1 THE CRUCIBLE
A VOICE WHISPERS MY name: “Alenna.”
I try to respond, but I can’t. Besides, I don’t even know if the voice is real. It’s probably an auditory hallucination.
I have no senses. I can’t see, hear, taste, or smell. I can’t feel anything. And all around me is darkness. Blacker than any night you could imagine. I am totally disconnected from my flesh. My senses have been stripped away, like bark from a tree. My nerves are deadened, and I don’t feel hunger or thirst.
I could have been like this for hours, or weeks, or months. Sometimes I sleep, and sometimes I’m awake. It’s hard to tell the difference.
Often I want to scream. Other times, I want to break down and cry. But I am capable of neither.
I have no memory of how I ended up here, but I know that one of two things must have happened. Either I got captured somehow and placed in some sort of isolation pod, or else I died and now I’m stuck in limbo. It’s worse than anything else I’ve ever experienced.
Over and over, I try to figure out the last memory I have before everything went black. It’s a memory of a few weeks after we
liberated everyone on Prison Island Alpha, the place also known as “the wheel.” The specimen archive—where the captured kids were being held in stasis—was destroyed along with the flying machines known as “feelers,” and we retook the island.
Most of the brainwashed drones converted to our side, once their minds were free of the government chemicals. Some didn’t, and they formed guerilla groups in the forest that would attack us every night.
But even those attacks started dying down. Our plan was going well. Island Alpha was becoming our new home base, just like we intended. The different tribes on the island—the rebels, the scientists, and the travelers—were working together to turn the island into our staging ground for our assault on the continental United Northern Alliance, better known as the UNA.
But obviously something went wrong. Was I captured and poisoned by rogue drones? Maybe I hit my head, or was given some kind of drug along the way. My memory is so fuzzy. Trying to think about things too hard makes my head hurt, like looking through glasses with the wrong prescription.
The last thing I remember is helping build a cabin with my boyfriend, Liam, as we were working on a team constructing a new fortified village on the island. Liam and I were laughing and playing around. Things were good. I felt safe—for once.
My only lingering sadness was over David’s death. David was the boy whom I’d woken up with the first day I’d gotten banished to Island Alpha by the UNA. He sacrificed himself by destroying the cooling core of the specimen archive, which halted the government machinery running the wheel. He did it so that the rest of us could live. And also so that the kids who were frozen in the specimen archive could survive. I still thought about him every
night before I slept, and he appeared sometimes in my dreams. Often we were lost in the forest on Island Alpha together, on a dark hidden trail, and he was beckoning for me to follow him deeper into the darkness. Sometimes I would wake up crying.
I hid these dreams from Liam. I don’t know why. Maybe I didn’t want him to know how strong my feelings for David were. Maybe I didn’t even realize how strong they were myself, until after David was gone. I was still sorting out my feelings, more than two months after his death. David and I shared a deep connection. When he died, it felt like I lost a piece of myself.
I will never know exactly how David felt about me. I suspect that he liked me more than he ever let on. His final words to me—“Keep me in your thoughts, Alenna”—linger in my mind. I keep wishing that we had done things differently, and that David was still alive.
Other than David, my other friends survived our massive battle with the army of drones. Liam, Gadya, Rika, and I found Cass and Emma alive but injured after the assault on the elevated highway. Both of them were still recovering but doing well.
I try to think past that final memory of me and Liam working in the village together, but there is only blackness. I’m suffering some form of amnesia.
I remember that our attack on the continental UNA was several months away. For once, I had felt so peaceful. It had seemed like we were free from worry—at least for a while. Did someone attack us on that day?
The final image in my head is that of Liam’s smiling face gazing at me. After that there is nothing. No matter how hard I try, I can’t bring any more memories to my mind.
Then, out of nowhere, I hear more voices crackling in my ear,
saying my name. They are too loud and sharp to be imaginary.
“It’s time to bring her up,” a voice says.
“Alenna? Can you hear us?” another one asks.
“Say something if you’re still sane in there!” the first voice commands.
