get a shower today—"
"Don't make me out to be the asshole here, Clement. Don't you pin that on me."
He doesn't even bother to look my way. Not even a glance. I know he's driving, but it's not like there's much to run into out here in the waste. But that's Wickner. Eyes straight ahead. Hands at ten and two. Meet the daily quota. And that was before he found out he was in the final two for a promotion. Since then, he's been even worse.
Wickner's right hand leaps off the steering wheel, pointing. "There. See 'em?"
I strain my eyes, following his finger. "Yeah." I can't see anything, but Wickner's got a sixth sense about our work. Where to find the cargo. And the faster we fill our quota, the better my chances of getting that shower.
Wickner pounds the accelerator into the floor. The truck lurches forward, then settles into a rolling rhythm. I stare out the window as the burnt remains of the earth careen past us on all sides. I see us from far above, an insignificant speck in a wide brown ocean of blistered dirt.
A few moments later: I can spot what must be the bodies. Small and hazy half-dots. Bare black ticks on the horizon. Looks like two or three of them. I don't think two will cut it. Three might. I cross my fingers for three—
—then dig at a prickly tingle creeping around my left thigh. These suits and the way they itch. I know I should just be thankful there's something between me and any lingering chemicals from the attacks—and I am—but just once I'd like to make it through a shift without wanting to gouge out a chunk of my skin. The suits do look good though. All credit there. Off-white poly-something-or-other fabric that covers us from our necks to our built-in boots. Egg-shaped helmets in the same off-white with toffee-tinted visors. Pretty slick.
Wickner downshifts into a lower gear. As the truck slows, I think for the millionth time that I'd like to see just one piece of grass. One solitary blade, a defiant middle finger sticking up out of the ground to announce that things will return to normal. But it has been almost a year since we started this job, and I haven't seen as much as a seed, sapling, or bud. Just the scorched earth, colored like dried blood, scraped and stripped into its lifeless state by the repeated attacks and retaliations. There's no relief above either—not a drop of rain, not a cloud in sight. Just the same yellow-grey fog that has filled the sky since the fighting ended.
Wickner brings the truck to a stop. The engine chokes and coughs its way down to a mumble, then quiets. We snap our helmets into place and lock down the tinted visors with a soft snick. I toggle on my suit's internal cooling system. The fan that cools the back of my neck whirrs to life, and chilled air coils around my skin. Wickner's tinny voice reverbs in my helmet's earpiece: "Ready?" I give him a thumbs-up. I can be a good teammate. Just get me back to the center before they shut off the water for the day.
Wickner opens his door, and the truck bounces as he steps out of the cab. I check the clock duct-taped to the dashboard: 4:30 p.m. We're at least forty-five minutes out from the center. I spin the variables around in my mind: if we don't have any trouble with the bodies, and if the bodies get us to the quota, and if the truck doesn't conk out on us—we might make it back before the 5:30 p.m. cut-off. Better get to it.
I meet Wickner in front of the truck. Two alabaster aliens on our own planet. I rub the Chevy logo on the hood—something my dad always did when he got out of his truck, and before I can stop myself I am back in our driveway at home washing his truck with him while my mom and Cynthia, my sister, bring us lemonade and cupcakes. Those two—Cynthia especially—would make cupcakes for any reason or no reason at all and what little of me remains in the present can tell Wickner's staring at me—I can just make out his eyes through his visor—with a look that says he knows I've crawled off into my own mind and am about to disappear. So I push the driveway back into the past and brush by Wickner, walking straight over to the bodies. Counting: one body, two bodies—
Three. There are three of them. Pretty standard for what we find out here: Eyes pinned wide with hopelessness, mouths frozen half-open in silent agony. Red streaks cover most of their bodies, and mottled green-white pustules dot their skin. I catalog them in my head—and I know Wickner does the same—as the blonde, the brunette and the man. When we started this job, and before we got to know each other, we used to give the bodies names, to break up the monotony. But on our fifth day out Wickner plucked my little sister's name out of the air, and before he or I knew it, I had him on his back, my hands around his throat, our suits stretched to the brink of tearing.
So we don't name them anymore.
