Authors: Francesca Haig
I picked up the paper, still warm from being crushed in Piper's pocket. “It's all accelerating, isn't it. The Council's got everyone running scared. Alphas and Omegas both.”
“They don't have the Confessor anymore,” he said. “Or her machine. Don't forget what we've achieved.”
I closed my eyes. The one thing I ought to have been grateful forâthe fact that Zach no longer had the Confessor's cruel brilliance at his disposalâI couldn't even think of without losing my breath, the raw pain of it like a boot to the guts. Her death was Kip's death.
“How much do you know about the General?” I asked them.
“Not enough,” said Zoe. “We've been monitoring her since she came on the scene. But it's been decades since infiltrators were able to penetrate the Council fort. It's harder than ever to get into Wyndham, let alone close to the Council.”
“What we do know is all bad news,” Piper said. “She's militantly anti-Omega, just like the Ringmaster and the Reformer.”
It still jarred, to hear Zach spoken of by his Council name. In the silo, the Confessor had said,
I had another name once.
I wondered if my twin ever thought of himself as Zach anymore. I suspected notâhe would have wanted to leave it behind, along with the unsplit childhood that he'd been forced to share with me.
“The General's better established than either of them,” Piper went on. “They all started young, not that it's unusual in the Council. That place is a snake pitâplenty of Councilors don't live long. But the General's the sharpest of the lot, politically. She got her start working for the Commander. The rumor was that she got her place by poisoning him.”
I remembered the Commander's death being announced when I was still living in the settlement.
, the Council's bulletin had said. Timely enough for the General, it seemed.
“The General's never disputed those stories,” Piper said. “True or not, it suits her to be feared. Every time she's come up against opposition, it's ended badlyâand never for her. Scandals, disgrace, backstabbingsâsometimes literally. One by one, everyone who's opposed her
has been silenced, or driven out. The only reason the Judge lasted as long as he did was because he was useful to her and the other twoâa popular figurehead for them to use.”
“Why her, as the new leader,” I said, “and not the Ringmaster, or Zach?”
Piper was squatting, his elbow on his knee. “The Ringmaster came to the Council via the army,” he said. “He's got a huge following among the soldiers, but he's less of a political operator than the other two. They need himâhe's been there longer, and he's got the common touch, and the loyalty of the soldiers, who see him as one of their own. But the word is that he's less radical. Don't get me wrongâhe's still notorious. He runs the army, for one thing, so when it comes to enforcing Council rule, he's been the driving force for years. But although he's brutal, he's not the one driving the big reforms. Most of the worst changesâpushing the settlements farther and farther from decent land; the tithe increasesâthey seem to have originated with the General. And the tightening up of registrations came from the Reformer. Probably the Confessor, too, working behind the scenes with him.”
“And what do you know about how Zach fits in to it all?”
“Less than you, probably,” Piper said.
Once, I would have agreed with him. I would have argued that I knew Zach better than anyone. Now, there was a distance between us that I couldn't breach. Between us lay the Confessor's body, and Kip's. All the silent people floating in those round glass tanks.
Piper continued. “The Reformer's always seemed like an outsiderâit comes from being split late, and not raised in Wyndham like the other two. But he had the Confessor, and that made him hugely powerful. I think the tanks are his pet projectâand the database, too. He's never been smooth, like the General isâshe can charm as well as intimidate. The Reformer's just as ruthless, though, in his own way.”
“You don't need to tell me that,” I said.
Piper nodded. “But now that he's lost the Confessor, allegiances might have shifted.”
I remembered how Zach had let me escape, after Kip and the Confessor's deaths. I could still hear the waver in his voice as he'd shouted at me to go before the soldiers arrived.
If they find out you were involved, that'll be it for me
. Was it the General or the Ringmaster he feared? Or both? Before the silo, I might have convinced myself that, on some level, Zach had wanted me set free. But whatever part of me could have believed that had been left on the silo floor, along with Kip.
“We need to get to Sally's quickly,” Piper said. “We don't have a choice. From there, we start mustering the resistance, seeking the ships. They've wiped out the island; they've got rid of the Judge; they're dismantling the resistance network, bit by bit.”