The voices are familiar. Oddly reassuring. I realize that I must be wearing an earpiece. Am I back in the UNA? I try to touch my ear but I can’t feel anything, not even my own hands.
Yes, I can hear you , I struggle to answer. But I can’t speak. Then I try to say it again, and this time, I hear the words crackling back at me in my ear. My hearing is returning. “What happened? Where am I?”
“Hang on,” another voice calls out. It’s a girl. I recognize her voice at once. Gadya . She’s one of my closest friends.
“Gadya?” I ask, confused. But as soon as I say her name, I feel a strong tugging sensation on my arms and legs. Other senses are returning. I’m floating in thick, warm liquid. And the substance around me is flowing and shifting, like a slow-moving river.
It startles me to feel any sensation. I must be in some kind of sensory deprivation chamber. I feel relieved to still be alive, but very confused about where I am—and why I got put here.
My sense of direction is skewed. I can’t tell what is up, and what is down. Only that I’m finally moving.
My arms and legs start to throb, and my head begins pulsing. I’m being pulled up through the jelly-like liquid. It reminds me of the material that the barrier around the gray zone was built from. I struggle to kick and move my arms. I thrash and flail, and this time I can feel the motion. All my senses are returning at once, and they make my body ache. I see a circle of light appear directly above me. Shimmering and fluctuating. Growing larger as I’m pulled upward.
“Hey! What’s going on?” I call out.
I feel wires tugging and pinching my flesh, like intravenous tubes. They feel like they’re going to rip right out of my skin.
I cry out in pain.
“It’s okay! Stay calm! You’re doing great,” I hear Gadya’s voice say in my earpiece. “Don’t mess up now!”
“Mess what up?” I ask, confused.
Air bubbles burst around me in the oily liquid. I realize there’s a tube in my nose. I try to yank it out, but it hurts too much. I taste copper and realize that I’m bleeding.
I keep moving, wrestling with the tubes sticking into my body. I feel restraints and wires pulling away from me, setting me free.
And then I’m pulled out of the fluid and into harsh white sunlight. I yell in pain, as tubes whip out of my flesh one by one.
I’m in a bamboo hammock attached to a small metal crane. It’s carrying my body up through a large metal hatch in the top of a giant isolation tank, and over to a stone walkway in a jungle clearing. I must be on Island Alpha . Rows of other isolation tanks sit next to the one that I was inside, monitored by scientists in white lab coats.
There is no sign of Gadya or my other friends. And my memory hasn’t come back either.
The fresh air flays my skin. Every nerve feels like it’s burning, as though I’ve been tossed onto a funeral pyre. The light is so bright, I can’t even hold my eyes open. I clench them shut. Even with them closed, it’s too bright for me. I see a burning red color on the inside of my eyelids.
“Gadya?” I call out, as I struggle to orient myself on the hammock. I put a hand to my ear and try to adjust the earpiece. “Where are you?”
“Watching you on a monitor.”
I try to put the pieces together. I gasp for air. I feel like a fish from the river, thrown onto a rock and tortured by small children. I’m dressed only in my underwear.
“Stop flailing!” Gadya yells into my earpiece, her voice distorting. “Or else they’ll fail you!”
“Quit helping her,” another voice grouses faintly in my earpiece. “She has to do this on her own. If she fails, she fails.”
“You mean like you did, Cass?” I hear Gadya retort.
Cass . Another friend. One whom I met at Destiny Station in Australia, when Liam and I first escaped from the wheel.
“I didn’t fail the test!” Cass snaps back. “I was disqualified due to my injuries! There’s a difference.”
Their voices are loud and crackly in my earpiece. “Stop arguing!” I yell at them. “My head hurts!” What test are they talking about?
I finally manage to get my eyes to open again, into narrow slits. The crane is bringing my hammock to the ground. I keep shifting and writhing. It feels like my body has to keep moving, like I have insects under my skin, crawling around. I finally get deposited on cold stones. I curl up. Everything is throbbing.
