Authors: Robin Wasserman
“So walk me through this. We collect all the mechs, lead them into their new toxic paradise, and … what? Set you up as emperor? Build you a throne?”
Jude slammed his hand against the table. “This isn’t a
“No, it’s a power trip.”
“Why do you always have to make everything about me?” Jude asked.
“I thought I always made everything about
,” I said. “Isn’t that what you’re always telling me?”
“I never meant—”
“You’ve made it pretty clear you think I’m spoiled and naive and all-around useless.”
“Right.” Jude snorted. “That’s why I always come to you first. That’s why we’re figuring this out
. That’s why
I listen to all your bullshit. Because I think you’re useless and don’t care what you have to say. You really know everything, don’t you?”
“I know I’m only here because you don’t have anyone else willing to listen to
“Maybe you’re right!” he shouted. “I don’t have anyone else!”
We both stopped.
And I could only assume we both thought of him.
“Sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have shouted.”
And I shouldn’t have picked a fight, just because I was upset about Zo and frightened about the virus and angry about Riley and angry, angry, so unbearably angry that I didn’t know what to do except spew it all over anyone unfortunate enough to get close. And all I had left on that front was Jude.
I couldn’t apologize. But: “You’re right. The dead zone is a good option. For now.”
He looked surprised, but he didn’t gloat. Like he said, he didn’t have anyone else either.
So we sat there calmly and cobbled together some kind of plan—or at least a first step. We would release what we knew about BioMax, publicly on the network, and privately to all the mechs we could find; we’d do everything we could to persuade them to reject the corp’s Safe Haven in favor of our own. Then, somehow, we’d figure out what to do next.
As Jude worried through the logistics of releasing the dead-zone coordinates to the mechs without revealing them to
BioMax—though the whole beauty of the location was its inhospitableness to orgs, making secrecy a bonus rather than a necessity—I watched the door, half expecting Zo to burst through with a last word. I was no longer sure I’d done the right thing, sending her away. Even if I had, was it the right thing for her, to keep her safe, or the right thing for me, to give me one less person to worry about, one less person to lose? If things had gone differently, if she’d been the mech and I’d been the org, she never would have sent me home. Though if it had been me, I might have gone without a fight.
might have gone back to our parents, even after everything that had happened. But not Zo. So where would she go?
And why hadn’t I thought about any of this when I was throwing her out?
“She’ll be fine,” Jude said softly, as if I’d spoken aloud.
“She always is.”
He reached across the table, like he was going to put his hand over mine, but stopped a few inches short. “Just like her sister.”
For a long time Jude had hoarded his secret that BioMax could track the movement of every mech, just as he’d kept to himself the knowledge of how to disable those trackers. Saving it for a rainy day, he’d promised—the someday when BioMax would be desperate to know where we were, and we’d be equally desperate to hide. Now the monsoon had arrived. He disabled the trackers remotely, and just like that, we were all free. We contacted all
the mechs we knew, had them pass the word to everyone they knew, and mech by mech we tried to talk them out of BioMax’s Safe Haven and into ours.
Sloane, Brahm, familiar faces from the past agreed without question and headed for the dead zone, bringing handfuls of friends, sometimes mechs they’d picked up along the way, hesitant to trust anyone but desperate to be told what to do. The early arrivals took charge, setting up systems for intake and inventory, helping new mechs feel at home—and helping us figure out how many were left to save. It would have been easier to do in person, and I could tell Jude was tempted, but I insisted on staying at Riley’s. He stayed with me.
We broadcast what we knew about BioMax—and, true to their word, BioMax wiped it from the network as soon as we’d posted it. Though it probably wouldn’t have mattered—the zones were flooded with unsubstantiated rumors. Suddenly every nutcase with a keyboard had some crucial information about our fates—and much of it came with evidence as persuasive as ours, because what could be easier than creating fake photos, fake documentation to substantiate fake stories? The only authority was the wisdom of the crowd—the more popular the zone, the more appealing its story, the more believable it appeared. There was more than enough noise to drown out the truth. All we could do was keep screaming and hope someone heard.
