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The Rift Uprising

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“As-Salaam-Alaikum,” Kendrick says, putting his hand out.

Ezra shakes his hand. “Wa-Alaikum-Salaam. But I’m not really a practicing Muslim. And after today … well, I might have to table the whole religion thing.”

Kendrick laughs genuinely and opens the rear passenger door of the car. “I hear ya, man.”

Ezra and I look at each other. There is too much to say.

There is nothing to say.

“Bye.” I give him the warmest smile I can.

“Bye,” he says, also smiling, but his eyes are not happy. “Thanks again.” Not sure how to take that thanks, though. Everything above his mouth is a mixed bag of terror and crushing sadness. I watch the car drive off down the path and stare after it. I know Kendrick didn’t say anything at the time because he thought it would be easier for me to lie. Yeah, sure, I’ll come and see you. No problem, Ezra. The thing is, Citadels my age don’t go to the Village. You don’t have to be an adult to kill here at Battle Ground, but for some reason you need to be one to get posted to the Village. I have always known this, but now, suddenly, it strikes me as extremely worrisome. However, little does Kendrick know that I was being honest. Whatever it takes, I’m going to get into the Village.

I have decided that Ezra is going to be the only person in the world I will never lie to.

CHAPTER 2 (#ulink_67b67a68-50e3-53e1-83ae-5a6e239a56dd)

It always feels surreal to walk away from The Rift, from combat, from hours of intensive training—and then straight into Safeway. But it’s my turn to cook, and that means it’s my turn to shop. Have to keep up the pretense and all that.

I push my cart up and down the aisles. I notice the cans stacked neatly one on top of the next, the endless rows of cereal boxes and the bright reds and oranges of the fresh peppers in the produce department. Shoppers pull items off the shelves and fill up their carts, totally unaware of what’s going on just a few miles away. They might notice me, they might pick up that there is something different about me, but they would never be able to guess that I just put the smackdown on a bunch of actual Vikings.

When I get home, I have about thirty minutes until I have to make dinner. So I decide to just sit on our living room sofa. It is a couch we rarely use in a room we use even less. We are not a “Game night!” family. We are more of a “Great having dinner with you all, I’m going to my room now” family. I wonder if I caused this. I wonder if the thing in my head programmed me this way and my parents and brother just followed my lead. Or maybe, in a rare stroke of good luck, I was born into a naturally solitary family.

It’s not that I don’t love them. I just don’t know them … and they certainly don’t know me.

The walls in here are like most of the walls in our house—covered with artwork. A lot of the paintings and photographs I just don’t get at all. For the most part, those are the ones that were done by my dad’s art school friends. Some of the artists are famous now and their stuff is worth a lot of money. My dad never got his big break, even though I think his work is ten times better. He paints portraits mostly. I slide my backpack to the floor and stare at one of my favorite paintings by him. In it, a woman in bed, surrounded by letters, looks out a window. I feel her pain through the canvas. I feel like I know her even though she lives in New York and we have never met. Dad says it was more than twenty years ago and he can’t remember the exact circumstances that led her to sit for him, though he knows her name is Patricia and that they both lived in the same dumpy building. Did she ever get over whatever broke her heart so badly? The letters are yellowed and old and she isn’t exactly young. I used to think it was a love affair, but as I get older I feel like it’s something different; her grief seems deeper. Lately I’ve begun to wonder if she is even alive anymore. It scares me a little, that I feel so connected to an old woman whose sadness is so unbearable. I look away. Patricia is too much for me to deal with right now.

My father, Dan, is in his office, over our garage. He became a freelance graphic designer once I was born so he could bring in steady money. I’m not the only one in this house who’s had to make sacrifices for the greater good, and this connects me to my father in a way that I cannot connect to my mother. I try not to let this favoritism show. I feel guilty enough as it is. I lean back in the sofa and close my eyes. My dad always goes on about how he wants me to sit for him. I will never let this happen. If he stares at and studies me for hours, I am sure his brushes and mixed-up colors will reveal all my secrets. My parents will figure out that I am hiding something and I know that this will hurt them. My dad’s talent far outweighs my gift for lying, and that’s saying something, because I’m a pretty amazing liar.