“Surfacing is hard. But you need to stay calm,” Gadya says. I adjust my earpiece to hear her voice better. “The scientists are judging you right now.”
I take deep, shuddering breaths of air, lying on my side on the stone. I never realized how thin and cool fresh air felt before.
Suddenly a shadow falls over me. Startled, I try to get up, but my body feels too weak. Then I realize the shadow belongs to one of the scientists.
“How are you feeling, Alenna?” the scientist asks briskly. He’s holding a gray T-shirt, jeans, and a pair of combat boots.
“Pissed off,” I say. “Everything hurts!”
The scientist tosses the clothes and boots onto the ground in front of me. Then he checks my pupils with a small, piercing light. “Good,” he says approvingly. “You’re ready for the next phase of your test. Take out your earpiece and give it to me. Then get dressed.”
“No,” I tell him, as I struggle into the jeans and T-shirt. The earpiece is the lifeline to my friends.
“It’s okay,” Gadya says in my ear. She can hear our conversation. “Don’t worry about it. You’ll see us soon.”
“Are you sure?” I’m scanning the jungle for them. There’s no sign of anyone but the scientists.
“I’m certain of it.”
“The next phase of the test involves physical combat,” the scientist says with a sigh. “The earpiece might get broken, and we don’t have many of them to spare. Give it to me.”
Slowly, I raise a hand and pull out the earpiece. It’s still glistening with fluid from the isolation tank. The scientist takes it from me. Then he closes the isolation tank and locks it.
I’m incredibly thirsty. My mouth and throat are burning and dry.
“How about some water?” I ask.
“Why not?” I ask. “Where are my friends? And what’s going on? What is this next phase exactly?”
He frowns. “You don’t remember yet?”
“No. . . .” But as I say the word, memories start coming back to me in a rush. “This is some kind of test to figure out which
ones of us can handle getting sent back to the UNA . . . which ones of us can handle being tortured. I’m right, aren’t I?”
The scientist nods. “We put a tiny dose of a natural neurotoxin in the IV tubes. It’s meant to blank out your mind for a while, and affect your short-term and long-term memory, like a strong sedative. Don’t worry. You’ll get your memories back.”
“Why did you do it?”
“To see how you handle the stress, mentally and physically. These isolation tanks were discovered on the island, and we reconditioned them. The UNA uses torture tactics like this to break any dissidents. They use drugs and isolation to get rebels to give up confidential information. Isolation can be a much more effective form of torture than pain.” The scientist glances at the tanks. “You were in one of them for seventy-two hours.”
“It felt longer.”
He kneels down to spray with iodine the cuts where the tubes came out of me, and he gives me small bandages to put on them. “Just imagine being in one of those things for a month or two. The tubes keep your body running, but without any stimuli, the human brain can go crazy. We had to know if you could deal with it. Most kids can’t. Not even seventy-two hours. We pull them out early.” He stands up again.
I get to my feet too, legs shaking. I slowly put the boots on.
“You said that the next phase is physical. I have to fight someone, don’t I?”
“In a sense.” The scientist starts walking away from me. “I can’t say too much, or it will interfere with the test results.”
Memories are flooding back now in a vivid rush. Only a few kids will be getting sent back to the UNA. Only the ones who are strongest, mentally and physically. My stomach lurches. Liam and I helped design this test, along with the scientists and the
travelers. How could I forget such a thing? We wanted to make sure the test was as harsh and brutal as possible. But I didn’t think it would be this bad. I wipe residual slime out of my eyes.
“Hey!” I call out to the retreating scientist.
He pauses. “Yes?”
“How long is this going to take?”
“That part is up to you.” He starts walking again, disappearing into the jungle. The trees close around him. I realize the other scientists have left too.
I am alone.
I stand there, checking myself for weapons. But I have nothing. Just my clothes and boots. I look around for something to use as a weapon. I don’t want to get caught off guard. I also don’t want to fight with my fists unless I have to. I know that whoever attacks me will probably be armed in some way.
My memories aren’t perfect yet, but I remember that for this phase of the test, I will be expected to fight and disarm an opponent within a limited period of time.