We persuaded forty or fifty by word of mouth, the mechs we knew convincing the ones they knew. But BioMax, judging from
its reports, got at least a hundred, and as reports of anti-mech violence grew, more were coming in every day.
We couldn’t save everyone.
Quinn wouldn’t take my calls, and as soon as she heard Jude’s voice, she cut the link. We heard she went straight to BioMax after that, playing the good girl just to spite us, I supposed, since it certainly wasn’t in her nature.
Ani was nowhere to be found; she’d even erased her zone. No one I’d ever known had taken such a drastic move—it was like erasing your own existence. But Ani was used to being invisible. For all we knew, she was sitting by Savona’s side again, egging him on—or maybe at Safe Haven, having discovered that the virus didn’t discriminate between self-hating mechs and the rest of us.
I tried not to think about the other option, the most obvious excuse for her silence. Every day the news zones added new names to their list of the Erased. Ani’s was never on it. But you couldn’t make the list unless you’d left someone behind to notice you were gone.
No one at BioMax was taking my calls, not even call-me-Ben. All I got were automated responses offering me coordinates to Safe Haven, urging me to be smart and let them protect me, as if those two options weren’t mutually exclusive. Jude was losing patience, as was I, but we were pulling in opposite directions. He wanted to join the mechs in the dead zone—start fresh, he called it. I called it running away.
We argued, a lot. There was too much time, too much anger
not to. There was too much shuttling back and forth between one dead end and another, making half-aborted plans, trying and failing and trying again even more uselessly the next time around, too much threatening, too much second-guessing, too much staring aimlessly into space trying to make the pieces fit together, searching for the fault line, the one perfect place to exert pressure that would make our enemies collapse in on themselves, that would right our world. There was too much of everything, except action, except answers. And, of course, except tears. We weren’t built for that.
“And what about the mechs at Safe Haven?” I asked, during one of our many arguments. “What happens to them?”
“They get what they get for trusting BioMax.”
But he didn’t mean it, because one day passed, and another, and he didn’t leave. I must not have meant it either, because I stayed too. Even when it became clear that we’d convinced all the mechs we were going to, and that the virus wasn’t going anywhere. Safe Haven was bursting at the seams. Even then I stayed and argued with Jude, let him talk me to a stalemate. I knew what we had to do. I was just afraid to do it.
We were still arguing when my ViM buzzed with an incoming vid call from the second-to-last person I’d expected to hear from. The last was my sister, who was ignoring all my messages, including the ones pleading with her to just let me know where she was, and that it was somewhere safe.
The second-to-last was Ani.
When I saw who it was, I relayed it to our wall screen, so Jude could see her too—and she could see Jude. I’d been more worried about her than I’d let myself realize, but now that she’d actually surfaced, I could barely look at her. I had no interest in facing her alone.
“Ani. Hey. You look … good,” Jude said haltingly. And she did, better at least than she had the last time I’d seen her.
She waved joylessly. “Yeah, I can walk and talk and everything. Just like a real girl.”
“I need to talk to
, Lia,” she cut in. “Not him.”
“Too bad,” I said. “He stays.”
Even if he looked like he wanted to disappear.
“I’m sorry about Riley,” she told me.
They’d reported his name on all the news vids: “the first victim.” He was famous.
It had been two weeks, and I still didn’t know what to say. “Thank you”? “I’m sorry, too”? “How can you be sorry when you barely knew him?” Or, in Ani’s case, “How can you be sorry when you screwed him over and then left him behind?”
“What do you want?” I asked. “Delivering a message on behalf of your pious Brothers and Sisters?”
“If I had known what they were going to do—”
I laughed—a twisted, angry sound, like metal on metal. “You would’ve stopped them? Have you forgotten that you
them? How do you think they figured out how to do this in the first place? By poking around in
volunteered. You didn’t think we deserved to exist. So congratulations, you must be so proud of Riley. Doing us all proud by getting erased.”