My mom’s name is Vega, which means “star” in Swedish. I get my blond hair and fair skin from her. My green eyes come from Dad, and I got his dimples, too. When I first became a Citadel I hated my dimples because they made me look cute. “So adorable!” everyone would say whenever I smiled. How was I supposed to be a tough guy? A soldier? So adorable might as well be code for soft, and a Citadel needs to be anything but. Now that I’ve been in the field for three years, I am grateful for my dimples. I see death all the time. The hardness comes close to consuming me. My father won’t live forever, but I will always see his smile in my reflection, and it’s a great reminder that I’m the result of two loving people, and not what ARC has made me.

My mother moved to America from Stockholm for college and met my dad in New York City. My mom is a designer. She had big dreams, too, of being the next Diane von Furstenberg or Miuccia Prada. By the time she graduated from college, I think she let that dream go. Her classmates were risk takers, avant-garde designers who made crazy clothes out of recycled beer cans and raven feathers. She just wanted to make women look good. A school friend helped her get an interview at Nike. Since my dad grew up in Portland and his family was here, it seemed like the right move. They thought that only rich people could raise kids in Manhattan. They wanted children and so they relocated. We are, each of us, a product of decisions that other people made, one long chain of choices that stretch back to the beginning of humanity. Working so closely with The Rift, I have seen this firsthand. People arrive who have never heard of a world war, or who have never seen electricity, or who don’t understand how it’s possible that we are able to move freely from one country to another. History can be entirely rewritten based on one person’s choice. Somewhere out there, through The Rift, is a version of Ryn Whittaker who lives in an apartment building in New York City. She is just a normal seventeen-year-old. I wonder who that girl is and what she’ll become when she grows up.

I think a lot about her as I sit on the couch, with its hard cushions and unworn feel. I wonder if she’ll ever meet Ezra Massad. Probably not. Then again, I have no idea where he’s from. Rifts on the other Earths open and close randomly. They don’t stay active like ours but flicker off and on, possibly opening once and never again. Scientists theorize that the Earths closest to ours have more frequent Rift activity, as the dark matter in the universe is drawn to these invisible fissures made by our experiment and strike like lightning. But they don’t really know. They can’t know anything for sure because no one goes back through The Rift. Ezra will never go back. The Roones are stuck here, too. The one exception is that Karekins keep coming, though no one can figure out how or why. It’s such bullshit—all of it. I am so drained from today that I just want to sit here and try to think about nothing for a while.

But I pull myself up from the couch and make my way into the kitchen. We rotate cooking duties in the house. Nike is pretty far from Battle Ground. Sometimes my mom is in the car for two hours a day. Since it’s my fault we’re even in Battle Ground to begin with, I don’t mind picking up some of the slack. My brother, Abel, is three years younger than me and has just started high school. He is useless in the kitchen, so he’s exempt. Cooking is one of the few things he can’t do. He’s one of those people who seem to excel at everything they try. He’s a natural athlete, he’s artistic like my dad, he gets straight As—but I rarely see him doing much work. He’s already over six feet tall and very handsome. He looks Scandinavian, but dark haired, like my dad. Actually, the first time I went to Stockholm to see my grandparents, I saw that most people have brown hair, which surprised me at first. That and the fact that they are insanely good-looking. Like, every random person just walking down the street could be a model. It’s weird. I would be jealous of Abel, but honestly, if he had been average, like me, he might have been chosen to be a Citadel. I am so glad that he’s not one; I can get past the fact that he is so friggin’ good at everything.

I begin to cook sausage in an old Le Creuset pot that my mom has had since before she and my dad were married. I start boiling water for the pasta. I cut up the smooth-skinned peppers with an efficiency that belies my skill with knives. Even as I do these mundane things, I think, I am a killer. Not really a murderer, because it’s all in the name of defense, of my life and the lives of those in Battle Ground and beyond. But a killer just the same. Sure, the way ARC says it, everything sounds quite reasonable. Heroic, even.

Then why don’t I feel like a hero?

Each life I take takes a little something from me. I feel impossibly old for my seventeen years. I am not an innocent. I think about Ezra’s hands when he waved them in front of me, thanking me for not restraining him. Where do you even go from there? Is that any kind of beginning to a romance? I roll my eyes. I can’t have a romance with Ezra and there are so many reasons why that come tumbling into my thought process, they are beyond counting. I put the peppers into the pot and add some garlic as my mom walks through the front door. I hear her kick off her shoes and the thump of her bag on the formal dining room table.

“That smells good,” my mom says. “Pasta?”