I scan the jungle in every direction around the clearing. Everything is completely silent and still. I wonder if I can use the crane as a weapon somehow, but it’s too high up. Then I see a thick tree branch, like a baseball bat, lying nearby. I rush over and grab it, spinning around in case someone comes up from behind. But nobody does. I stand there, clutching the branch.
“Come on then!” I yell into the forest. “What are you waiting for?”
I don’t feel too afraid anymore. I know this is just a test now. My opponent will probably be someone I know, or maybe some other kid from the archives, stepping out of the trees to frighten me.
After the battles that I’ve been through, I’m pretty sure I can
take whoever it is, or at least give them a good fight. Besides, the worst that can happen is that I fail the test .
But more memories keep coming back, including one of Liam and me talking about the test. I’m sure that he’ll pass it, if he hasn’t already, and will be headed back to the UNA. So if I fail, I might get separated from him again, and left behind on Island Alpha. I can’t let that happen.
I look around more urgently. “Hurry up!” I yell. My voice is hoarse from my time in the isolation tank. “I’m ready for you now!”
The scientists must be watching me. I look for cameras in the trees, but I don’t see them. I know that they are there. I have to do well and impress everyone, and show them that I’m capable of fighting hard, so that I can travel back to the UNA with Liam.
Initially, I had expected that everyone on the wheel would travel back to the UNA as a massive army and fight the government soldiers there. I thought that the scientists would create new weapons out of the feelers, or other materials on the island, and build ships to take us back to the UNA in an armada. But I was wrong about their plans.
The scientists only revealed their true strategy after the island was brought under control. According to them, sending everyone back at once would be too dangerous. We can’t afford to lose any major battles. So instead, the scientists will only be sending back a select number of kids, a group at a time, who will be given safe haven by the rebel cells already existing in the UNA.
Our plan is to work with the rebel cells, and use our knowledge to help them bring down the UNA from the inside and jump-start a civil revolution. It turned out that the scientists have been in contact with the rebels inside the UNA for years. They
believe the most effective way to destroy the UNA is to slowly dismantle it from within.
The power structure of the UNA is decentralized. We know that Minister Harka is just a figurehead. There is no prime person or location that we can find and easily attack. We must simply get the citizens to rise up against the soldiers and use their sheer numbers to overcome the government in every city and every town. That is our first and only order of business. Many lives will be lost, but the sacrifice will be worth it. Or so all the scientists and rebels hope.
After the citizens have stormed all the UNA headquarters and defeated the soldiers, a plan is in place for the European Coalition to swiftly move in and help us rebels rebuild, before chaos takes hold. The planet cannot bear the UNA’s tyranny any longer, so the European Coalition is eager to give us aid. The UNA is fighting eight different countries at the moment, and they will never stop. The rest of the world can’t tolerate its madness any longer.
This plan makes me nervous, especially the first part. I don’t know if I’m cut out to be an enemy spy in a rebel cell. I was never in a resistance cell before being sent to the wheel, unlike David and Cass. I am used to battles and fighting, but not hiding and plotting. Those are different skills. Will I be able to urge the citizens to rise up? I’m not sure.
I also don’t know if we can trust the European Coalition, although from what I’ve heard, they are a fair and relatively peaceful alliance of nations that do not subject their citizens to the violence and atrocities that the UNA does. They will supposedly help us reconstruct the nation, and help us put a new democratic form of government in place. Then, once the UNA is self-sufficient again, they will allow us to be a free and independent nation once
more. Perhaps we will even be able to split back up into Canada, the United States, and Mexico, if the citizens so choose.
My thoughts are interrupted when I hear a noise from the trees. It’s the sound of footsteps crackling on twigs in the forest. I spin toward the source of the sound. My fingers clench on my tree branch. I crouch low into a fighting stance.
I remember the shy, timid girl I once was. Before I got sent to Island Alpha, and before I met Liam and Gadya. Now I am no longer scared and weak. I am a warrior, tested by many battles.
“Let’s do this!” I yell, banging my tree branch on the ground.
