I can’t stop imagining what will happen if the soldiers mark my mother’s door. My family will stand frozen in our living room long after the soldiers have left. Then Mom will put on her usual brave face, only to sit up through the night, quietly wiping tears away. In the morning, they’ll start receiving small rations of food and water and simply wait to recover. Or die.
My mind wanders to the stash of stolen money that Tess and I have hidden. Twenty-five hundred Notes. Enough to feed us for months . . . but not enough to buy my family vials of plague medicine.
The minutes drag on. I tuck my slingshot away and play a few rounds of Rock, Paper, Scissors with Tess. (I don’t know why, but she’s crazy good at this game.) I glance several times at my mother’s window, but don’t see anyone. They must have gathered near the door, ready to open it as soon as they hear a fist against the wood.
And then the time comes. I lean forward on the ledge, so far that Tess grips my arm to make sure I don’t topple to the ground. The soldiers pound on the door. My mother opens it immediately, lets the soldiers in, and then closes it. I strain to hear voices, footsteps, anything that might come from my house. The sooner this is all over, the sooner I can sneak my gifts to John.
The silence drags on. Tess whispers, “No news is good news, right?”
I count off the seconds in my head. One minute passes. Then two, then four, and then finally, ten minutes.
Then fifteen minutes. Twenty minutes.
I look at Tess. She just shrugs. “Maybe their reader’s broken,” she suggests.
Thirty minutes pass. I don’t dare move from my vigil. I’m afraid something will happen so quickly that I’ll miss it if I blink. My fingers tap rhythmically against the hilt of my knife.
Forty minutes. Fifty minutes. An hour.
“Something’s wrong,” I whisper.
Tess purses her lips. “You don’t know that.”
“Yes I do. What could possibly take this long?”
Tess opens her mouth to reply, but before she can say anything, the soldiers are exiting my house, single file, expressionless. Finally, the last soldier shuts the door behind him and reaches for something tucked at his waist. I suddenly feel dizzy. I know what’s coming.
The soldier reaches up and sprays one long, red, diagonal line on our door. Then he sprays another line, making an X.
I curse silently under my breath and start to turn away—
—but then the soldier does something unexpected, something I’ve never seen before.
He sprays a third, vertical line on my mother’s door, cutting the X in half.
DRAKE UNIVERSITY, BATALLA SECTOR.
IM SITTING IN MY DEAN SECRETARY’S OFFICE. AGAIN. On the other side of the frosted glass door, I can see a bunch of my classmates (seniors, all at least four years older than me) hanging around in an attempt to hear what’s going on. Several of them saw me being yanked out of our afternoon drill class (today’s lesson: how to load and unload the XM-621 rifle) by a menacing pair of guards. And whenever that happens, the news spreads all over campus.
The Republic’s favorite little prodigy is in trouble again.
The office is quiet except for the faint hum coming from the dean secretary’s computer. I’ve memorized every detail of this room (hand-cut marble floors imported from Dakota, 324 plastic square ceiling tiles, twenty feet of gray drapes hanging to either side of the glorious Elector’s portrait on the office’s back wall, a thirty-inch screen on the side wall, with the sound muted and a headline that reads: “TRAITOROUS ‘PATRIOTS’ GROUP BOMBS LOCAL MILITARY STATION, KILLS FIVE” followed by “REPUBLIC DEFEATS COLONIES IN BATTLE FOR HILLSBORO”). Arisna Whitaker, the dean secretary herself, is seated behind her desk, tapping on its glass—no doubt typing up my report. This will be my eighth report this quarter. I’m willing to bet I’m the only Drake student who’s ever managed to get eight reports in one quarter without being expelled.
“Injured your hand yesterday, Ms. Whitaker?” I say after a while.
She stops typing to glare at me. “What makes you think that, Ms. Iparis?”
“The pauses in your keystrokes are off. You’re favoring your left hand.”
Ms. Whitaker sighs and leans back in her chair. “Yes, June. I twisted my wrist yesterday in a game of kivaball.”
“Sorry to hear it. You should try to swing more from your arm and not from your wrist.”
I’d meant this simply to be a statement of fact, but it sounded sort of taunting and doesn’t seem to have made her any happier. “Let’s get something straight, Ms. Iparis,” she says. “You may think you’re very smart. You may think your perfect grades earn you some sort of special treatment. You may even think you have fans at this school, what with all this nonsense.” She gestures at the students gathered outside the door. “But I’ve grown incredibly tired of our get-togethers in my office. And believe me, when you graduate and get assigned to whatever post this country chooses for you, your antics won’t impress your superiors there. Do you understand me?”
I nod, because that’s what she wants me to do. But she’s wrong. I don’t just think I’m smart. I’m the only person in the entire Republic with a perfect 1500 score on her Trial. I was assigned here, to the country’s top university, at twelve, four years ahead of schedule. Then I skipped my sophomore year. I’ve earned perfect grades at Drake for three years. I am smart. I have what the Republic considers good genes—and better genes make for better soldiers make for better chance of victory against the Colonies, my professors always say. And if I feel like my afternoon drills aren’t teaching me enough about how to climb walls while carrying weapons, then . . . well, it wasn’t my fault I had to scale the side of a nineteen-story building with a XM-621 gun strapped to my back. It was self-improvement, for the sake of my country.