The Darkest MindsAlexandra Bracken
Copyright © 2012 by Alexandra Bracken
All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Hyperion, 114 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10011-5690.
For Stephanie and Daniel,
who were in every minivan with me
WHEN THE WHITE NOISE WENT OFF, we were in the Garden, pulling weeds.
I always reacted badly to it. It didn’t matter if I was outside, eating in the Mess Hall, or locked in my cabin. When it came, the shrieking tones blew up like a pipe bomb between my ears. Other girls at Thurmond could pick themselves up after a few minutes, shaking off the nausea and disorientation like the loose grass clinging to their camp uniforms. But me? Hours would pass before I was able to piece myself back together.
This time should have been no different.
But it was.
I didn’t see what had happened to provoke the punishment. We were working so close to the camp’s electric fence that I could smell the singed air and feel the voltage it shed vibrating in my teeth. Maybe someone got brave and decided to step out of the Garden’s bounds. Or maybe, dreaming big, someone fulfilled all our fantasies and threw a rock at the head of the nearest Psi Special Forces soldier. That would have been worth it.
The only thing I knew for certain was that the overhead speakers spurted out two warning blares: one short, one long. The skin on my neck crawled as I leaned forward into the damp dirt, hands pressed tightly against my ears, shoulders tensed to take the hit.
The sound that came over the speakers wasn’t really white noise. It wasn’t that weird buzz that the air sometimes takes on when you’re sitting alone in silence, or the faint hum of a computer monitor. To the United States government and its Department of Psi Youth, it was the lovechild of a car alarm and a dental drill, turned up high enough to make your ears bleed.
The sound ripped out of the speakers and shredded every nerve in my body. It forced its way past my hands, roaring over the screams of a hundred teenage freaks, and settled at the center of my brain, where I couldn’t reach in and rip it out.
My eyes flooded with tears. I tried to ram my face into the ground—all I could taste in my mouth was blood and dirt. A girl fell forward next to me, her mouth open in a cry I couldn’t hear. Everything else faded out of focus.
My body shook in time with the bursts of static, curling in on itself like an old, yellowing piece of paper. Someone’s hands were shaking my shoulders; I heard someone say my name—Ruby—but I was too far gone to respond. Gone, gone, gone, sinking until there was nothing, like the earth had swallowed me up in a single, deep breath. Then darkness.
GRACE SOMERFIELD WAS THE FIRST TO DIE.
The first in my fourth grade class, at least. I’m sure that by then, thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, of kids had already up and gone the same way she had. People were slow to piece it all together—or, at least, they had figured out the right way to keep us in the dark long after kids started dying.
When the deaths finally came to light, my elementary school put a strict ban on teachers and staff talking to us about what was then called Everhart’s Disease, after Michael Everhart, the first kid known to have died of it. Soon, someone somewhere decided to give it a proper name: Idiopathic Adolescent Acute Neurodegeneration—IAAN for short. And then it wasn’t just Michael’s disease. It was all of ours.
All the adults I knew buried the knowledge beneath lying smiles and hugs. I was still stuck in my own world of sunshine, ponies, and my race car collection. Looking back, I couldn’t believe how naive I was, just how many clues I missed. Even big things like when my dad, a cop, started working longer hours and could barely stand to look at me when he finally did come home. My mom started me on a strict vitamin regimen and refused to let me be alone, even for a few minutes.
On the other hand, my parents were both only children. I didn’t have any dead cousins to send up red flags, and my mom’s refusal to let my dad install a “soul-sucking vortex of trash and mindless entertainment”—that thing commonly known as a television—meant that no scary news broadcasts rocked my world. This, combined with the CIA-grade parental controls set up on our Internet access, pretty much ensured I’d be far more concerned with how my stuffed animals were arranged on my bed than the possibility of dying before my tenth birthday.
I was also completely unprepared for what happened on the fifteenth of September.
It had rained the night before, so my parents sent me to school wearing red galoshes. In class, we talked about dinosaurs and practiced cursive before Mrs. Port dismissed us for lunch with her usual look of relief.
I remember every detail of lunch that day clearly, not because I was sitting across from Grace at the table, but because she was the first, and because it wasn’t supposed to happen. She wasn’t old like Grandpops had been. She didn’t have cancer like Mom’s friend Sara. No allergies, no cough, no head injury—nothing. When she died, it came completely out of the blue, and none of us understood what it meant until it was too late.
Grace was locked in deep debate about whether a fly was trapped inside her Jell-O cup. The red mass shivered as she waved it around, inching out over the edge of the container when she squeezed it a bit too tight. Naturally, everyone wanted to give their opinion on whether it was a fly or a piece of candy Grace had pushed in there. Including me.
“I’m not a liar,” Grace said. “I just—”
She stopped. The plastic cup slipped from her fingers, hitting the table. Her mouth was open, eyes fixed on something just beyond my head. Grace’s brow was furrowed, almost as if she was listening to someone explain something very difficult.