I expect whoever it is to yell something back, but instead I just hear a weird growling noise. Maybe the person is trying to scare me, but it’s not going to work.
I keep hearing the branches crackle and the leaves rustle.
And then a figure steps into view.
I take a step back.
It is not some villager or rehabilitated drone here to fight me. Instead, it’s a huge lumbering boy, his eyes glazed and his body rippled with muscles and weeping sores. He has a shaved head and homemade tattoos all over his chest.
He must be one of the drones that the scientists couldn’t save. One of the crazy ones who lived down in the tunnels near the control center. Poisoned by UNA drugs. Banished there by Meira—the onetime leader of the drone army.
I feel a chill. I can’t believe this is part of the scientists’ test. Those kids were violent semi-mutants. Almost like wild animals. This boy could kill me. I’m shocked the scientists would do this to anyone. I definitely don’t remember this element being part of the test. I even wonder if I’ve been set up, and this is some kind of attempt to murder me.
I watch the deranged boy, and I try to stay calm. My branch is tight in my hands.
He pivots his crazed eyes in my direction. He opens his mouth and growls again. His fingernails are like jagged, serrated knives. His teeth are filed into points. In the sunlight, his flesh looks gray and rotting. He takes a step toward me.
At least he doesn’t have any weapons, I think. And although he’s huge, he’s clumsy and clearly demented. As long as I’m careful, I should be able to hit him on the head and knock him down and out. That should be enough to complete the test.
But then I hear another sound behind me. I turn around. A second mutant boy is stepping out from the trees. He’s missing some fingers, and he has livid red scars on his face. But the edges of his mouth are turned up into a brutal sneer. His blue eyes, mottled with red around the edges, are fixed directly on me.
I hear more noises. I don’t know how many of these crazed kids are out here with me, but I know that I’m going to get killed unless I do something. My heart starts pounding. I consider running away, but I imagine that then I would fail the test.
So I decide to fight.
I lunge forward at the first boy and strike him as hard as I can with my tree branch, right across the chest. He doesn’t show any sign of pain.
He swings out one of his meaty fists. He’s slow, and I duck.
Right then I hear the boy behind me approaching. I swing around with a yell, kicking outward, and catching him off guard. My right foot plows into his kneecap. He stumbles back, startled, nearly staggering to the ground. I rush forward and kick him in the knee again. He screams in agony.
My boot stamps down over and over, trying to dislocate his
kneecap. I have to disable him or he will kill me. I feel bone and cartilage crunching under my boot. Now he’s sobbing and gripping his knee. I spin around.
Two more boys lumber out of the trees. They both have chiseled teeth and rabid looks in their eyes. I can’t believe the scientists are doing this to me . Is this what the test was like for everyone? How did Gadya pass it? Or anyone else?
The first boy approaches again. I lash out with my tree branch, whipping it across his face this time. He cries out in pain and his hands press against his eyes. I turn around, prepared to fight the other two boys.
I pick the smallest one and run toward him with my branch upraised. I swing it as he tries to claw at me with his ragged fingernails. Suddenly, he grabs hold of the branch and whips it out of my hands, tearing the skin of my palms.
I leap back, raising my hands into fists.
And then I feel strong hands gripping me around the waist. I cry out in surprise. I can feel the hot breath of one of these awful drones on the back of my neck. I kick back with my foot, trying to hit him in the crotch, but missing.
“Get off me!” I yell.
Teeth gouge my shoulder, and I realize that he’s trying to bite me. These drones are primitive animals. They use teeth and claws to fight. I feel his teeth pierce my skin like a row of knives.
Scared and horrified, I kick back again, finally slamming my heel into his crotch. He releases his teeth as he cries out. I slip out of his grasp.
But the drone who grabbed my tree branch is fast approaching, holding it in one hand. His eyes are blank, as though his mind has been fried.
I want to run again. The odds are against me. But I know that I can’t.
So instead, I race toward the boy with a savage yell. He raises the branch, but I plow into his chest with my shoulder. He tumbles backward with me on top of him.