I try to guess their weight. The women are solidly built, but the man is slight. Even with three of them, we still might not get over the weight quota.
Wickner and I grab the brunette—he takes her legs, and I take her arms, focusing on her waist, avoiding her empty eyes—and we swing the corpse up and over into the bed of the truck. The brunette lands with a soft thud, cushioned by the other bodies we've collected today. I move quickly to the blonde, the clock in my head careening towards 5:30 p.m., but Wickner has already gone to check the jury-rigged scale attached to the truck bed.
"Wickner, she's not going to be enough. There's no way she's—"
"We're still short."
I swallow every swear word I know and wait for him to help me with the blonde. We heave her over. Wickner steps towards the scale, and I intercept him half-way, placing a hand on his chest.
"We're going to need all three."
He knocks my hand away with more force than is necessary. "Procedure." Wickner continues to the scale and makes a three-course meal out of it. The Oscar goes to. "Nope." He sighs. "Sorry, partner. Still light."
"Wickner—" Fuck you fuck you fuck you. "I'm sorry, okay? Let's just get on with it."
I try to dial down the volume of the mocking chorus in my head. But the knob's busted and all I hear is: this is your life now. Your mother, your father, Cynthia who was your best friend—had the gall to be killed by the terror that came raining down from above. You weren't even smart enough to die with them. Now you run mind games on dead bodies and play the grateful corner man to a company stooge who couldn't have stood toe-to-toe with you in the days before. All for one lousy shower. This is what you've become. This.
"I accept your apology, Clement. And I won't write up the incident either."
I mumble a "thank you." Wickner pauses, and I think he's going to ask me to speak up, and if he does so help me I'll rip off his helmet and tear out his tongue. If he gets exposed, so much the better. But he just motions for me to grab the man's wrists as he bends down for the legs and this is when the man's body rolls slightly to the left, and a soft moan pushes through the corpse's mouth.
"Well—" Wickner says. "It does appear that we got us a twitcher. Been a while, huh? Who's on the stick?"
"You're fetching then, I guess. Go fetch, boy." I brush off his cheap jab and hustle to the metal utility chest bolted to the outside of the truck bed, cursing under my breath. A twitcher always means an extra five minutes. At least. I flip the lock on the chest and carefully draw the stick clear of its scabbard. The stick is a grey tube about the length of my arm and about as thick. A six-inch needle extends from one end, and the other end hides a trigger under a secure flip-top. You don't want to accidentally discharge the stick. It's also why we alternate on retrieval and usage. It's not a job you want all to yourself.
He motions for the stick, and I hand it to him. For all the violence contained within it, using the stick is still a delicate process. Too much pressure and you'll explode the body, which aside from the mess, means the body weighs less, and that means longer to get to that day's quota.
Wickner holds the stick over a patch of skin that is free of the red marks and pustules, right above the man's belly button. He flips open the trigger guard with his thumb, then gently punctures the man's skin and grazes the trigger. The stick emits a high-pitched whine. The man's body trembles, then is still.
When we stick someone, it essentially turns that person's insides into a giant puddle. Yeah, there's more science to it, but that's the upshot. If the body looks like the chemicals haven't torn all the way through it—if there's a twitch—we use the stick, and kill off any of the chemicals that are still active. No use taking any chances when we bring the bodies back to be incinerated. The scientists tell us it's just a precaution, that the chemicals should have run their course, but if they knew as much as they claimed, I don't know why we would be out here at all.
This job used to be an honorable one. A nasty business to be sure, but necessary: collecting specimens for research. Bring back the bodies so the scientists could reverse-engineer death and inoculate us against the next round of attacks. But they never found a cure and since the ceasefire we are nothing more than garbage men picking up the trash. I guess if they can't solve the problem, they'll eradicate any evidence of it.
I look down at the man. A weak brownish stream trickles out of his nose. I know this bothers Wickner because he wants to be flawless every time, with no evidence of his handiwork. I'm just glad it's not going to affect the weight. We put the man's corpse on top of the blonde and brunette. I peer over Wickner's shoulder as the scale re-calibrates—and we're over the quota. The red number on the readout turns green, and then is replaced by RETURN TO CENTER. Wickner double-secures our cargo with bungee cords, and I gently return the stick to the scabbard and then to the tool chest.
