“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.
Rumor has it that Day once scaled five stories in less than eight seconds. If the Republic’s most-wanted criminal can pull that off, then how are we ever going to catch him if we’re not just as fast? And if we can’t even catch him, how are we going to win the war?
Ms. Whitaker’s desk beeps three times. She holds down a button. “Yes?”
“Captain Metias Iparis is outside the gate,” a voice replies. “He’s here for his sister.”
“Good. Send him in.” She releases the button and points a finger at me. “I hope that brother of yours starts doing a better job of minding you, because if you end up in my office one more time this quarter—”
“Metias is doing a better job than our dead parents,” I reply, maybe more sharply than I intended.
We fall into an uncomfortable silence.
Finally, after what seems like an eternity, I hear a commotion out in the hall. The students pressed against the door’s glass abruptly disperse, and their shadows move aside to make room for a tall silhouette. My brother.
As Metias opens the door and steps inside, I can see some girls out in the hall stifling smiles behind their hands. But Metias fixes his full attention on me. We have the same eyes, black with a gold glint, the same long lashes and dark hair. The long lashes work particularly well for Metias. Even with the door closed behind him, I can still hear the whispers and giggles from outside. It looks like he came from his patrol duties straight to my campus. He’s decked out in his full uniform: black officer coat with double rows of gold buttons, gloves (neoprene, spectra lining, captain rank embroidery), shining epaulettes on his shoulders, formal military hat, black trousers, polished boots. My eyes meet his.
Ms. Whitaker gives Metias a brilliant smile. “Ah, Captain!” she exclaims. “It’s a pleasure to see you.”
Metias taps the edge of his hat in a polite salute. “It’s unfortunate it’s under these circumstances again,” he replies. “My apologies.”
“Yes, I’m aware of that,” Metias interrupts, looking at me out of the corner of his eye. “I saw the helicopters over Drake at noon and had a . . . . suspicion June might’ve been involved.”
There’d been three helicopters. They couldn’t get me off the side of the building by scaling it themselves, so they pulled me off with a net.
“Thank you for your help,” Metias says to the dean secretary. He snaps his fingers at me, my cue to get up. “When June returns to campus, she’ll be on her best behavior.”
I ignore Ms. Whitaker’s false smile as I follow my brother out of the office and into the hall. Immediately students hurry over. “June,” a boy named Dorian says as he tags alongside us. He’d asked me (unsuccessfully) to the annual Drake ball two years in a row. “Is it true? How high up did you get?”
Metias cuts him off with a stern look. “June’s heading home.” Then he puts a hand firmly on my shoulder and guides me away from my classmates. I glance behind me and manage a smile for them.
“Fourteen floors,” I call back. That gets them buzzing again. Somehow, this has become the closest relationship I have with the other Drake students. I am respected, discussed, gossiped about. Not really talked to.
Such is the life of a fifteen-year-old senior in a university meant for sixteen and up.
Metias doesn’t say another word as we make our way down the corridors, past the manicured lawns of the central quad and the glorious Elector’s statue, and finally through one of the indoor gyms. We pass by the afternoon drills I’m supposed to be participating in. I watch my classmates run along a giant track surrounded by a 360-degree screen simulating some desolate warfront road. They’re holding their rifles out in front of them, attempting to load and unload as fast as they can while running. At most other universities, there wouldn’t be so many student soldiers, but at Drake, almost all of us are well on our way to career assignments in the Republic’s military. A few others are tapped for politics and Congress, and some are chosen to stay behind and teach. But Drake is the Republic’s best university, and seeing as how the best are always assigned into the military, our drill room is packed with students.
By the time we reach one of Drake’s outer streets and I climb into the backseat of our waiting military jeep, Metias can barely contain his anger. “Suspended for a week? Do you want to explain this to me?” he demands. “I get back from a morning of dealing with the Patriot rebels and what do I hear about? Helicopters two blocks from Drake. A girl scaling a skyscraper.”
I exchange a friendly look with Thomas, the soldier in the driver’s seat. “Sorry,” I mutter.
Metias turns around from his place in the passenger seat and narrows his eyes at me. “What the hell were you thinking? Did you know you’d wandered right off campus?”
“Of course. You’re fifteen. You went fourteen floors up a—” He takes a deep breath, closes his eyes, and steadies himself. “For once, I’d appreciate it if you would let me do my daily tours of duty without worrying myself sick over what you’re up to.”
