“What? Something other than boots on the ground headed our way? Let’s just go!”
While I want to figure out what the hell I’m hearing, I don’t argue. I stuff the laptop into Levi’s bag and wait for him to hand over the carabiner. I give it a tug and a long thin wire drags out so that I can clip on to a loop in the leather breastplate of my uniform. We’re attached but not touching. Levi expels the air from his lungs and closes his eyes. I keep mine open and follow the music as we jump into the Rift.
CHAPTER 3 (#ulink_4ae61c8c-b76b-5380-a089-db7e9ea547d2)
Like a dirty shirt inside a washing machine, once again I’m spinning in the Rift’s emerald mouth. The sound is so much louder this time. It burrows into my ears and latches on to my brain. An orchestra, a hundred orchestras, tuning their instruments to a single note. I must figure out a way to combat the disorientation if we’re going to keep doing this.
It’s a struggle, but I manage to focus my eyes. Still, I’ve waited too long in accomplishing this one small thing. The green is almost behind me. I see a slit of light ahead, and then before I can steady or upright myself, Levi and I are pitched forward.
Immediately I know that something is wrong. Not only am I gasping for air, but the sky on this Earth is sickly yellow. My hands and face, the only places where my skin is exposed, are burning. Levi and I scramble. He opens his pack and pulls out his laptop, bubbles of burnt flesh starting to form on his hands. On top of the fact that he’s already been shot, he must be in considerable pain.
While he powers up the program, I reach around and dig into my pack, tears leaking out of my eyes from the pain, and manage to pull out my oxygen mask. It’s agony as the contraption forms around my face, but at least now I can breathe. I scramble around Levi’s pack and find his oxygen mask, too. It’s a Roone-designed device, more advanced than anything humans have developed yet. In its dormant form, it looks a little like a metal beanie. Once I put it on Levi’s head, it clamps to his skull and a hard black shell molds down his cheeks. A clear plastic barrier covers his face and I can hear it seal at his neck with a soft pop. The mask filters our carbon dioxide emission, mixes it with a small amount of water, and converts it into oxygen. To his credit, Levi doesn’t even wince as the helmet covers the melting skin on his face.
Once again I push him off the computer. My hands look like they’ve been in a microwave, too, but at least I don’t have a hole in one of them. The next Rift opens and I can’t believe I’m actually relieved to see it. As Levi puts the laptop away, I do a quick atmospheric reading from yet another Roone device attached to my utility pouch. It may seem ridiculous, as I’m standing there, literally cooking, but we need to catalog and identify as many Earths as we can. If we can get a fix on this location, no other Citadel has to endure this as we have. Ezra once said that mapping the Rifts would be pointless and impossible, but I’m not so sure this assessment is correct. I now know the location of this Earth, or at least the computer does, and I have viable proof that we should stay away.
I pull Levi to his feet and strap on his pack. As I do, a strip of bubbling skin peels from my hand and I let out a small yelp of pain. Putting on my own pack brings me close to retching. Luckily we’re still attached. Not that I think that even matters anymore. Based on our last two trips, I’m beginning to suspect that opening a Rift leads to one distinct Earth and one distinct Earth only. The Rift slingshots us through in a straight trajectory—there are no tunnels or curves to lose one another in. Even if we were disconnected, we would have had to risk it. Levi doesn’t look like he’s doing so great; his eyes are closed behind his helmet, and my hands hurt so badly that I can’t even hold on to him, so I push him through the Rift and jump in behind him.
CHAPTER 4 (#ulink_c8518eb2-522e-5d9d-a73d-881a66f26a7f)
Once I’m inside the Rift I use the pain to focus. I keep my eyes open so I can watch Levi, who seems to be tumbling, head over feet. I concentrate on my hands, covered in blisters and blood. I can filter out the distraction of the Rift, of its intense green light, the careening noise, and the lack of gravity if I allow myself to embrace the agony of the exposed flesh on my palms.
I make my body straight as an arrow and nosedive through the tunnel of space and time. After a few seconds I begin to feel something else. My body starts to feels heavier, denser, and I can see a vertical light ahead of me. It’s clearly the new Earth’s gravity pulling me forward. On the previous two trips I’d thought that the Rift literally spat me out. I realize now that the kicking force I feel is simply the change in atmospheric pressure. Using the white light coming from the other side, I align my body accordingly. I’m now vertical, and my hope is that the exit is upright, too. I brace myself for the final release and take a step forward. My foot hits solid ground. I’ve done it. I’ve walked out of the Rift instead of landing on my face again. Levi isn’t so lucky. He tumbles out and rolls three or four times in the white sand at our feet, pulling me down with him.