Back inside the truck. Doors shut. A whoosh as the cab's air cleanser pushes out the old air, and surrounds us with fresh air from the tank. Helmets off. Wickner slots the key into the ignition. I can already feel the water on my face, the shampoo in my hair, the soap spinning in my fingers—and I look at the clock.
There's no way.
My fist slams into the clock, shattering its plastic face. The air rushes out of my body, and I slump down in my seat, waiting for Wickner's inevitable reprimand.
"You really wanted that shower, huh?" But he says it softly. Like a compatriot. My antennae go up. This isn't normal. He continues: "What if I could get it for you?"
"You don't have that promotion yet. Even if you did—"
I turn towards him. "Even if you did, it would take the mother of all cargo loads to get them to turn the water back on." And even as I say this I feel my gut tighten as his eyes glisten with excitement and I know exactly where he's going with this and so I move to intercept—
"The Commune? Not a chance, Wickner."
"We're not that far. Two hours, tops."
"I don't care if it's two minutes."
"You don't want that shower?"
"You don't give a fuck about my getting a shower, Wickner. You want to drive into the center in a blaze of glory, with a haul like no one's ever seen, and you think that's gonna put you over the top with the brass and get you that promotion."
Wickner stares out the window. Chews it over. Shrugs. "You're right. I don't care about your shower. But I know that you do. I also know that even though we have to live indoors and can't go outside without these ridiculous suits and we're both the only ones still alive from our families, you still think a shower is important. You still think it means something. Fine. Here's a way for you to get it."
"Fuck you, Wickner."
"No. Fuck you. You don't want to do this? Fine. But I promise you, I'll make it my daily mission to make sure we never make it back before the water shut-off. And when I get promoted—and it will happen sooner or later—I'll make sure you get partnered with the biggest fuck-up I can find, and you'll keep missing the shut-off. And it will go on and on and on. You hate your life now? Come talk to me in six months. If you haven't killed yourself."
I sit in silence.
"Or we do this today. We're close. And we won't be in this quadrant again for at least another week. By then, the promotion will have been announced. They want to give it to me. I can feel it. They just need a little push." He pauses. "You'll be rid of me. And I'll do what I can to have you promoted to driver, and you can run things your own way and arrive back at the center an hour before cut-off for as long as you want. Or at least until our fearless leaders make another go at Armageddon."
"I want out of this truck, Clement. And you want your shower."
A thousand curses and damnations roar through my brain.
I croak out: "Go."
Wicker flips the key and the truck's engine turns over, grumbling, then roaring to life. He guns it, enjoying the moment, and looks over at me. I flip him off. He smiles—
—and flattens the gas pedal against the floor. The truck's back wheels spin in the dirt, then catch, and we rocket away.
Four or five years ago, a group of political and social dissidents moved away from the city to live off the land. Initially close enough to still be considered part of society, they continued to withdraw farther and farther away, until they could no longer be thought of as anything but their own splinter civilization. Known first as commune farmers, then simply "the Commune," they had quickly earned a high place in the pecking order of civic myth. Mothers might threaten young children with being sent to the Commune. There were rumors of ugliness between the Commune and the city's military, out on exercises. Those in the Commune fiercely guarded their land, it was said, and had booby-trapped and land-mined their surrounding fields and highways, so that they would be left undisturbed. There were whispers about branding and arcane rituals, designed to appease the earth.
One thing that was certain: the government was glad to see them leave the city, a perpetual thorn in their side reduced to a distant memory. And the attacks and rebuilding did nothing to soften the government's stance. While efforts were made to reach out to the smaller, cooperative townships, the Commune was ignored. The prevailing sentiment: they got what they deserved.
None of the trucks had been allowed to go out to the Commune, and so no cargo had been hauled from there. We would be the first. And there should be plenty of bodies for the taking.
A little less than two hours later we pull off the crumbled remains of the highway, and follow a dirt road, heading towards some low-rising hills. Wickner sits ramrod-straight in his seat, rigid with giddy anticipation.
I ask him: "You believe all the rumors?"