The branch crashes down across my back and I cry out. He arches his head back as he struggles to get up. I realize this is my one chance. I slam my right fist into his throat as hard as I can, connecting directly with his Adam’s apple. He chokes and shudders. I can’t relent even for a second.
I hit him again, savagely crushing his windpipe. He gasps for air. I roll sideways as the drone who bit me lashes out with his hand, his fingernails slicing my forearm.
I stagger to my feet. The second drone is still lying on the ground clutching his knee. The drone I hit in the throat continues to gasp for breath, flailing wildly on the grass. I stare at the two remaining drones. The one I hit in the face is bleeding from both eyes.
He opens his mouth and hisses at me, revealing a tongue that has been deliberately sliced in two. The drones do this to themselves, as part of a twisted ritual.
“You don’t scare me!” I yell. I see a nearby rock, the size of my fist, and I rush forward and pick it up. The drones are both watching me. I can feel their desire for my flesh.
I stand there glaring back. I don’t know when the test will end. Probably when I’ve defeated all the drones. Maybe even killed them. But is that even possible? It’s four against one. The one I kicked in the knee is already trying to get up again.
I’m about to run forward and attack the two drones who are still standing, when the one I hit in the crotch suddenly pulls a large knife out from the back of his waistband.
The blade glints in the sunlight.
He grins at me, his eyes burning with madness. His mouth tries to form words, but he can’t speak. His mind has been affected by the UNA drugs. It’s rotting from the inside out. But he can still kill. Those primitive impulses clearly remain intact.
He races forward with his blade outstretched. I can’t get away in time. He crashes into me, swinging his arm back to stab me. The blade flies forward. I barely dodge the blow. The knife plunges deep into the grass as he grunts.
Without a second to spare, I slam my rock against his fingers as hard as I can. I hear bones breaking. He yelps and snatches his hand back. And for a second, the knife is left embedded in the earth.
I grab the handle and use my weight to pull it out of the ground as I roll sideways. I get to my feet, panting. The drone is clutching his hand. Blood is dripping from it. He and the other drone stare at the knife in my hand.
I begin advancing on them, holding the knife with the tip pointed downward, so I can slice up at them with my full strength if they approach. The drones don’t look scared or worried. They look angry and demented.
I glance behind me and see the two other drones still on the ground. The one I punched in the throat is barely breathing. I doubt he’s going to survive. The other drone can’t stand up because his knee keeps giving out.
I turn back and continue toward the two remaining drones. They split up, moving sideways, one to my right and one to my left, so they will be harder to attack. I crouch low with my knife, ready to slice whichever one comes my way.
The boy with the injured hand makes the first move. He lunges
toward me unexpectedly. I swing my knife up right before he hits me. The blade slides upward and over his chest and neck, cutting through his skin. He screams so loudly that it temporarily deafens me. Then his elbow crashes against my jaw. My vision sparkles for a moment. I kick against his clawing, bleeding body.
I scream as someone starts pulling my hair. It’s the other drone. He has run forward, taken a fistful of my hair in his hand, and knotted it around his fingers.
I lash out with my knife and try to cut his hand, but he moves out of the way. I scream again as he pulls my hair. I can’t find his hand anymore. So instead I use the knife to slash off part of my hair. I get free.
The boy staggers back, off balance, holding my hair in his hand. Then I slam the knife into the back of the drone who is bleeding on top of me.
He doesn’t scream. He just slams my head again violently with his elbow. I stab him again and again in the back, as I kick against his body. He keeps forcing me against the ground. I don’t feel any pain, just numbness and shock. This can’t be the test—something must have gone wrong . I’m going to die here.
Then the boy is off me. I scrabble away across the grass. I glance back and see him convulsing there. The ground is soaked with his blood from multiple knife wounds.
Only one drone is standing. The one who pulled my hair. He looks uncertain, now that his fellow drones are dying or injured.
I feel exhausted and terrified. I grip my bloody knife. I just want this to be over.