The sky above us, sulky with clouds, took on a new and pressing weight, and I felt that the three of us were very small. Just three people on the wind-scoured plain, against all the Council's machinations. Each night, as we trudged through the long grass, there were more and more tanks being readied in the refuges. Who knew how many they'd tanked already. And more people were arriving at the refuges every day.
I couldn't claim that I understood Zach anymore, but I knew enough to know this: it would never be enough. He wouldn't be satisfied until we were all tanked.
The next night, well after midnight, I began to sense something. I was jittery, and found myself scanning the darkness around us as we walked. Once, when Zach and I were little, wasps had made a nest in the eaves of our house, right outside our bedroom. For days, until Dad found the nest, a buzzing and scraping had kept us awake, lying in our small beds and whispering of ghosts. What I felt now was like that: a high-pitched buzz at the edge of my hearing, a message that I couldn't interpret but that soured the night air.
Then we passed the first sign for the refuge. We were about halfway between Wyndham and the southern coast, skirting the wagon road. But we passed close enough to the road to see the sign, and crept nearer to read it. The wooden board was painted in large white letters:
Your Council welcomes you to Refuge 9â6 miles south.
Securing our mutual well-being.
Safety and plenty, earned by fair labor.
Refuges: sheltering you in difficult times.
It was illegal for Omegas to attend schools, but many managed to scrape together the basics of reading, learning at home, as I had, or in illicit schools. I wondered how many of the Omegas who passed the refuge's sign could read it at all, and how many of those would believe its message.
In difficult times
,” Piper scoffed. “No mention of the fact that it's their tithes, or pushing Omegas out to blighted land, that make the times so hard.”
“Or that if the difficult times pass, it makes no difference,” added Zoe. “Once people are in there, they're in for good.”
We all knew what that meant: the Omegas floating in the nearly-death of the tanks. Trapped in the horrifying safety of those glass bellies, while their Alpha counterparts lived on unencumbered.
We kept clear of the road, following it from a distance among the cover of gullies and trees. As we approached the refuge I found myself slowing, my movements sluggish as we drew closer to the source of my disquiet. By dawn, when the refuge itself came into view, walking toward it felt as though I was wading upstream through a river. In the growing light, we crept as close as we dared, until we were peering down at the refuge from a copse at the top of a rise only a hundred feet away.
The refuge was bigger than I could have imaginedâit was the size of a small town. The wall surrounding it was higher even than the wall the Council erected around New Hobart. More than fifteen feet high, it was built of brick rather than wood, with tangled strands of wire along the top like nests thrown together by monstrous birds. Within the wall, we could glimpse the tops of buildings, a jumble of different structures.
Piper pointed to where a huge building loomed on the western edge. It took up at least half of the refuge, and its walls still had the yellow tinge of fresh-cut pine, bright against the weathered gray wood of the other buildings.
“No windows,” Zoe said.
It was only a few syllables, but we all knew what it meant. Within that building, row upon row of tanks waited. Some would be empty, and some still under construction. But the sickness loitering deep in my gut left me in no doubt: many had already been filled. Hundreds of lives submerged in that thick, viscous liquid. The cloying sweetness of that fluid, creeping into their eyes and ears, their noses, their mouths. The silencing of lives, with nothing to hear but the hum of machines.
Almost all of the refuge's sprawling complex was entombed within the walls. But at the eastern edge was a section of farmed land, surrounded by a wooden fence. It was too high to climb easily, and the posts were too closely spaced for a person to slip through, but there was room enough to show the crops in their orderly lines, and the workers there, busy with hoes among the beets and marrows. Perhaps twenty of them, all Omegas, bent over their work. The marrows had grown fatâeach one larger than the last few meals that Piper, Zoe, and I had eaten.
“They're not all tanked, at least,” Zoe said. “Not yet, anyway.”
“That's what, six acres of crops?” Piper said. “Look at the size of the placeâespecially with that new building. Our records on the island showed that thousands of people have turned themselves in at the refuges each year. More than ever, lately, since the bad harvest and the tithe increases. This refuge alone would have upward of five thousand people. No way they're being fed from those fieldsâit'd barely be enough to feed the guards.”