"About the Commune? Who even knows what to think. I guess if we roll over a land mine we'll have our answer—"
The truck jolts and we catch each other's eyes, waiting for the truck to explode and carry us up into the air in a geyser of flame—but it's just a pothole.
I wait a few more seconds until speaking, in case Wickner's personal death fantasy has a few more elaborate flourishes. Then I ask: "What about the other stuff?"
"The weird ritual shit? No idea. People are fucked up generally is my take on things, so I'm not sure anything out here would surprise me."
"Let's hope there's nothing out here that surprises either of us."
Wickner grunts his agreement. He guides the truck into an opening between two rolling slopes of the low hills, and we find ourselves on the top of a ridge. Wickner stops the truck and puts it in park, and we look down at the Commune. Or what it used to be.
Several concentric rings of cabins surround a long peaked building—a town hall or meeting house, maybe—in the center of the sunken, slight valley. Beyond the cabins farthest from us we can see what were once fields, but now jaundiced and barren like everything else.
I say: "It's like some weird combination of medieval village and Western frontier town."
"Yeah, just after the plague or the Indians got through with it."
I can't argue with him. There are no signs of life. Not an abandoned dog barking, or an idle column of smoke drifting up from a still-smoldering fire. Death hangs over this place like a shroud. Even from within the cab of the truck, the sense that something especially wrong happened here is heavy and impenetrable.
Wickner looks over at me. "You ready?"
No. This is a bad idea. We're not supposed to be here. "If you are."
For all of Wickner's bravado a couple of hours ago, even he hesitates putting the truck back into drive. For a half-moment I think he is going to turn the truck around and leave the Commune behind us and a sigh of relief starts to spill out of me. But the half-moment is barely that and now Wickner has the truck moving again, and we drive down an incline and into this strange town.
As the truck breaches the first ring of the cabins, the engine whinnies, coughs, and dies. The truck rolls to a stop. We sit wordlessly for a moment. Then Wickner says: "Looks like we're walking." He cranes forward and looks up at the sky. "Hopefully we'll get enough sun for the battery to re-charge. 'Til then..." He trails off, and begins to put on his helmet. I follow suit.
We leave the truck. As soon as my feet hit the ground, my sense of foreboding multiplies. A flat, blunt weight pressing down on me. Locking me to the ground.
Wickner gets a few steps in front of me, realizes I'm not by his side, and turns around. "You coming, princess?"
"Maybe I'll just wait here."
"The fuck you will. We're walking. The both of us."
I am rooted in place. I can hear Wicker's sigh in my ear.
"Look—so it's freaky, all right? Fine. But there's not going to be anything we haven't seen before. Just remember why we're here. Focus on that and just keep moving. Okay?"
"Okay." I take a few tentative steps forward. Maybe Wickner's got a decent human being rolling around somewhere inside him, after all. I know his little speech is just a means to an end for him, but maybe there's a tiny bud of decency too, waiting to sprout. Maybe he won't be so bad in the center's administration. With that thought, I realize it's official: this place is getting to me.
I catch up to Wickner, and we walk forward. It's just us and the charred remains of the once-white cabins, now marked with the black-brown scars from where the chemical winds blew through. Without any upkeep to them, the cabins have devolved even further, down to their skeletal frames. I feel like I am walking through a graveyard, a Golgotha of ruined homes, and the lives that once thrived in them.
We continue on. We pass through the second circle of cabins. Maybe these were for the merchants, or the tradesmen within the Commune—some of the windows look bigger, like storefronts, and we see what could have been a blacksmith's forge in happier days. But these cabins are just as empty as the first ones.
I can sense Wickner tensing up. Where's his cargo? His windfall? While I maintain a more or less straight path, he darts from cabin to cabin, peering inside, finding nothing.
He spits out: "I don't fucking get it."
"Maybe they got out of town. Made it up north to—"
That's when we smell them. Even through the suits, the familiar, crisp odor of rotting skin penetrates—but this is a new, searing intensity that beats at us. I feel my stomach revolting, and choke back the rushing vomit. I want to tear off my helmet, and reach my hands up—
Wickner grabs my hands and pins them to my side. "Hold your shit together. Breathe." I struggle to find my breath, and can't help but wonder why Wickner doesn't seem at all affected.
