The door slid open, and Clarke knew it was time to die.
Her eyes locked on the guard’s boots, and she braced for the rush of fear, the flood of desperate panic. But as she rose up onto her elbow, peeling her shirt from the sweat-soaked cot, all she felt was relief.
She’d been transferred to a single after attacking a guard, but for Clarke, there was no such thing as solitary. She heard voices everywhere. They called to her from the corners of her dark cell. They filled the silence between her heartbeats. They screamed from the deepest recesses of her mind. It wasn’t death she craved, but if that was the only way to silence the voices, then she was prepared to die.
She’d been Confined for treason, but the truth was far worse than anyone could’ve imagined. Even if by some miracle she was pardoned at her retrial, there’d be no real reprieve. Her memories were more oppressive than any cell walls.
The guard cleared his throat as he shifted his weight from side to side. “Prisoner number 319, please stand.” He was younger than she’d expected, and his uniform hung loosely from his lanky frame, betraying his status as a recent recruit. A few months of military rations weren’t enough to banish the specter of malnutrition that haunted the Colony’s poor outer ships, Walden and Arcadia.
Clarke took a deep breath and rose to her feet.
“Hold out your hands,” he said, pulling a pair of metal restraints from the pocket of his blue uniform. Clarke shuddered as his skin brushed against hers. She hadn’t seen another person since they’d brought her to the new cell, let alone touched one.
“Are they too tight?” he asked, his brusque tone frayed by a note of sympathy that made Clarke’s chest ache. It’d been so long since anyone but Thalia—her former cell mate and her only friend in the Ar]world—had shown her compassion.
She shook her head.
“Just sit on the bed. The doctor’s on his way.”
“They’re doing it here?” Clarke asked hoarsely, the words scraping against her throat. If a doctor was coming, that meant they were forgoing her retrial. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. According to Colony law, adults were executed immediately upon conviction, and minors were Confined until they turned eighteen and then given one final chance to make their case. But lately, people were being executed within hours of their retrial for crimes that, a few years ago, would have been pardoned.
Still, it was hard to believe they’d actually do it in her cell. In a twisted way, she’d been looking forward to one final walk to the hospital where she’d spent so much time during her medical apprenticeship—one last chance to experience something familiar, if only the smell of disinfectant and the hum of the ventilation system—before she lost the ability to feel forever.
The guard spoke without meeting her eyes. “I need you to sit down.”
Clarke took a few short steps and perched stiffly on the edge of her narrow bed. Although she knew that solitary warped your perception of time, it was hard to believe she had been here—alone—for almost six months. The year she’d spent with Thalia and their third cell mate, Lise, a hard-faced girl who smiled for the first time when they took Clarke away, had felt like an eternity. But there was no other explanation. Today had to be her eighteenth birthday, and the only present waiting for Clarke was a syringe that would paralyze her muscles until her heart stopped beating. Afterward, her lifeless body would be released into space, as was the custom on the Colony, left to drift endlessly through the galaxy.
A figure appeared in the door and a tall, slender man stepped into the cell. Although his shoulder-length gray hair partially obscured the pin on the collar of his lab coat, Clarke didn’t need the insignia to recognize him as the Council’s chief medical advisor. She’d spent the better part of the year before her Confinement shadowing Dr. Lahiri and couldn’t count the number of hours she’d stood next to him during surgery. The other apprentices had envied Clarke’s assignment, and had complained of nepotism when they discovered that Dr. Lahiri was one of her father’s closest friends. At least, he had been before her parents were executed.
“Hello, Clarke,” he said pleasantly, as if he were greeting her in the hospital dining room instead of a detention cell. “How are you?”
“Better than I’ll be in a few minutes, I imagine.”
Dr. Lahiri used to smile at Clarke’s dark humor, but this time he winced and turned to the guard. “Could you undo the cuffs and give us a moment, please?”
The guard shifted uncomfortably. “I’m not supposed to leave her unattended.”
“You can wait right outside the door,” Dr. Lahiri said with exaggerated patience. “She’s an unarmed seventeen-year-old. I think I’ll be able to keep things under control.”
The guard avoided Clarke’s eyes as he removed the handcuffs. He gave Dr. Lahiri a curt nod as he stepped outside.
“You mean I’m an unarmed eighteen-year-old,” Clarke said, forcing what she thought was a smile. “Or are you turning into one of those mad scientists who never knows what year it is?” Her father had been like that. He’d forget to program the circadian lights in their flat and end up goie ud end ung to work at 0400, too absorbed in his research to notice that the ship’s corridors were deserted.
“You’re still seventeen, Clarke,” Dr. Lahiri said in the calm, slow manner he usually reserved for patients waking up from surgery. “You’ve been in solitary for three months.”
“Then what are you doing here?” she asked, unable to quell the panic creeping into her voice. “The law says you have to wait until I’m eighteen.”
“There’s been a change of plans. That’s all I’m authorized to say.”