“Grace?” I remember saying. “Are you okay?”
Her eyes rolled back, flashing white in the second it took for her eyelids to droop down. Grace let out a small sigh, not even strong enough to blow away the strands of brown hair stuck to her lips.
All of us sitting nearby froze, though we must have had the same exact thought: she’s fainted. A week or two before, Josh Preston had passed out on the playground because, as Mrs. Port explained, he didn’t have enough sugar in his system—something stupid like that.
A noon aide rushed over to the table. She was one of four old ladies with white visors and whistles who rotated lunch and playground duty during the week. I have no idea if she had any medical certifications beyond a vague notion of CPR, but she pulled Grace’s sagging bo
dy to the ground all the same.
She had a rapt audience as she pressed her ear to Grace’s hot pink T-shirt, listening for a heartbeat that wasn’t there. I don’t know what the old lady thought, but she started yelling, and suddenly white visors and curious faces circled in on us. It wasn’t until Ben Cho nudged Grace’s limp hand with his sneaker that any of us realized she was dead.
The other kids started screaming. One girl, Tess, was crying so hard she couldn’t breathe. Small feet stampeded toward the cafeteria door.
I just sat, surrounded by abandoned lunches, staring at the cup of Jell-O and letting terror crawl through me until my arms and legs felt like they would be frozen to the table forever. If the school’s security officer hadn’t come and carried me outside, I don’t know how long I would’ve stayed there.
Grace is dead, I was thinking. Grace is dead? Grace is dead.
And it got worse.
A month later, after the first big waves of deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a five-step list of symptoms to help parents identify whether their kid was at risk for IAAN. By then half my class was dead.
My mom hid the list so well that I only found it by accident, when I climbed on top of the kitchen counter to look for the chocolate she kept hidden behind her baking supplies.
HOW TO IDENTIFY IF YOUR CHILD IS AT RISK, the flyer read. I recognized the flaming orange shade of the paper: it was the sheet Mrs. Port had sent home with her few remaining students days before. She had folded it twice and fastened it with three staples to prevent our reading it. TO THE PARENTS OF RUBY ONLY was written on the outside and underlined three times. Three times was serious. My parents would have grounded me for opening it.
Luckily for me, it was already open.
Your child suddenly becomes sullen and withdrawn, and/or loses interest in activities they previously enjoyed.
S/he begins to have abnormal difficulty in concentrating or suddenly becomes hyper-focused on tasks, resulting in s/he losing track of time and/or neglecting him/herself or others.
S/he experiences hallucinations, vomiting, chronic migraines, memory loss, and/or fainting spells.
S/he becomes prone to violent outbursts, unusually reckless behavior, or self-injury (burns, bruising, and cuts that cannot be explained).
S/he develops behaviors or abilities that are inexplicable, dangerous, or cause you or others physical harm.
IF YOUR CHILD DEMONSTRATES ANY OF THE ABOVE SYMPTOMS, REGISTER HIM/HER AT IAAN.GOV AND WAIT TO BE CONTACTED ABOUT THE LOCAL HOSPITAL TO WHICH S/HE SHOULD BE TAKEN.
When I finished reading the flyer, I folded it back up neatly, put it exactly where I found it, and threw up in the sink.
Grams phoned later that week, and in her usual to-the-point-Grams way explained everything to me. Kids were dying left and right, all about my age. But the doctors were working on it, and I wasn’t supposed to be afraid, because I was her granddaughter, and I would be fine. I should be good and tell my parents if I felt anything weird, understand?
Things turned from bad to terrifying very fast. A week after three of the four kids in my neighborhood were buried, the president made a formal address to the nation. Mom and Dad watched the live stream on the computer, and I listened from outside the office door.
“My fellow Americans,” President Gray began. “Today we face a devastating crisis, one that threatens not only our children’s lives, but the very future of our great nation. May it comfort you to know that in our time of need, we in Washington are developing programs, both to support the families affected by this horrid affliction and the children blessed enough to survive it.”
I wish I could have seen his face as he spoke, because I think he knew—he must have—that this threat, the crimp in our supposedly glorious future, had nothing to do with the kids who had died. Buried underground or burned into ash, they couldn’t do anything but haunt the memories of the people who had loved them. They were gone. Forever.
And that symptoms list, the one that was sent home folded and stapled by teachers, which was aired a hundred times over on the news as the faces of the dead scrolled along the bottom of the screen? The government was never scared of the kids who might die, or the empty spaces they would leave behind.
They were afraid of us—the ones who lived.
IT RAINED THE DAY they brought us to Thurmond, and it went on to rain straight through the week, and the week after that. Freezing rain, the kind that would have been snow if it had been five degrees colder. I remember watching the drops trace frantic paths down the length of the school bus window. If I had been back at home, inside one of my parents’ cars, I would have followed the drops’ swerving routes across the cold glass with my fingertips. Now, my hands were tied together behind my back, and the men in the black uniforms had packed four of us to a seat. There was barely room to breathe.