I try to meet Thomas’s eyes again in the rearview mirror, but he keeps his gaze on the road. Of course, I shouldn’t expect any help from him. He looks as tidy as ever, with his perfectly slicked hair and perfectly ironed uniform. Not a strand or thread out of place. Thomas might be several years younger than Metias and a subordinate on his patrol, but he’s more disciplined than anyone I know. Sometimes I wish I had that much discipline. He probably disapproves of my stunts even more than Metias does.
We leave downtown Los Angeles behind and travel up the winding highway in silence. The scenery changes from inner Batalla sector’s hundred-floor skyscrapers to den
sely packed barrack towers and civilian complexes, each one only twenty to thirty stories high, with red guiding lights blinking on their roofs, most with all their paint stripped off after this year’s rash of storms. Metal support beams crisscross their walls. I hope they get to upgrade those supports soon. The war’s been intense lately, and with several decades of infrastructure funding diverted to supplying the warfront, I don’t know if these buildings would hold up well in another earthquake.
After a few minutes, Metias continues in a calmer voice. “You really scared me today,” he says. “I was afraid they’d mistake you for Day and shoot at you.”
I know he doesn’t mean this as a compliment, but I can’t help smiling. I lean forward to rest my arms on top of his seat. “Hey,” I say, tugging his ear the way I did when I was a kid, “I’m sorry I made you worry.”
He lets out a scornful chuckle, but I can tell his anger is already fading. “Yeah. That’s what you say every time, Junebug. Is Drake not keeping your brain busy enough? If not, then I don’t know what will.”
“You know . . . if you’d just take me along on some of your missions, I’d probably learn a lot more and stay out of trouble.”
“Nice try. You’re not going anywhere until you graduate and get assigned to your own patrol.”
I bite my tongue. Metias did pick me once—once—for a mission last year, when all third-year Drake students had to shadow an assigned military branch. His commander sent him to kill a runaway prisoner of war from the Colonies. So Metias brought me along with him, and together we chased the POW deeper and deeper into our territory, away from the dividing fences and the strip of land running from Dakota to West Texas that separates the Republic and the Colonies, away from the warfront where airships dot the sky. I tracked him into an alley in Yellowstone City, Montana, and Metias shot him.
During the chase, I broke three ribs and had a knife buried in my leg. Now Metias refuses to take me anywhere.
When Metias finally speaks again, he sounds grudgingly curious. “So, tell me,” he whispers. “How fast did you climb those fourteen stories?”
Thomas makes a disapproving sound in his throat, but I break into a grin. Storm’s past. Metias loves me again. “Six minutes,” I whisper back to my brother. “And forty-four seconds. How do you like that?”
“That must be some sort of record. Not that, you know, you’re supposed to do it.”
Thomas stops the jeep right behind the lines at a red light and gives Metias an exasperated look. “Come on, Captain,” he says. “June—ah—Ms. Iparis won’t learn a thing if you keep praising her for breaking the rules.”
“Cheer up, Thomas.” Metias reaches over and claps him on the back. “Surely breaking a rule once in a while is tolerable, especially if you’re doing it to beef up your skills for the Republic’s sake. Victory against the Colonies. Right?”
The light blinks green. Thomas turns his eyes back to the road (he seems to count to three in his head before letting the jeep go forward). “Right,” he mutters. “You should still be careful what you’re encouraging Ms. Iparis to do, especially with your parents gone.”
Metias’s mouth tightens into a line, and a familiar, strained look appears in his eyes.
No matter how sharp my intuition is, no matter how well I do at Drake or how perfectly I score in defense and target practice and hand-to-hand combat, Metias’s eyes always hold that fear. He’s afraid something might happen to me one day—like the car crash that took our parents. That fear never leaves his face. And Thomas knows it.
I didn’t know our parents long enough to miss them in the same way Metias does. Whenever I cry over losing them, I cry because I don’t have any memories of them. Just hazy recollections of long, adult legs shuffling around our apartment and hands lifting me from my high chair. That’s it. Every other memory from my childhood—looking out into the auditorium as I receive an award, or having soup made for me when I’m sick, or being scolded, or tucked into bed—those are with Metias.
We drive past half of Batalla sector and through a few poor blocks. (Can’t these street beggars stay a little farther from our jeep?) Finally we reach the gleaming, terraced high-rises of Ruby, and we’re home. Metias gets out first. As I follow, Thomas gives me a small smile.
“See you later, Ms. Iparis,” he says, tipping his hat.
I stopped trying to convince him to call me June—he’ll never change. Still, it’s not so bad being called something proper. Maybe when I’m older and Metias doesn’t faint at the idea of me dating . . .
“Bye, Thomas. Thanks for the ride.” I smile back at him before stepping out of the jeep.