Ani looked like I had struck her. “You know what he means to me,” she said, in a low, angry voice.
to you. Past tense.”
Giving up on me, she turned to Jude. Desperate times. “I never wanted this to happen.”
“You always said if I needed something from you …”
“Anything,” Jude said.
I knew what he was thinking. I could hear it in his voice. Ani wasn’t Riley, but she was as close as he was going to get. Ani had been there with the two of them in the hospital, before the download. Ani had known Riley
—she was the only person who could share that with Jude, the only person who’d known that part of him, the boy from the city, the boy from the past. Whatever promises they’d made to each other back then, whatever bonds they’d forged, Ani was all he had left. He needed her. Which meant she could use him, and he wouldn’t even notice. Or if he did, he wouldn’t care.
Since when is it my job to protect him?
I thought, surprised by the impulse.
Except that I needed him for the same reason he needed her. We were all fragments; we were the pieces left behind, a shard of Riley in each of us. Losing Jude would mean losing a piece of Riley all over again.
“I can’t tell you like this,” she said. “We have to talk in person.”
So he told her where to find us.
An expensive-looking Stylus pulled up to the apartment a few hours later, its windows too tinted to see inside. Ani slipped out of the driver’s door, leaned back in for a moment as if she’d forgotten something, then shut it quickly. She leaned against the passenger side of the car, staring up at the building.
I watched it all from the window.
What was she waiting for?
What was I?
Twenty minutes passed. “Is she here yet?” Jude finally asked. I’d been staring out the window for more than an hour.
“So are you going to let her in?” he said, too eager. I was reminded of Riley’s puppy-dog glee when we’d first tracked down Jude.
“Doesn’t seem like she wants to come in.”
So Jude went out. I watched them greet each other: Jude’s awkward half attempt at a hug, Ani’s imperceptible step backward, sign enough that he should drop his arms. The silence between the two of them, failed small talk, strained smiles. Then Jude gestured to the house and Ani gestured to the car, and as they seemed to start arguing, I realized why the windows were tinted and what she’d left behind when she got out of the car. She hadn’t come alone. And there was only one
person she could have brought with her, at least under these cloak-and-dagger terms.
I threw open the door and ran toward the car, because if Jude got there first, someone was going to get hurt. Or killed.
“It wasn’t me,” Auden said, while I held Jude’s arm, tightly, just in case he decided to pounce. “I swear, Lia. I didn’t have anything to do with this. Savona needed a scapegoat. I didn’t know about any of it until I saw it on the network, and by then—”
“It was too late,” I finished with him, fresh out of sympathy.
Ani stood by his side. After everything, she
stood by his side
I let go of Jude. It was strange—when Auden’s face had been a picture on a screen, being blamed for horrible things he never could have done, I’d wanted to defend him, even protect him. But now, his face in front of me, real and three-dimensional, all I wanted to do was jump in the car and run him over. Ani, too, while I was at it. I couldn’t stand the two of them, Ani and Auden, a matched pair of pathetic apologists, half guilty and half self-righteous, secure in the knowledge that
could never be held accountable for whatever had happened, they couldn’t be blamed, there was nothing they could have done. They were alive and safe, and Riley was dead.
“Tell me you believe me,” Auden said.
“What’s the difference? What would it change?”
“Please,” he said. “I have to know.”
“You don’t really get to make requests,” Jude said. “Not now. Definitely not
“He needs a safe place to stay,” Ani said.
Jude laughed. “So you brought him
Here to us. Here to Riley’s home.
“I said if
ever needed anything. That was you singular, not you plus one, especially this one.”
“Fine.” Ani glared at him. “I should have known. We’ll go.”
“Go where?” Jude and Auden said it together, disdain in one voice, despair in the other.
“I can help,” Auden said. “I have information.”