“He could punish you for that,” I said, looking at Leb. I glanced at the stick next to his hand. A shuttle officer had never used one on me.
“Do you want me to?” Leb asked, eyeing Twenty-two. He didn’t reach for the stick.
I took in a sharp breath. He’d never punished any of my newbies, but he’d never had to. They all did exactly as I said.
Asking permission to hit my newbie was odd, though. I knew that. The other trainers knew that.
“No,” I replied. Every Reboot in the shuttle stared at me. I focused on Twenty-two again.
“Should I be insulted that you hesitated?” he asked with a smile.
“I can still change my mind.”
“How will you tell him? He stopped talking. Apparently that means we’re only allowed to talk to one another again.”
“I will find a stick and beat you myself when we land.”
I heard a sound like laughter from Leb’s direction and I looked over in surprise. He ducked his head in an attempt to hide his smile. Twenty-two grinned at me.
“Focus, Twenty-two,” I said.
“Can’t you call me Callum?”
“Focus, Callum,” I said quietly, firmly.
“Sorry,” he said, putting on a more serious face.
The shuttle landed and Leb motioned for us to stand. He slid the door open and we marched out into the dark, a soft breeze ruffling my ponytail.
They named the city Rosa after the woman who built it. I had always liked the name, had even been excited to hear I was to be stationed in Rosa.
Twenty-two stared, his lips parted, his neck pulsing strangely. His horror was palpable, but when I turned, I saw nothing unusual.
“What?” I asked.
“What is this? Where are we?”
“Rosa,” I said, glancing back as if to make sure. Of course it was Rosa.
“But . . . this is the slums?”
“Are they all like this?” he asked, his voice strained.
He gestured and I looked again. The slums of Rosa were similar to the slums of Austin, but perhaps a bit worse.
Maybe the very worst. Rosa was a city built by the sick. It was a surprise they survived at all after they were run off from Austin. As I understood it, even the rico side of Rosa wasn’t much compared to the other cities of Texas.
The buildings were wooden structures erected after the war. The little homes sat close together, one story and two bedrooms and barely standing in some cases. The humans with houses were lucky. The apartments on the other side of town were not as nice.
“We’re lucky to have any roof over our head,” my mom had said the day we’d been kicked out of yet another apartment. We ended up sleeping in an abandoned building until they got the money together for a shared apartment. We’d never had a house.
I glanced at Twenty-two and was almost tempted to horrify him further with that story, but his eyes were still fixed straight ahead. I followed his gaze.
The roads were mostly dirt, but the two main streets were paved. They were full of holes, though, abandoned after it became clear the slums were nothing but a disease-ridden Reboot breeding ground.
Trash piled up on the side of the street and the stench of rotting food and human waste filled the air. The plumbing system in Rosa was a work in progress.
“They’re not all this bad, are they?” he asked.
“Not quite this bad. Similar, though.”
“In Austin?” he asked. Silly question, as I could tell he already knew the answer.
“Yes. I’ve forgotten a lot. But yeah, it was like this.”
“And you grew up in . . .”
The sympathetic expression on his face annoyed me. The last thing I needed was pity from a rico boy.
“Look at your map,” I said sharply. “You need to get familiar with Rosa.”
He pulled his map out of his pocket and I couldn’t help thinking that he was relieved to be looking anywhere other than at me.
“Which way?” I asked.
He pointed in the wrong direction.
“Is north wrong?”
I sighed. “Yes.”
“Sorry.” He fumbled with the map, dropping one side as pink spread across his cheeks. A pang of sympathy struck my chest. I hadn’t been good at reading maps as a newbie. Humans didn’t need maps. Their lives consisted of the same ten-to-fifteen-mile space.
“You’re here,” I said, pointing to the spot on the map. “We’re going here.”
He raised his eyes to mine and smiled. “Okay. Thanks.”
I took off down the street and he skipped to keep up. He glanced behind him and I turned to see Leb leaning against the shuttle, his eyes on something in the distance.
“He stays there?” he asked.
“Yes. Officers stay with the shuttle unless they lose audio or video feed on a Reboot. Then they will come look for you. But don’t expect them to help you with your assignment. They’re only here to keep track of us.”
We turned a corner and I crept across the patchy dead grass to the door of our target, Thomas Cole. He had killed his son.
They always gave me the child murderers.
I didn’t object.
It didn’t say so on the assignment slip, but there was a very good chance he had killed his son because the child died and then Rebooted. Once a human became a Reboot, they were property of HARC, and though HARC had no qualms about killing us later, civilians weren’t allowed to make that decision. Even if it was their own child. A few parents went the other way, attempting to hide their Reboot children from HARC, but that also led to arrest.
I didn’t think most parents minded when their Reboot children were shipped away. They were glad to be rid of us.
“First?” I asked, looking back at Twenty-two.
I nodded. It gave them a chance to come willingly. It rarely worked.
I knocked and held my fist up to Twenty-two, counting out five fingers.
Then I kicked the door in.
Every piece of furniture Thomas Cole owned was piled in front of the door. Not the first time an assignment had blockaded the front door, but definitely one of worst attempts.
I pushed the old, rickety furniture out of the way and hopped over the rest. The people who barricaded themselves in their homes had nowhere else to go. No friends. No family. No human would touch them.
A smile crossed my lips. I quickly wiped it off my face as Twenty-two climbed over the furniture. He would think I was insane, smiling at a time like this.