I disconnect and pop up, grabbing the Roone device on my belt that’s used to measure the compatibility of our human physiology with our current environment as I do. Thankfully, the air is clean and fresh without any toxins. And I mean totally clean. Not even our Earth is so free of pollutants. I push a switch on my oxygen mask and it retracts. I scream as it takes a layer of skin along with it. I’m usually good with pain, but this must be really bad. I wonder briefly if my face is going to be scarred for life. Given a Citadel’s advanced capacity for healing, I doubt it, and either way, scars don’t bother me. In fact, I wish I had more. I think it might actually be a relief to see on the outside what I feel so often on the inside.
I don’t even know why I’m letting myself be distracted by something as stupid as a scar. Probably so I can ignore how bad our current predicament is. I shake myself out of it and go into crisis mode—say what you will about ARC (and believe me, I’ve said it all), but their training is exactly what we need right now.
I look down. Levi is in bad shape, but before I can worry about him, I need to assess our situation. We are on a narrow stretch of sand bordered by a bright turquoise ocean. I pull out the binoculars attached to my utility belt, which are also enhanced with Roone tech. I see nothing but some palm trees and the sea for at least a hundred miles in every direction. Beautiful as it is, this version of Earth might be scarier than the last. I wonder if it’s sheer luck that the Rift happened to open on the one piece of land available, or if it’s some kind of fail-safe built into the system. I pray to God it’s the latter, and not just for our personal safety. The fact is, our packs are water-resistant against things like rain and what not, but they aren’t airtight. And that’s crucial because of our equipment, specifically our laptops. If they got wet, that would effectively end our travels and we’d be trapped. It really dawns on me in that moment how crazy this mission is and how much faith we’ve put in Roone tech. It’s one thing to imagine how it’s going to be in theory, but out here in the field I understand how truly vulnerable we are. What at first seemed like a miracle—a computer program to navigate us to other versions of Earth—is starting to feel primitive, cumbersome, and unpredictable. There are simply too many variables and too many potential situations that end with us being separated from our technology, and effectively stranded. I allow myself to imagine briefly what it would be like to be stuck on a desert island with Levi for the rest of my life. No family, no friends, no Ezra. Just me and Levi forever.
That thought, along with the excruciating pain, brings bile to my throat.
What the hell is wrong with me? I can’t be thinking about any of that now.
I have to deal with Levi. Since he’s lying facedown in the sand, I’m fairly sure he isn’t conscious. Thankfully, there is that small tree line behind me made up of a crop of swaying palms. They’ll provide enough shade for us to rest without having to set up the tents. I grab Levi by his pack, and because I’m in too much pain to carry him, I have to drag him the hundred feet or so away from the beach. My burnt hands touch his backpack, and the pain of this one small act, dragging my partner to shelter, almost brings me to my knees. I take a moment when it’s done, steadying myself on a tree with my elbow. I’d like to collapse, too, but there’s too much to be done.
There’s no point in waking Levi until I can doctor his wounds, and I can’t do anything to help him with my own wounds raw and exposed. I take off my belt and unzip my catsuit-like uniform down past my belly button. Ever so gently, with just my thumb and index finger, I peel the suit down. When I get to my wrists I try to make the opening wide enough so that the material doesn’t touch my hands. I fail on both sides and I grind my teeth against the pain so hard my jaw starts to ache.
I sigh with relief when it’s off. Beneath the suit I’m wearing nothing but a black sports bra. Ordinarily I’d worry about touching Levi dressed like this, about touching him period, but he’s in too much pain for his Blood Lust to activate.
I gently tie the sleeves of my uniform around my waist and walk briskly to the ocean. I need to clean my injuries before I can put on medicine and dress them. I crouch down and swiftly blow air out of my lungs, then plunge my hands in the warm salt water. I actually scream it hurts so badly. I must be seriously injured. Citadels excel at many things, but most of all they are masters at fighting, lying, and enduring pain. The Roones say we have the ability to turn down the sensitivity of our nerve receptors, which is probably a version of the truth. So the fact that I’m ready to pass out right now says a lot about the magnitude of my injuries. I need real medical attention, but what can I do about it? There’s no one else here, and Levi is worse off than I am.
I steel myself as I splash seawater on my face, bringing on another round of agony. I falter in the ocean, nothing but collapsing sand beneath my feet to steady myself on. I dig deep, mentally, trying to push through the sharp white pain without passing out, but I’m not sure how much more of this I can take.