I realize it's because he knows we're close and that a smell like that means a whole lot of bodies. And only one place makes sense. The meeting house. Even through his visor, I can read the impatience in his eyes. I wave him forward and cough out: "Go on ahead. I'll catch up."
"You're not going to take off your helmet or try any other stupid shit?"
I shake my head. He drops his grip on my hands and strides away. When he is ten yards away from the meeting house door, I watch him pull up and his knees buckle, and I can hear him hack and fight for breath. His hands go up to his face and he bats at the air as if he could physically ward off the smell. But he lowers his hands after a few futile seconds.
The door to the meeting house is half-way open, but I can't make out anything on the inside. Wickner pushes the door the rest of the way open and steps into the heavy blackness, a gaping mouth that swallows him whole.
In my earpiece I hear: "Fuck me."
He steps back outside, and motions me forward. I walk towards him, but that's not fast enough for him. He starts jogging towards me and when he's in front of me, he says: "Jackpot."
Wickner makes me go in before him. "So you can see it how I saw it." My eyes need a few seconds to adjust to the dim light that slips its way in through lazy slats and dust-bathed windows, but the scene racks into focus soon enough and then I wish it hadn't happened at all.
The bodies are everywhere. How many—fifty, sixty, seventy—a hundred? I can't tell. It's hard to be certain, but it looks as though they all gathered inside the meeting room as the attacks began—even at this distance they might have heard the city's sirens, or more likely a radio bulletin. From the way the bodies lay on the floor, it looks like they stood in concentric circles, mirroring the cabins. And I know it's impossible, but it feels like they all fell in such a way that they are looking right at me. Like they died knowing that we would be walking through this door and that this was their final challenge to the city-dwellers. Haul us away if you can. Haul us away if you can bear the sight of it. Haul us away if you can carry that burden—
Wickner claps me on my shoulders. "Pretty fucked up, right? How they're all laid out like the cabins?" I don't know what to say to him, and he doesn't wait to find out. "I'm going to poke around. Gotta wait for the truck to charge up anyways."
I turn to walk outside, but one of the bodies closest to me catches my eye. It's a teenage boy, fifteen or sixteen maybe. I kneel down next to him, looking at the top of his right arm. The mark that is there looks like a tattoo at first, but it's not—it's a brand. The skin raised and toughened. A symbol, a picture, maybe some kind of animal—it's hard to tell what it once was, except that it was clearly meant to be something, now distorted by the familiar chemical burns.
The rumors about the Commune branding its members bounce in my head, demanding attention, so I turn over the body next to the teenager. A woman in her late fifties. I pull up what's left of the sleeve of her right arm and there is the same brand. This woman wears a skirt, draped in such a way that her left leg is revealed. And just above the ankle is the same brand. I quickly check her right ankle and her left arm. Yes and yes. Back to the teenage boy. The same four brands. Maybe they are related. Maybe it was a family tradition.
I move quickly to the other side of the room and pick a body at random.
An older man in his seventies. Branded four times.
I select a female in her late twenties. One two three four.
We need to leave. Wickner can't see this. We need to be gone from this place.
He shouts: "What the hell are you doing over there? Looking for souvenirs?"
I quickly cover the brands as best I can. Then I head out the door, calling back to Wickner. "We need to go. Right now. Back to the truck. We'll wait for it to charge, then go back to the center—"
He catches up to me outside. "I'm not going back there without my cargo. If you're freaked out, fine, just head back to the truck, and when it's charged, pull it around. I'll start pulling bodies outside—"
"What was your plan, Wickner? With the bodies?"
"What do you mean?"
"What happens when you're asked where we found all the bodies?"
"I'll just say we got lucky. Took a wrong turn and ended up in an unregistered settlement. Anyway, we're only taking enough to get us noticed. Not enough to raise suspicion. 'Sides, once I'm promoted, you can come back here when you're running your own rig."
"So nothing about the Commune?"
"Of course not. Why are you asking? You gonna rat me out?" He moves towards me with violence in each step. I hold my hands up in a peace offering.