“Uh-huh,” I reply. I look at her and smile quickly. Her pale blond hair falls loose to her shoulders. She is wearing jeans, a cotton button-down blouse, and sneakers. Since she works at Nike, her clothes are sporty and comfortable, but somehow she always manages to look chic. She layers necklaces, winds scarves brilliantly around her neck, stacks leather and gold bracelets on her wrists, has big chunky belts, and even the cut of her jeans—slouchy but fitted—is elegant. I can attribute this only to her being European. A cultural thing—not genetic—because no one would accuse me of being stylish. I rarely think about what I wear. More often than not it’s yoga pants and boxy T-shirts with Converse sneakers in the summer and boots in the winter. In a way, my sartorial choices are great, because the rules are clear: We are not to draw any unnecessary attention to ourselves. I think I’ve worn makeup maybe twice in my life. I’m sure this must be somewhat disappointing to my fashion-conscious mother, but to her credit she never says anything. She takes a look at me and opens her mouth to say something but closes it. How could she not want a normal daughter who rambles on about boys and clothes and teachers at school? Instead she got me: a kid who talks as little as possible and keeps her mother at arm’s length.

I am a good girl. She says that a lot. “Ryn, you’re such a good girl …” She tries to be validating, because that’s what I am. That is all I can offer my parents. I am good. I do not sneak out at night, I don’t water down their liquor, I don’t come home smelling like weed, I don’t break my curfew, I don’t date. For a while there, my parents thought I was gay. They sat me down and quite sweetly said they would love me no matter what and that if I liked girls, I should just tell them, get everything out in the open. “I’m not gay,” I said softly. “I’m shy.”

The thing is, I am not shy. I’m quiet only because I hate that every other word out of my mouth is an untruth. I probably should have just said I was asexual … which is pretty much what my job requires of me anyway. Besides, that’s a thing now. It would have given them something to research and they would stop smirking at each other every time Boone or Henry comes over … and then frown when it’s clear nothing is happening between me and either of them.

It’s almost like my parents would welcome me having sex. I think they’d breathe a sigh of relief even as they grounded me. And it hurts sometimes that I can’t even give them that.

“Dinner in fifteen,” I say, and go back to stirring the peppers. I am always hyperaware of my body language. I know how to close myself off, how to disinvite a conversation with a slight turn of my chin, a shuffle backward, a drawing in of my shoulder blades as if they were wings that needed hiding. I try not to be dismissive, but I know that’s what she sees. We both hear Abel come in, and my mom—with some relief—walks to the door to greet him. He’s been at football practice. I pretend I don’t know his schedule, like I couldn’t give a shit. The truth is I know where Abel is almost every minute of the day. I know where everyone in my family is, because if trouble that can’t be contained comes through The Rift, I might need to get to them quickly.

I put the pasta bowls on the kitchen table and neatly set a folded paper towel and a fork beside each one. I fill up a carafe with ice water and lay out four glasses. My family arrives from their separate corners of the house and everyone sits in their chairs. The conversation bounces lightly between them … and mostly off of me.

“We just got a prototype of a running jacket that I designed and I’m really excited about it,” Mom gushes. “I know you don’t run, Ryn, but it’s supercute. It would look great on you. You could use it as a light coat when the weather gets cooler.” I run, on average, about twenty miles a day—not that my family would know. When I tell my parents I hate working out, this is not exactly a lie. I don’t love exercising, but I don’t exactly have much choice, either. “I’ll order you one when it goes to market—if it goes to market. But I’m sure it will; everyone seems really positive about it at work.”

“That’s great, V,” my dad says, and gives her a broad smile.

“Thanks, Mom,” I say politely.

“So,” my dad begins, “how’s varsity looking?”

Abel’s mouth is full of food. I have never seen anyone eat as much as Abel does, not even Henry and he’s way bigger than my brother. Abel begins to nod his head as he swallows. “It’s good. I think it’s there if I want, only I’ll probably be benched most of the season. Greg Casiano is a great QB, and I’m just a freshman. I don’t think I’ll get much field time. Maybe I should just do JV so I can really play.” Abel takes another mouthful.

“I don’t know …” Dad ponders, lifting his thumb and index finger to his chin as if to stroke an imaginary beard. “Playing varsity all four years of high school looks great on a college application.”

Abel shrugs. He’s fourteen. He’s not thinking about college. He just wants to get out there and have some fun. I get it, and I think my mom does, too, but she doesn’t say anything. I know she will bring this up to my dad later, when they are alone. I also know what’s coming next.

