I was dead for 178 minutes.
I didn’t cry.
Leb walked to the front of the shuttle and gripped the edge of the open door as he peered inside.
“Ready,” he said to the officer piloting the shuttle. He pulled the door closed and I heard the locks snap into place. We lifted off the ground as Leb slid into his seat.
I shut my eyes until I felt the shuttle land with a jerk. The Reboots silently filed out onto the rooftop, and I resisted the urge to look back at Forty-five one more time as I brought up the rear.
I joined the line, pulling my long-sleeved black shirt off to reveal a thin white undershirt. The cool air tickled my skin as I tossed the shirt over my shoulder, spread my legs, and held my arms out like I was trying to fly.
I saw a Reboot fly once. He jumped off the top of a fifteen-story building with his arms spread, hit the ground, and tried to drag his broken body to freedom. He made it maybe two feet before they put a bullet in his head.
A guard, a human who smelled like sweat and smoke, quickly patted me down. He could barely keep the grimace off his face and I turned to look at the squat little buildings of the slums instead. The guards hated touching me. I think they flipped for it.
He jerked his head toward the door, wiping his hands on his pants like he could wash the dead off.
Nope. I’d tried.
A guard held the door open for me and I slipped through. The top floors of the facility were all staff offices, and I ran down several flights of dark stairs and stopped at the eighth floor, Reboot quarters. Below were two more floors Reboots were allowed to access on a regular basis, but under that it was mostly medical research labs I rarely visited. They liked to examine us occasionally, but they mostly used the space to research human diseases. Reboots don’t get sick.
I held my bar code out to the guard at the door and he scanned it and nodded. My boots made little noise on the concrete floor as I made my way down the hall. The girls in my wing were all asleep, or pretending to be. I could see into every room through the glass walls. Privacy was a human right, not a Reboot one. Two girls per room, one in each of the twin beds pushed against either wall. A dresser at the end of both beds and one wardrobe at the back of the room to share—that’s what we called home.
I stopped in front of my quarters and waited for the guard to call in the order for someone upstairs to open my door. Only the humans could open the doors once they were locked at night.
The door slid open and Ever rolled over in her bed as I stepped inside. She hadn’t been sleeping much the last few weeks. It seemed she was always awake when I came in after an assignment.
Her big, green Reboot eyes glowed in the darkness and she lifted her eyebrows, asking silently how the mission went. Talking after lights-out was prohibited.
I held up four fingers on one hand, five on the other, and she let out a little sigh. Her face scrunched up with an emotion I could no longer stir up in myself, and I turned away to loosen the strap of my helmet. I put it on my dresser with my camera and com and peeled off my clothes. I quickly pulled on sweats—I was cold, always cold—and climbed into my tiny bed.
Ever’s pretty Fifty-six face was still crumpled in sadness, and I rolled to stare at the wall, uncomfortable. We’d been roommates four years, since we were thirteen, but I’d never gotten used to the way emotion poured out of her like a human.
I closed my eyes, but the sounds of human screams pulsed against my head.
I hated the screaming. Their screaming was my screaming. The first thing I remembered after waking up as a Reboot was a shrill yell bouncing off the walls and ringing in my ears. I had thought, What idiot is making that noise?
It was me. Me, shrieking like a crack addict two days out from a fix.
Rather embarrassing. I’d always prided myself on being the quiet stoic one in every situation. The one standing there calmly while the adults lost it.
But at the age of twelve, when I woke up in the Dead Room of the hospital 178 minutes after taking three bullets to the chest, I screamed.
I screamed as they branded my wrist with my bar code, my number, and my human name, Wren Connolly. I screamed as they locked me in a cell, as they escorted me to the shuttle, as they put me in line with the other newly undead former children. I screamed until I arrived at the Human Advancement and Repopulation Corporation, or HARC, facility, and they told me screaming meant death. Acting like I was still a human child meant death. Disobeying orders meant death.
And then I was silent.
“DO YOU THINK THERE WILL BE A HOT ONE THIS TIME?” Ever asked as I smoothed my black shirt down to my pants.
“Didn’t you think Seventy-two was hot?” I asked, turning around to give her an amused look. She liked it when I looked amused.
“Kind of a jerk,” she said.
“I feel like we’ve had a real dry spell.”
I laced up my boots, genuine amusement sparking inside me. New Reboots arrived about every six weeks, a time many saw as an opportunity to replenish the dating pool.
We weren’t allowed to date, but the birth-control chip they shot into the females’ arms the first day suggested they knew that was one rule they couldn’t actually enforce.
For me, new Reboots meant only the start of a new training cycle. I didn’t date.
The lock on the door to our room clicked, like it did every morning at seven, and the clear door slid open. Ever stepped out, looping her long brown hair into a knot as she waited. She often waited for me in the morning so we could walk to the cafeteria together. I guessed this was a friend thing. I saw the other girls doing it, so I went along with it.
I joined her in the hallway and the pasty human standing just outside our door shrank back at the sight of me. She pulled the stack of clothes she was carrying closer to her chest, waiting for us to leave so she could drop them on our beds. No human working at HARC wanted to enter a small, enclosed space with me.
Ever and I headed down the hallway, eyes straight forward. The humans built glass walls so they could see our every movement. Reboots tried to afford one another a smidgen of privacy. The halls were quiet in the mornings, the only sounds the occasional murmur of voices and the soft hum of the air-conditioning.
The cafeteria was one floor down, through a pair of big red doors that warned of the dangers inside. We stepped into the room, which was blindingly white except for the clear glass that lined the upper portion of one wall. HARC officers were stationed on the other side, behind the guns mounted to the glass.
Most of the Reboots were already there, hundreds of them sitting on little round plastic seats at long tables. The rows of bright eyes shining out against pale skin looked like a string of lights down every table. The smell of death hung in the air, causing most humans who entered to wrinkle their noses. I rarely noticed anymore.