"Just check the bodies, Wickner. The arms and the legs. You'll see. Check the bodies."
He halts his advance and looks at me. Then he turns and walks back into the meeting house.
His angered and tortured roar sounds all the louder for ringing right in my helmet. He roars again, then a third time. He bulls back outside, nearly sending me sprawling as he knocks by me.
"Where are you going?"
"I saw an axe in one of the cabins."
He continues walking away, but because of the communicators inside the helmet, it still sounds as if he's right next to me.
"To do what?"
"Get rid of those brands." "On all of them?"
"If I have to."
"You think showing up with twenty bodies that are only torsos and heads is going to raise any less questions than twenty bodies with brands? Think this through, Wickner. You need to let it go."
He stands a hundred yards away from me now, but his anger and frustration and rage don't feel any lessened—
A girl's tiny voice: "Hello?"
I can't help but spin in surprise. Wickner couldn't have heard it, but he must have seen my reaction.
Again, the girl's voice, squeaking into the open from inside the meeting room: "Hello?" I'm not imagining this. There's someone in there. Someone alive.
"Clement? What the fuck?"
"I—hold on. I thought I heard something. Let me check it out."
I bolt for the inside of the meeting room. She is there, standing in the center of the circles of fallen bodies. She looks about seven years old, though small for her age. She has smoky blonde hair tucked behind her ears and even in the faint light around us I can see her abundance of freckles. Her patchwork dress barely hangs together and she wears no shoes. She stands next to an open trap door, and I can just see a hint of a ladder peeking out.
She tilts her head to the side and asks: "Who are you?"
I realize I can't answer her. Our helmets were made for suit-to-suit communication—there's no external speakers. No one expected we'd ever have to talk to anyone else once we were outside the center. And up until this moment, they were right. I'm at a loss. I extend my arms and hands out in what I hope is my most non-threatening and kind gesture. She doesn't move towards me. But she doesn't run away either.
I wonder if I can find a piece of a paper and a pen somewhere, maybe in a pocket of a jacket or pants on one of the corpses and this is when my world spins off its axis because how is she alive? She doesn't look infected or sick. She's dirty as hell and if you saw her from a distance you might think she was a giant ink-smudge with arms and legs, but other than that, she seems fine.
Wickner enters. He looks at the girl. Then to me. And back at the girl.
I babble: "Wickner, look. It's a girl. She's alive. She's—"
"A twitcher." He doesn't pause.
"Twitcher. She's out here, and not dead. That only means one thing." He steps towards the girl, and she remains in place, not having heard our conversation. I place myself between him and the girl and get a good look at his face.
He's gone someplace else. The anger, the rage, the disappointment, the frustration—all of it has taken him somewhere I've never seen him. A place that is cool and calm and terrifying. He means to have satisfaction for things not going his way. He means to have revenge. He means for someone to pay—
Wickner surprises me with a hard punch to my stomach, and I am as stunned as I am hurt. I flail at Wickner as he walks by me, but it's no use. I weave to the side of the meeting house, where I support myself on the wall.
The girl quickly hops on the ladder and scrambles down, shutting the trap door behind her—
—but Wickner has too much of a head start, and he grabs the edge of the trap door before it shuts, and hurls it upwards. From below, the girl screams. He drops to his knees and thrusts his hands into the hidden chamber, and comes up with the girl, still screaming, now punching out her arms and legs in a desperate attempt to free herself.
"Wickner, please listen—" But he ignores me, walking purposefully out the door. I push myself away from the wall, and stagger out after him into the daylight.
"She could have survived underground. We did. Those of us that happened to be below ground when the first attacks hit—"
The girl keeps screaming and Wickner smacks her hard across her face and back again. She drops into silence, save for the odd sniffle and gasp for breath.
He talks to me even as he walks away. "But then we got to clean air, didn't we? What's she been breathing for the past year, Clement? Even down there, it's the same air as up top. It leaks down through the door, it seeps through the ground. Air goes everywhere. That's why we couldn't just live the rest of our lives underground. Remember? They had to figure out how to constantly keep the air purified. Or have you forgotten so easily at the sight of a little girl?"