“Come on!” I try to yell, but the words come out like a broken whisper. My whole body feels bruised and battered.
The drone keeps watching me. He is like a beast of prey. But
even beasts of prey know when the odds are against them. I see his eyes pivot to take in the bloody bodies of his companions, writhing on the ground.
I raise my knife higher. My arm is shaking, and I try to keep it steady. I know that I cannot show any fear.
The drone bares his teeth at me. I prepare myself for the onslaught.
But then, startling me, he turns around and starts loping toward the jungle. It takes me a second to realize what is happening. He is running away.
Should I give chase? I can’t believe the test has been allowed to go on for this long. Or be this brutal. I’m covered with wounds.
The drone is near the edge of the forest. Soon he’ll be out of view.
I’m trying to decide what to do—when suddenly an arrow flies out of the trees and strikes him through the back. The drone keels over, dead. He didn’t even have time to scream.
I just stand there, the knife in my hand.
A second passes. Then another. The injured drones around me are struggling on the ground, but none of them poses a threat.
I drop my knife. It tumbles to the grass. I refuse to kill them if they’re no longer a danger to me. If killing is what the test requires, then I’ve done enough of it.
I glance around, looking for the hidden cameras again. “I’m done!” I yell. “The test is over.”
“It sure is!” an excited voice calls out. A girl emerges from the trees nearby, clutching her bow and arrow.
“Gadya?” I ask, confused but relieved to see her. She looks the same as always: a tangled mess of blue hair, homemade piercings, tattoos, and haunted dark eyes.
She rushes over and hugs me hard, slinging the bow and arrow behind her.
“You made it!” she says into my ear. “I knew you would!”
I see Cass emerge from the trees behind her, lithe and poised, also holding a bow and arrow. Cass is frowning. She runs a hand over her short black hair. Her brown skin looks luminous in the sunlight.
“You got lucky,” Cass mutters when she reaches us. “I had tougher mutants to fight.” But she hugs me too.
Other kids step out from behind Gadya and Cass, and guard us from the injured drones.
I realize that I’m shaking. “I could have been killed,” I tell Gadya. “I barely made it!”
“Naw,” she says. “We had bows and guns trained on the drones the whole time. If any of ’em got close to killing you, we would have shot them first.” She pauses. “But then you would have failed the test.”
I take a deep breath.
“Nice job making that drone run away,” Cass adds, somewhat grudgingly. “Impressive work.”
I feel sick to my stomach. I wonder what will happen to the injured drones. Will they be killed, or will they be used to fight someone else? The one with the crushed larynx is unconscious. I can’t believe the scientists are treating them this way. As though they aren’t even human.
“Did you know it would be crazy drones?” I ask Gadya and Cass. They shake their heads.
“No,” Gadya says. “That was a surprise from the scientists. To shake things up and make the test harder and less predictable for us.”
I nod. I know that each of these insane drones was once normal. Just like me. But the UNA drugs affected them differently and turned them into monsters. It’s only luck and genetics that prevented me from such awful mutations.
“Where’s Liam?” I ask Gadya.
Gadya rolls her eyes. “You should be celebrating that you passed the test. You’re going to the UNA with me! Quit worrying about Liam.”
“I’m not worrying. I just want to know.”
“He’s in a mandatory strategy session with some hunters. He’ll be out in a few minutes.”
I nod. I see scientists now at the edges of the trees. They put shackles on the injured and dying drones and drag them away. The drones struggle, but the scientists keep them under control.
“I need some water,” I tell Gadya, exhausted. “And I need to get cleaned up.” I glance down at my clothes. They are covered with sweat and blood. I stink from the battle.
Gadya nods. “Come with me. I’ll help you find something fresh to wear.” We start heading away from the testing ground and back into the main camp, along with Cass.
I passed the test. I will be leaving this island and going back to the UNA with Liam and Gadya.
I look down at my hands. Today I killed someone, almost on instinct. My hands are shaking, so I jam them into my pockets. I must prepare myself to fight and win battles more intense than this one. My future depends on it. I can’t afford to feel afraid.