When it feels like I’ve sufficiently cleaned my wounds, which, as far as I can tell, are mostly second-degree burns wherever my skin was exposed, I race back up to the coverage beneath the trees. I dump the contents of both our packs out onto the sand. It’s easier to get what I need this way as opposed to rooting through them with my raw and damaged hands. I take our bowls and cups and run back to the ocean to fill them. I move so fast I manage to outrun the latest wave of pain as the water hits my skin. Or maybe more and more of my pain receptors are being turned off.
A girl can hope.
When I get back to our pile of stuff, I find my first aid kit and open it with my teeth. We have an ample supply of medicines and supplies for all kinds of injuries. Edo must have known we would encounter Earths like the last one, with dangerously unstable atmospheres. I find a tube that looks like toothpaste but is labeled as burn ointment. I unscrew it with my teeth and squeeze out a generous amount into my palms. The relief is immediate and palpable and I cover my hands with the medication. I do the same with my face and the pain becomes tolerable. I wrap my entire left hand in a bandage and most of my right, but leave my fingers exposed so I can treat Levi.
I remove his helmet first. When the contraption retracts he wakes up with a yelp of pain. “Don’t try to be a stoic, okay? Just lie here and let me help you,” I warn him. By way of reply Levi nods his head. “This part is really going to hurt. Like, probably more than anything you’ve ever experienced. I have to clean the injuries and no, I’m not rubbing salt in your wounds for fun. It’s antibacterial, so grit your teeth and don’t punch me.” I gently pour the water I collected from the ocean over his hands. To his credit, Levi remains perfectly still, though tears are pouring down his face. I take a clean cloth and dab his face lightly with the seawater. Wearing a sealed helmet would have helped with bacteria, and even though there is an antibacterial agent in the burn ointment, given our situation, I must be doubly safe. I don’t want to return home before we’ve found Ezra just because of an infection we can prevent.
Once everything is clean, I gently pick up his hand and, with featherlight fingers, apply the ointment. I hear his heartbeat slow and he releases an audible sigh of relief. The burns he sustained cauterized the bullet wound, which went straight through his palm. I suppose in that one way he was lucky. I wrap both his hands in bandages and then move to his face.
There’s no denying that Levi is beautiful. His brown hair glints russet in the single shaft of sunlight that has escaped the palm leaves. His eyes are a green as bright as the Rift. But right now he looks like something out of a horror movie. There is not an inch of exposed flesh on his face that is not blistered or bleeding. I gently rub the medicine into his skin. He remains unmoving, but his eyes tell a different story. It seems that he has focused all his pain right in the blazing rings of his irises. I’ve never seen him look so vulnerable, and it actually shakes me to my core until I can force myself to simply focus on the task at hand. When I am done, I sit back on my haunches and reach for the other bandages to wrap the fingers I had left exposed.
“Thank you,” Levi croaks. I nod my head and turn away. I didn’t choose to become a Citadel, but I did choose to get out from under the yoke of ARC. My decisions are now a constellation of burns and blood on Levi’s face. I don’t know exactly how much I am to blame for all this, but I feel responsible enough, and a wave of guilt washes over me, settling squarely between my shoulder blades.
Captain Sato had done a lot of preaching about the greater good, and now I recognize why his seemingly casual grasp of the concept offended me. Levi, right here, in agony—this is sacrifice for the greater good.
Thinking of Sato reminds me of that stupid clock on the wall. My flesh seems to throb in time to the second hand. Tick. Tick. Tick. Every hour we are gone puts everyone more at risk, but right now we’ve run out of options. We have to stop and rest. We have to heal. I pour some water down Levi’s throat and take a deep gulp from my own canteen.
I pull out the Roone equivalent of a hypodermic needle from the med kit. It looks like a tiny silver gun with a hollow front where you can swap out different medicines. I load up Levi’s with a pain medication that will knock him out. He’s looking at me, shaking his head. He doesn’t want this.
I don’t have time for his stubborn ass right now.
“We have to, Levi. We’re in no condition to do anything. And besides, I really don’t think there’s anything or anyone else here. This is Waterworld Earth. We need to sleep.”
I prep the little gun and watch the slender needle snap out. “All I need is rest, not sleep. We could be out for days,” Levi says in a whisper.
I cock my head and give him my best mom look. “If you had a mirror right now, you’d let me do this.”