My wind is coming back to me, and I close in on him. "What if she is the answer, Wickner? What if she's what the scientists had been hoping to find—"
"She's infected, Clement. The chemical winds came through here. We saw the marks on the cabins. We saw the bodies. Maybe they had a bomb shelter, or a hideout tunneled so far into the earth—" He stops himself. "Why am I bothering with this?" He shakes his head, like he was ridding himself of a bad dream. "You know the protocol. We bring back an infected body into the center and it's the end for both of us."
I'm finally by his side. I put a hand on his shoulder. "Wickner, does she look infected to you? Does she?"
He turns towards me and sloughs off my hand. "I have no idea what's going on inside her body. And neither do you. That's why we're not going to take any chances."
I grip his shoulder again. Digging in my fingers. "This isn't right." He slams me again in my stomach, and I crumple to the ground.
"Right? Who is talking about right? Look around, Clement. Look at our job. Look at what we do. How can you talk about what's right?"
We're almost back at the truck now. He sets the little girl beside me. To the girl: "Don't move." I look at her and her eyes are so filled with fear she couldn't move even if she wanted to.
I can hear Wickner open the metal chest, and I know he's reaching in for the stick. I look back at the girl and she's my little sister and I am her older brother. She looks blankly at me and the only thing rippling across her face is the pain from Wickner's smacks or skinning her knees on the pavement or not making the team or having her heart broken for the first time or dying and burning and rotting from the inside out.
Wickner stands above me with the stick. "It's your turn."
At the sight of the grey tube and needle the girl shrieks, caterwauling a shatteringly hopeless yawp. She crabwalks backwards. Anything to get away. But Wickner, who seems to have physically changed with this anger flooding him—now even bigger, faster and quicker—takes two steps and hauls the girl back by her arm. He pins her to the side of the truck, and holds out the stick to me. "You're up, Clement. You do it, or I will."
I look at Wickner.
I look at the girl.
I take the stick.
"Good," he says. "Remember the protocol. Follow the protocol. It's all we've got out here, right?"
"When I get promoted, I'm not going to forget that when we were faced with an unpleasant situation, you stood tall."
I take a step closer to the girl. I tighten my grip on the stick. I look for the best puncture spot. I take a deep breath and lock the trembling out of my arms. I meet Wickner's eyes. He tilts his head in an almost imperceptible nod.
I look at the girl.
Then back to Wickner.
I step slightly to the side, and then drive the stick directly into Wickner's chest. The needle punctures his suit's fabric with a soft thwock, and I jam down the trigger. His suit billows slightly, and a crimson halo darkens the white fabric from his neck to his waist. He staggers and releases his grip on the girl, who scampers away.
I watch as Wicker drops to his knees, then falls forward, limbs akimbo. In my helmet I hear his last ragged, reaching breaths.
I look for the girl. She stands at a distance—ten yards, maybe—having decided I'm not a threat to her, but unsure what the next move is. I don't know either, but what I do know is that I need to sit down.
Which is what I do.
The girl walks over and sits down across from me, our knees just touching.
She looks at me with curious and searching eyes.
I reach out with my right hand and take her left hand. But her bare skin in my gloved fingers doesn't feel right. With my left hand, I feel around on the ground—there. I pick up a rock with a jagged edge and dig into the suit, just below the wrist on my right hand. I have to work at it, but I am able to tear into the suit, and I feel the rock dig into my skin and feel the blood the rock draws. But I don't mind.
Once I've made the initial tear, I am able to quickly cut my right hand free of the glove, and my skin sits exposed to the world. I feel the air move through my fingers and dance across the base of my wrist.
But it's still not enough. I reach behind my head and loosen the snaps holding my helmet in place. I turn off the cooling system, and remove my helmet, setting it on the ground beside me. I hold my breath until I can't hold it any longer, and I breathe in deeply, drinking in the air.
I reach out again for the girl's hand. She reaches out also, meeting me half-way, and her left hand is swallowed up by my right and we sit that way until darkness drips in and wraps us up until we are warmed by the first lighted strands of morning.
And as the sun rises and spills over us, something between two of her toes on her left foot draws my attention.
A single blade of grass.
And I think that maybe we'll be all right.