“It's a display,” I said. “Like a minstrel show, a pretty picture of what people think a refuge is. But it's all for show, to keep people coming.”
There was something else about the refuge that unsettled me. I searched and searched for it, until I realized that it was an absence, not a presence. It was the almost total lack of sound. Piper had said that there were thousands of people within those walls. I thought of the sound of
the New Hobart market, or of the island's streets. The constant noise of the children at Elsa's holding house. But the only sounds reaching us from the refuge were the strikes of the workers' hoes on the frost-hardened earth. There was no background hum of voices, and I could sense no movement within the buildings. I recalled the tank chamber I'd seen at Wyndham, where the only sound had been the buzz of the Electric. All those throats stoppered with tubes like corks in bottles.
There was movement on the road that led east past the refuge. It wasn't mounted soldiersâjust three walkers, moving slowly, and laden with packs.
As they drew closer, we could see they were Omegas. The shorter of the men had an arm that ended at the elbow; the other man limped heavily, one twisted leg gnarled like driftwood. Between them walked a child. I'd have guessed he was no older than seven or eight, although he was so thin that his age was hard to tell. He looked down as he walked, guided only by his hand held tightly by the tall man.
Their heads looked too large on their thin bodies. But it was their packs that pained me most. Those bundles, tightly wrapped, would have been carefully chosen. A few treasured possessions, and all the things they thought they'd need, in the new life they'd embarked upon. The taller of the men had a shovel across his shoulders. From the other man's pack hung two cooking pans, clattering with each step.
“We need to stop them,” I said. “Tell them what's waiting for them in there.”
“It's too late,” Piper said. “The guards would see us. It would all be over.”
“And even if we could get to them without being seen, what could we say?” Zoe said. “They'd think we're mad. Look at us.” I looked from Zoe to Piper, and down at myself. We were dirty and half-starved. Our clothes were ragged and had never shed the gray stain of the deadlands.
“Why would they trust us?” Piper said. “And what can we offer them? Once, we could have offered them safety on the island, or at least the resistance network. Now, the island's gone, and the network's collapsing by the day.”
“It's still better than the tanks,” I said.
“I know that,” Piper said. “But they won't. How could we even begin to explain the tanks to them?”
A gate in the stone wall opened. Three Council soldiers in red tunics stepped forward, to await the new arrivals. They stood casually, arms crossed, waiting for the walkers to reach them. And I was struck once again by the ruthless efficiency of Zach's plan. The tithes did the work for him, driving the desperate Omegas to the very refuges that their tithes had helped to build. Inside, the tanks would swallow them, and they would never emerge.
To the east, in the field behind the wooden palings, I saw a sudden movement. One of the workers was waving. He had run close to the fence and was waving frantically to the travelers on the road. He swung both arms back the way the walkers had come. There was no mistaking his meaning:
There was such a gulf between the violence of the action, and the silence in which it was conducted. I didn't know whether he was a mute, or whether he was just trying to avoid the notice of the guards. The other workers in the field were watching himâa woman took a few steps toward him, perhaps to help him, perhaps to stop him signaling. Either way, she froze, looking over her shoulder.
A soldier was running from the wooden building behind the fields. He tackled the waving man quickly, felling him with a blow to the back of the head. By the time a second guard had reached them, the Omega was on the ground. They dragged his motionless body back to the building and out of sight. Three other soldiers emerged into the field, one
walking along the inside of the fence, staring at the remaining workers, who bent quickly back to their tasks. From a distance the whole thing had been like a shadow play, unfolding quickly and in silence.
It was over in moments, the soldiers' response so efficient that I didn't think that the new arrivals even saw the disturbance. Their heads were still down, and they were walking steadily toward the soldiers waiting at the gate, just fifty feet away. Even if they had seen the man's warning, would it have saved them if they'd turned and run? The guards could have overtaken them in no time, even on foot. Perhaps the warning had been futileâbut I admired it nonetheless, and winced to think of what would be happening to the waving man now.