Metias waits until the door has slammed shut before turning to me and lowering his voice. “I’ll be home late tonight,” he says. There’s that tension in his eyes again. “Don’t go out alone. News from the warfront is they’re cutting power to residences tonight to save energy for the airfield bases. So stay put, okay? The streets’ll be darker than usual.”
My heart sinks. I wish the Republic would hurry up and win this war already so that for once we might actually get a whole month of nonstop electricity. “Where are you going? Can I come with you?”
“I’m overseeing the lab at Los Angeles Central. They’re delivering vials of some mutated virus there—it shouldn’t take all night. And I already told you no. No missions.” Metias hesitates. “I’ll be home as early as I can. We have a lot to talk about.” He puts his hands on my shoulders, ignores my puzzled look, and gives me a quick kiss on my forehead. “Love you, Junebug,” he says, his trademark good-bye. He turns to climb back into the jeep.
“I’m not going to wait up for you,” I call after him, but by now he’s already inside and the jeep’s pulling away with him inside of it. “Be careful,” I murmur.
But it’s pointless to say now. Metias is too far away to hear me.
WHEN I WAS SEVEN YEARS OLD, MY FATHER CAME home from the warfront for a week’s leave. His job was to clean up after the Republic’s soldiers, so he was usually gone, and Mom was left to raise us boys on her own. When he came home that time, the city patrols did a routine inspection of our house, then dragged Dad off to the local police headquarters for questioning. They’d found something suspicious, I guess.
The police brought him back with two broken arms, his face bloody and bruised.
Several nights later, I dipped a ball of crushed ice into a can of gasoline, let the oil coat the ice in a thick layer, and lit it. Then I launched it with a slingshot through the window of our local police headquarters. I remember the fire trucks that came whizzing around the corner shortly thereafter, and the charred remains of the police building’s west wing. They never found out who did it, and I never came forward. There was, after all, no evidence. I had committed my first perfect crime.
My mother used to hope that I would rise up from my humble roots. Become someone successful, or even famous.
I’m famous all right, but I don’t think it’s what she had in mind.
It’s nightfall again, a good forty-eight hours since the soldiers marked my mother’s door.
I wait in the shadows of a back alley one block from the Los Angeles Central Hospital and watch its staff spill in and out of the main entrance. It’s a cloudy night with no moon, and I can’t even make out the crumbling Bank Tower sign at the top of the building. Electric lights shine from each floor—a luxury only government buildings and the elite’s homes can afford. Military jeeps stack up along the street as they wait for approval to enter the underground parking lots. Someone checks them for proper IDs. I keep still, my eyes fixed on the entrance.
I look pretty awesome tonight. I’m wearing my good pair of shoes—boots made of dark leather worn soft over time, with strong laces and steel toes. Bought them with 150 Notes from our stash. I’ve hidden a knife flat against the sole of each boot. When I shift my feet, I can feel the cool metal against my skin. My black trousers are tucked into my boots and I carry a pair of gloves and a black handkerchief
in my pockets. A dark, long-sleeved shirt is tied around my waist. My hair hangs loose down my shoulders. This time I’ve sprayed my white-blond strands a deep black, as if I’d dipped them in crude oil. Earlier in the day, Tess had traded five Notes for a bucket of pygmy pig’s blood from the back alley of a kitchen. My arms, stomach, and face are smeared with it. I’ve also streaked mud on my cheeks, for good measure.
The hospital spans the first twelve floors of the building, but I’m only interested in the one without windows. That’s the third floor, a laboratory, where the blood samples and medicines will be. From the outside, the third floor is completely hidden behind elaborate stone carvings and worn Republic flags. Behind the facade lies a vast floor with no halls and no doors—just a gigantic room, doctors and nurses behind white masks, test tubes and pipettes, incubators and gurneys. I know this because I’ve been there before. I was there the day I failed my Trial, the day I was supposed to die.
My eyes scan the side of the tower. Sometimes I can break into a building by running it from the outside, if there are balconies to leap from and window ledges to balance on. I once scaled a four-story building in less than five seconds. But this tower is too smooth, with no footholds. I’ll have to reach the lab from inside. I shiver a little even in the warmth and wish I’d asked Tess to come with me. But two trespassers are easier to catch than one. Besides, it’s not her family who needs medicine. I check to make sure I’ve tucked my pendant beneath my shirt.
A lone medic truck pulls up behind the military jeeps. Several soldiers climb out and greet the nurses while others unpack the truck’s boxes. The leader of the group is a young, dark-haired man dressed all in black, except for two rows of silver buttons that line his officer jacket. I strain to hear what he’s saying to one of the nurses.