“So you’re authorized to execute me but not to talk to me?” She remembered watching Dr. Lahiri during her parents’ trial. At the time, she’d read his grim face as an expression of his disapproval with the proceedings, but now she wasn’t sure. He hadn’t spoken up in their defense. No one had. He’d simply sat there mutely as the Council found her parents—two of Phoenix’s most brilliant scientists—to be in violation of the Gaia Doctrine, the rules established after the Cataclysm to ensure the survival of the human race. “What about my parents? Did you kill them, too?”
Dr. Lahiri closed his eyes, as if Clarke’s words had transformed from sounds into something visible. Something grotesque. “I’m not here to kill you,” he said quietly. He opened his eyes and then gestured to the stool at the foot of Clarke’s bed. “May I?”
When Clarke didn’t reply, Dr. Lahiri walked forward and sat down so he was facing her. “Can I see your arm, please?” Clarke felt her chest tighten, and she forced herself to breathe. He was lying. It was cruel and twisted, but it’d all be over in a minute.
She extended her hand toward him. Dr. Lahiri reached into his coat pocket and produced a cloth that smelled of antiseptic. Clarke shivered as he swept it along the inside of her arm. “Don’t worry. This isn’t going to hurt.”
Clarke closed her eyes.
She remembered the anguished look Wells had given her as the guards were escorting her out of the Council chambers. While the anger that had threatened to consume her during the trial had long since burned out, thinking about Wells sent a new wave of heat pulsing through her body, like a dying star emitting one final flash of light before it faded into nothingness.
Her parents were dead, and it was all his fault.
Dr. Lahiri grasped her arm, his fingers searching for her vein.
See you soon, Mom and Dad.
His grip tightened. This was it.
Clarke took a deep breath as she felt a prick on the inside of her wrist.
“There. You’re all set.”
Clarke’s eyes snapped open. She looked down and saw a metal bracelet clasped to her arm. She ran her finger along it, wincing as what felt like a dozen tiny needles pressed into her skin.
“What is this?” she asked frantically, pulling away from the doctor.
“Just relax,” he said with infuriating coolness. “It’s a vital transponder. It will track your breathing and blood composition, and gather all sorts of useful information.”
“Useful information for who?” Clarke asked, although she could already feel the shape of his answer in the growing mass of dread in her stomach.
“There’ve been some exciting developments,” Dr. Lahiri said, sounding like a hollow speeches. “You should be very proud. It’s all because of your parents.”
“My parents were executed for treason.”
Dr. Lahiri gave her a disapproving look. A year ago, it would’ve made Clarke shrink with shame, but now she kept her gaze steady. “Don’t ruin this, Clarke. You have a chance to do the right thing, to make up for your parents’ appalling crime.”
There was a dull crack as Clarke’s fist made contact with the doctor’s face, followed by a thud as his head slammed against the wall. Seconds later, the guard appeared and had Clarke’s hands twisted behind her back. “Are you all right, sir?” he asked.
Dr. Lahiri sat up slowly, rubbing his jaw as he surveyed Clarke with a mixture of anger and amusement. “At least we know you’ll be able to hold your own with the other delinquents when you get there.”
“Get where?” Clarke grunted, trying to free herself from the guard’s grip.
“We’re clearing out the detention center today. A hundred lucky criminals are getting the chance to make history.” The corners of his mouth twitched into a smirk. “You’re going to Earth.”
The Chancellor had aged. Although it’d been less than six weeks since Wells had seen his father, he looked years older. There were new streaks of gray by his temples, and the lines around his eyes had deepened.
“Are you finally going to tell me why you did it?” the Chancellor asked with a tired sigh.
Wells shifted in his chair. He could feel the truth trying to claw its way out. He’d give almost anything to erase the disappointment on his father’s face, but he couldn’t risk it—not before he learned whether his reckless plan had actually worked.
Wells avoided his father’s gaze by glancing around the room, trying to memorize the relics he might be seeing for the last time: the eagle skeleton perched in a glass case, the few paintings that had survived the burning of the Louvre, and the photos of the beautiful dead cities whose names never ceased to send chills down Wells’s spine.
“Was it a dare? Were you trying to show off for your friends?” The Chancellor spoke in the same low, steady tone he used during Council hearings, then raised an eyebrow to indicate that it was Wells’s turn to talk.
“Were you overcome by some temporary bout of insanity? Were you on drugs?” There was a faint note of hopefulness in his voice that, in another situation, Wells might’ve found amusing. But there was nothing humorous about the look in his father’s eyes, a combination of weariness and confusion that Wells hadn’t seen since his mother’s funeral.
Wells felt a fleeting urge to touch his father’s arm, but something other than the handcuffs shackling his wrists kept him from reaching across the desk. Even as they had gathered around the release portal, saying their final, silent good-byes to Wells’s mother, they’d never bridged the six inches of space between their shoulders. It was as if Wells and his father were two magnets, the charge of their grief repelling them apart. wi
“Was it some kind of political statement?” His father winced slightly, as though the thought hit him like a physical blow. “Did someone from Walden or Arcadia put you up to it?”