“Speaking of college,” my dad says, turning his eyes to me. I groan inwardly but keep my face passive. “I hope you’re giving some serious thought about where you want to apply. Now’s the time, Ryn, and you have got to do some extracurricular activities. I know you’re in ARC, but it might not be enough. It’s not just about grades.”

My parents believe that ARC stands for Accelerated Rate Curriculum. They think I’m in a highly advanced scholastic program, but it’s a cover for the real acronym—Allied Rift Coalition. They moved to Battle Ground from Portland just so that I could be a part of the program. Even though I start my days off at Battle Ground High, I don’t even go to school. I don’t need to. When I was fourteen and my chip was activated, I had a secondary and post-secondary education downloaded straight into my brain. I still haven’t decided if this is the best or worst part of being a Citadel. ARC robbed me of the opportunity to learn like a normal person. I will never have to sit through a boring lecture or do homework or worry about getting to class. I don’t know if I got super lucky or completely cheated.

“She does all that volunteer work at the old military base,” Abel says brightly, and looks at me. God, my brother is a nice guy. He has so many reasons to be an asshole, but he’s just not wired that way. The taller Abel gets, the more protective of me he feels. It’s cute. I smile genuinely back at him.

“I just want you to find the right place, Ryn, where you can really open up and find out who you are, you know? A place that will help you come into your own. Nothing would make me happier.”

That would make me happy, too. And the fact is, I will leave Battle Ground in a couple years. My parents believe I am a junior in high school and think I will be off to college soon. In reality, though, I will be working another Rift site. I feel the dull throb of a headache emerging. I reach back with my hand and rub at an invisible scar at the base of my skull.

“I know, Dad,” I respond, but I don’t say anything else. There are a couple of seconds of silence before Abel tells me how much he likes the pasta, effectively switching the subject.

“Thanks,” I say gratefully. The talk resumes until dinner is over. I have said six words throughout the entire meal. My parents do not know me. They truly have no idea who I am. I hate that The Rift has denied them the opportunity. I excuse myself and walk upstairs to my room, grabbing my knapsack on the way. I close my door, turn some music on, and unzip my bag. I take out a binder, open it, and put it faceup on my bed. It is filled with fake assignments and handouts from nonexistent teachers. The ARC program (that is, the Accelerated Rate Curriculum) has us use an iPad instead of textbooks, and it is where all of our papers, written by God knows who, show up in the appropriate folders. I flip the iPad so the attached keyboard sits propped up beneath the screen, so if one of my parents happens to walk in, it’ll look like I’m working.

I take out a book, one of my own from the library, and lie down on the bed. I love reading, and every time I finish a book I feel both indulgent and defiant; I process information faster than a regular person. I could, in theory, read the book in my hands in about half an hour, but, through much trial and error, I have learned to slow this process down when I want. Reading should be savored. Each word should be enjoyed. I’m sure our bosses at ARC would prefer we read technical manuals, something practical on bomb making or physics. Actually, they would probably prefer that we spend our downtime doing crunches and pull-ups, which is never, ever going to happen. The reading is mine. It’s the one thing I won’t let them have.

I love the look on Applebaum’s face when I show up at work holding a romance novel.

And yet I can’t seem to enjoy reading tonight. I open the book and stare at the words. Each sentence seems to end and then double back on itself. If I truly focused I could let them settle, but I know there is no point. I keep the book cracked and bring it down over my face. Inhaling the ink and paper, I feel my tension slide just a little. This smell—of the library, of stories and childhood and oak shelves—is comforting.

I allow myself the luxury of thinking about Ezra.

I see him in the clearing near The Rift, so brave, so handsome, and so totally fucked. I throw the book across the room. It hits the wall with a thud. How can I get to him? Even if I do, what can I do? Be his friend? How can I be around him without wanting to kiss that beautiful mouth of his? I can’t. It’s impossible and then I’ll hurt him—literally. He’s been hurt enough. If I was a decent person I would just let it go, let him go. I am not a decent person, though. I am a liar and a killer. And I can’t stop thinking about him, of him being debriefed and tested back at the base. After that he’ll be sent to the Village. No one breaks out of there.

But, just maybe, someone can break in.

CHAPTER 3 (#ulink_24dccd56-f2c9-563e-a4cb-3e85956ddccd)
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