THE SHUTTLE BEGAN TO DESCEND AS WE NEARED AUSTIN, AND Micah turned off the lights so we wouldn’t be spotted. I sat in the back next to Riley, and Micah and Jules talked quietly in the pilot’s section.
I leaned my head back against the metal wall and closed my eyes.
Why are you distraught about killing one human but you don’t mind that I’ve killed dozens?
Wren’s words kept circling my brain, demanding my attention.
Why are you okay with my lack of guilt about it?
I’d always thought deep down she did feel guilty. I just thought she didn’t show it. Maybe she did feel guilty, and she didn’t even realize it?
Maybe you should take a look at who I am, instead of who you wish I were.
I ran my fingers through my hair. It was true that I liked Wren the way she was, but it was also true that I thought she’d change the longer we were away from HARC. I thought she’d have more interest in other people. I thought she’d be excited to use the skills HARC taught her to help, instead of to kill.
I glanced at Riley next to me, and it occurred to me for the first time that he might know Wren better than I did. He’d known her for years, since she was a newbie.
He noticed me staring at him and gave me a weird look.
“What was Wren like as a newbie?” I asked quietly.
“Tiny. Quiet.” He paused, thinking. “Terrified.”
“Terrified?” I repeated skeptically.
“Definitely,” he said with a laugh. “Everyone was making a big deal about her number and she was so young. And she was so freaking traumatized by how she died that every loud noise made her this huge, shaky mess. She was always trying to hide in corners and under tables.”
My chest twisted around until it was hard to breathe. I couldn’t imagine her like that. Even at twelve, I couldn’t see her ducking under tables, terrified.
“I almost didn’t pick her,” Riley continued. “I wanted the highest number, but I was worried I couldn’t be hard enough on her. I felt too bad for her.”
“I can’t really imagine,” I said quietly, dropping my eyes.
“Sure you can,” Riley said. “You were there.”
“Yeah, but I was seventeen. And I didn’t have to train anyone. I just did everything Wren said.”
I still did everything Wren said. I realized a big part of me was waiting for her to jump on board with saving the humans, and tell me exactly how to do it.
But she was right. I was the one who wanted to save them, who needed to save them, so I had to be the one to take charge. If I didn’t step up, we were all going to end up following Micah to the cities to kill everyone. That wouldn’t be on Wren, it would be on me.
I returned my attention to Riley, a frown crossing my face. “If she was so terrified, why did you shoot her all the time?”
A flash of irritation crossed his features. “Because she was so terrified. Man, she would have been dead in six months if I hadn’t gotten rid of her fear of guns. HARC wasn’t giving her a free pass because she was twelve. I couldn’t, either.” He shrugged. “Would you really want to be the one who did such a crappy job training the twelve-year-old that she ended up dead? I couldn’t . . .” Riley shook his head and cleared his throat. “I couldn’t handle that.”
I leaned back in my seat with a sigh. Now I felt like an ass. When he explained it like that it sounded like I should be thanking him, not be angry with him.
“She’s entirely different from when I left,” he continued. “The Wren I knew never would have escaped.”
“You don’t think so?”
“No. She liked it there. Not just accepted it, but liked it.” He shook his head. “From what I gathered, her human life was pretty bad. HARC actually looked good in comparison.”
Wren had never told me much about her human life. I’d pried a few details out of her, but I’d come to the same conclusion as Riley. It hadn’t been that great.
He leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes. “She must have really liked something about you to leave.” He opened one eye. “I don’t see it.”
I laughed softly. I forgot sometimes that Wren considered HARC her home, and I realized suddenly that she hadn’t used that against me yet. It would have been easy for her to remind me that she’d saved me—more than once—and maybe I owed her. I did owe her.
I ran my hand over my face as the shuttle touched down on the ground. Micah killed the engine and I unbuckled my seat belt and got to my feet. I had a gun strapped to either hip, but I was the only one who didn’t pull it out as we got off the shuttle.
We were about two miles from Austin, in the trees Wren and I had used for cover on our way from Rosa. We walked in silence toward the city, Micah and Jules several paces ahead of us, and Riley lifting his gun every so often as he scanned the area. He had the same sort of alertness as Wren, half his brain always on something I couldn’t see or hear. It was strange that people who were so observant couldn’t pick up on the emotions of others and feel sympathy.
When the Austin skyline came into view, I turned my gaze to the ground. I’d been excited last time I saw it. Full of hope about seeing my parents again, wondering if they even knew I’d Rebooted. I’d worried about scaring them at first, but I’d imagined they would get over it and hug me and beg me to stay with them instead of going to the reservation.
Maybe if we succeeded in helping the humans fight off Micah and HARC, I’d pick a different city from Austin to live in. Maybe I’d go to New Dallas or take off to see the death state with Wren. Sticking around Austin no longer appealed to me.
As we got closer, I could hear the soft hum of the HARC electrical fence. I recognized the area immediately, and easily spotted the leaves covering the tunnel the rebels had built that allowed secret access to and from Austin.
“We wait here,” Riley said, pointing to the tunnel entrance. “They should be here soon.”
No one sat, or relaxed, or lowered their guns, and I shifted from foot to foot, uncomfortable. The note sat heavy in my pocket, and I carefully slipped it out, keeping it folded inside my palm.
I jumped at a rustling sound behind me and whirled around, hand poised over my gun. The others did the same, Riley stepping up next to me as the sound of footsteps echoed through the quiet.
I sucked in a breath as a dark head appeared from behind tree branches, and a smile spread across Tony’s face when he spotted me. He was a big, solid guy, with streaks of gray through his dark hair. He was carrying large, plastic fuel containers in either hand and seemed genuinely happy to see us. Riley lowered his gun, followed by Jules, then Micah.