“I don’t need a mirror. I can see what you look like.” I curl my lip. Rude. No need to state the obvious.
“Sorry.” Not sorry. I jab the needle into his neck, maybe a little harder than necessary. I watch his eyes flutter and close. He’s out in seconds. With the last bit of energy I have I manage to make a lean-to of sorts by jamming our rifles into the sand and attaching a solar sheet with tiny holes in the corners for this very purpose. It’s little things like this that freak me out. The Roones really did think of everything. I’d love to believe that Edo is on our side, but until we get her laptop and what it contains from Ezra, how can we really know for sure? When we take down ARC, who’s to say the Roones don’t have some way of wresting control of us? If it comes down to a fight, how do we engage an enemy who is so many steps ahead?
The trees provide shade, but I have no idea how long we will be down. The solar sheet will keep us cool and provide some coverage. I hope. The ointment’s effects are beginning to wear off. I lie down beside Levi and load my own needle gun. I make sure there are at least two inches of space between us. I inhale deeply. We’re losing valuable time we can’t afford, but there’s nothing for it. I inject myself with the pain medication.
Immediately, I feel a rush, like warm bathwater running through my veins. As a Citadel, I’ve been hurt a lot and given all manner of drugs, including variations of opiates like these. I expect that in a second or two I will be out like Levi, but I am not. Instead, my head starts swimming and my body feels like it’s falling, fast and deep. I can’t imagine anyone doing this for fun. I hate this feeling, this loss of control.
And then, I see Ezra, clear as anything, standing just a few feet away. Part of me knows it’s the drugs, but a bigger part is sure that it’s really him. He is beautiful and perfect—bronze-colored skin like caramel, tall and lanky with those luminous eyes matching the turquoise of the ocean behind him.
“Ezra,” I whisper as I hold out my hand. Why is he still standing there? Why doesn’t he come over here? I flex my fingers outward toward him, but he remains where he is. Then, slowly, his skin begins to bubble. I blink hard. His flesh begins to melt off his bones. “No. No. No …” I say, though I’m not sure whether I’m actually using my voice or if my voice is trapped inside my mouth. Frantically, I think about the Earth that we were just on. We had been so desperate to leave, I hadn’t checked for a body. I hadn’t made sure that he wasn’t there. Oh God. Why hadn’t I done that? How could I just have left without thinking of him? I can see his jawbone through the blood and muscle that is falling off him in grotesque chunks. He is saying something and I am straining to hear above the ocean waves. Finally, I hear him.
“Get up!” Ezra screams. “Why aren’t you looking for me? Get up!”
Blackness bleeds through the corners of my vision. My eyesight is closing up like a pinhole camera. I want to stay awake. I want to assure him that I will find him, but I can’t move or speak. It’s too late now. My hand drops. I am out.
CHAPTER 5 (#ulink_ffad522c-362f-502f-a064-697ae702f53f)
I don’t wake up all at once. My mind clicks on, but my body is slower to follow. In my confusion, I expect the nightmare version of Ezra to be standing and screaming in front of me. I am both relieved and disappointed when I see nothing but white sand and an ocean that’s so blue it’s practically neon.
I turn my head. Levi is gone. Of course he is. I’m sure at some point later he’ll make some passive-aggressive remark about waking up first. I sit up slowly and notice that although my hands and face are tingling, they don’t really hurt. I unwind the bandages and have a look. The skin is a little raw and red, with some peeling, but other than that my hands are fine. I really have to pee, so I’m glad that Levi isn’t in the immediate area. I walk farther into the grove and squat down. I look at my watch. It looks like we’ve been asleep for close to fifteen hours. My heart sinks. It’s such a long time. I pull up my uniform and walk back to the temporary shelter. I scan the horizon and spot Levi at the farthest end of the island, swimming in the water. I’m sure he didn’t go in with his uniform on, so I turn away. There’s no privacy here, for either of us, and I don’t like it. It was one thing, back at Camp Bonneville, to agree to a partnership with Levi. Back there, it was all theoretical and strategic. Out here, just the two of us, it’s unnerving. I can easily ignore his hostility even though it’s as obvious as one of those duck-lipped idiots with a selfie stick from my high school. No, it’s when he’s not angry—when he goes quiet and I know he’s watching me—that he really gets under my skin. Is he judging me? Admiring me? Resenting me? All of the above? I have no idea and it’s not like he’d ever in a million years be honest. We’re liars. All of us Citadels are, but he takes it one step further. Stupid, competitive boy. He always has to be the best. At everything.