The heat from a hundred-odd bodies fogged the bus windows, and it acted like a screen to the outside world. Later, the windows of the bright yellow buses they used to bring kids in would be smeared with black paint. They just hadn’t thought of it yet.
I was closest to the window on the five-hour drive, so I could make out slivers of the passing landscape whenever the rain let up for a bit. It all looked exactly the same to me—green farms, thick expanses of trees. We could have still been in Virginia, for all I knew. The girl sitting next to me, the one that would later be classified Blue, seemed to recognize a sign at one point because she leaned over me to get a better look. She looked a little familiar to me, like I had seen her face from around my town, or she was from the next one over. I think all of the kids with me were from Virginia, but there was no way to be sure, because there was only one big rule: and that was Silence.
After they had picked me up from my house the day before, they’d kept me, along with the rest of the kids, in some kind of warehouse overnight. The room was washed in unnatural brightness; they sat us in a cluster on the dirty cement floor, and pointed three floodlights toward us. We weren’t allowed to sleep. My eyes were watering so badly from the dust that I couldn’t see the clammy, pale faces around me, let alone the faces of the soldiers who stood just beyond the ring of lights, watching. In some weird way, they ceased to be whole men and women. In the gray haze of half sleep, I processed them in small, terrifying pieces: the gasoline reek of shoe polish, the creak of stiff leather, the twist of disgust on their lips. The tip of a boot as it dug into my side, forcing me back awake.
The next morning, the drive was completely silent except for the soldiers’ radios and the kids that were crying toward the back of the bus. The kid sitting at the other end of our seat wet his pants, but he wasn’t about to tell that to the red-haired PSF standing beside him. She had slapped him when he complained he hadn’t eaten anything all day.
I flexed my bare feet against the ground, trying to keep my legs still. Hunger was making my head feel funny, too, bubbling up every once in a while to overwhelm even the spikes of terror shooting through me. It was hard to focus, and harder to sit still; I felt like I was shrinking, trying to fade back into the seat and disappear completely. My hands were starting to lose feeling after being bound in the same position for so long. Trying to stretch the plastic band they’d tightened around them did nothing but force it to cut deeper into the soft skin there.
Psi Special Forces—that’s what the driver of the bus had called himself and the others when they collected us from the warehouse. You are to come with us on authority of the Psi Special Forces commander, Joseph Traylor. He held up a paper to prove it, so I guess it was true. I had been taught not to argue with adults, anyway.
The bus took a deep dip as it pulled off the narrow road and onto a smaller dirt one. The new vibrations woke whoever had been lucky or exhausted enough to fall asleep. They also sent the black uniforms into action. The men and women stood straighter, and their attention snapped toward the windshield.
I saw the towering fence first. The da
rkening gray sky cast everything in a moody, deep blue, but not the fence. It was glowing silver as the wind whistled through its open pockets. Just below my window were dozens of men and women in full uniform, escorting the bus in at a brisk jog. The PSFs in the control booth at the gate stood and saluted the driver as he navigated past them.
The bus lurched to a stop, and we were all forced to stay deathly still as the camp gate slid shut behind us. The locks cracked through the silence like thunder as they came together again. We were not the first bus through—that had come a year before. We were not the last bus, either. That would come in three more years, when the camp’s occupancy maxed out.
There was a single breath of stillness before a soldier in a black rain poncho rapped on the bus door. The driver reached over and pulled the lever—and ended anyone’s hope that this was a short pit stop.
The PSF was an enormous man, the kind you’d expect to play an evil giant in a movie, or a villain in a cartoon. He kept his hood up, masking his face, hair, and anything that would have let me recognize him later. I guess it didn’t matter. He wasn’t speaking for himself. He was speaking for the camp.
“You will stand and exit the bus in an orderly fashion,” he yelled. The driver tried to hand him the microphone, but the soldier knocked it away with his hand. “You will be divided into groups of ten, and you will be brought in for testing. Do not try to run. Do not speak. Do not do anything other than what is asked of you. Failure to follow these instructions will be met with punishment.”
At ten, I was one of the younger kids on the bus, though there were certainly a few kids younger. Most seemed to be twelve, even thirteen. The hate and mistrust burning in the soldiers’ eyes might have shrunken my spine, but it only sparked rebellion in the older kids.
“Go screw yourself!” someone yelled from the back of the bus.
We all turned at once, just in time to see the PSF with the flaming red hair launch the butt of her rifle into the teenage boy’s mouth. He let out a shriek of pain and surprise as the soldier did it again, and I saw a faint spray of blood burst from his mouth when he took his next, angry breath. With his hands behind his back, there was no way he could block the attack. He just had to take it.