The two men and the boy reached the gate. They paused there, in a brief conversation with the guards. One of the guards held out his hand for the shovel that the tall Omega carried; he handed it over. The three of them stepped forward and the soldiers began to drag the gates closed. The taller of the Omega men turned back to stare along the plain. He couldn't even see me, but I found myself raising my hand, and I echoed the frantic wave of the farming man.
. It was Âpointlessâmy body's instinct, as futile and as unstoppable as a drowner's underwater gasp for air. The gates were already closing, and the man turned away and stepped into the refuge. The gates clashed shut behind him.
We could not save them. Already more would be on their way. In settlements nearby, they would be weighing the decision, and thinking of what they might pack. Closing the doors of houses to which they would never return. And this was only a single refugeâall over the land there were more, each one being equipped with its tanks. Piper's map, on the island, had shown nearly fifty refuges. Each one, now, a complex of living death. I couldn't look away from the new building. It would have been intimidating even if I didn't know what it contained. Now
that I did, the building was a monument to horror. Only when Piper nudged me, and began to pull me deeper into the copse, did my lungs stutter back into breath, a juddering intake of air.
A few miles from the refuge, Piper thought he saw a movement through the scrub to the east. But by the time he got there he could find only some trampled grass, and no trail to follow in the dry terrain. The next day, when Zoe was taking the watch while Piper and I slept in the cover of a hollow, she heard a chaffinch's call, and woke us both, whispering that early winter was the wrong season for a chaffinch to sing, and that it could have been a whistle, a signal. I drew my knife while I waited for her and Piper to circle the perimeter of our camp, but they found nothing. We struck camp early that day, leaving before sundown and avoiding open ground, even when night had come.
At midnight, we crossed a valley pierced by the remains of metal poles from the Before. Bent but not felled by the blast, they curved above us, forty-foot ribs of rust, as though we were traversing the carcass of some vast monster, long dead. A jostling wind had blown all night, making it hard to speak; here in the valley the wind was noisier than ever as it shredded against the poles.
We were just beginning the climb from the valley's base when the man sprang from behind one of the rusted posts. He grabbed me by the hair, and before I could scream he had spun me around, his other hand pressing a knife to my throat.
“I've been looking for you,” he said.
I dragged my eyes from the hilt of his blade. Piper and Zoe had been just a few steps behind me. Both had their knives out now, poised to throw.
“Let her go, or you die here,” said Piper.
“Have your people stand down,” the man said to me. He spoke calmly, as if Zoe and Piper, bristling with knives, were barely a concern to him.
Zoe rolled her eyes. “We're not
“I know exactly who you are,” he told her.
The knife at my throat sat precisely where the Confessor's knife had left its scar. Would that thickened strip of skin slow the blade if he cut me? I craned my head to the side to try to see his face. I could make out only his dark hair, not tightly curled like Piper's or Zoe's, but massed in loose whorls. It reached his jaw, tickling the side of my cheek. He ignored me, except for his attentive knife. Slowly I turned my head further. Each movement pressed my neck more firmly into the knife blade, but at last I could see his eyes, fixed on Piper and Zoe. He was older than us, though still probably under thirty. I'd seen his face somewhere before, though the memory felt insubstantial.
Piper worked it out before I did.
“You think we don't know who you are?” he said. “You're the Ringmaster.”
I knew, now, where I'd seen him: in a sketch on the island. Those few marks on a page had become flesh. The full lips, and the smile lines outside each eye. From up close, as he clasped me tightly, each one was a ridge of moonlight on his darkened face.
“Stand down,” The Ringmaster said again, “or I'll kill her.”
Three figures stepped from the darkness behind Zoe and Piper. Two of them held swords; the third a bow. I could hear the creak of the bowstring, pulled taut, the arrow pointed at Piper's back. He didn't turn, though Zoe pivoted to face the soldiers.
“And if we do stand down, what's to stop you killing her then?” Piper asked evenly. “Or all of us?”
“I won't kill her unless I have to. I came to talk. Why do you think
I came without a big squadron? I've taken a risk to find you, talk to you.”