“All right.” He pointed at me. “Change your shirt. It’s split down the back.”
They left the room and I stood up, tugging off my black shirt and pulling out an identical one. I put it on over my undershirt, adjusting my helmet and camera.
“You ready?” I asked, offering Ever my hand.
She kept her head down as we walked to the roof, oblivious to the many glances I threw her way. We couldn’t talk about it now, anyway, with our coms on and humans listening to every word.
Twenty-two and the other Reboots were already in the shuttle, strapped in. Hugo and his newbie were the only other training team going out tonight; the rest were veteran Reboots. Mostly Under-sixties, except for Marie One-thirty-five, who was on her second solo mission since our training. Sickie assignments didn’t require much skill. I eyed the Under-sixties as I stepped inside the shuttle, looking for signs of the insanity I’d just seen from Ever. But their eyes were downcast, their expressions blank.
Two officers stood in the corner of the shuttle. A young guy named Paul, and one I didn’t know. The stranger sneered at us and pointed his gun straight at me, showing off yellow teeth.
“Sit,” he ordered.
Two officers wasn’t a good sign.
I slid into the seat next to Twenty-two and ignored his efforts to catch my eye. Not in the mood.
We traveled to the heart of the slums in silence, filing out of the shuttle when Yellow Teeth barked the order. The slums were warmer tonight, the chilly breeze from the last few nights gone.
“Do you have your map?” I asked Twenty-two, handing the assignment slip to him as the shuttle door slammed shut behind us.
He nodded, holding it up to me.
“Sickie assignments are easier,” I said as he studied it. “We’re just extracting the sick who are contaminating the city.”
“Why do they care?” he asked, gesturing to the shuttle.
“They’re trying to rid the human population of disease. They can’t if these humans walk around infecting everyone. They’re preventing a second mass outbreak.”
He frowned but said nothing. “That way?” He pointed.
We headed down a dirt street populated by little homes and tents. This area of town hadn’t been completely built up yet, with some humans still living in makeshift houses until they constructed something sturdier. It was the worst of the slums, and the smell of death and sickness tickled my nose. The warmer weather made the stench worse, although not nearly as bad as the summer, when it got so strong I had to hold my breath.
I stopped in front of a tent made from some sort of plastic material. It wasn’t particularly sturdy; in fact it was so full of holes I doubted it provided much shelter at all. The thin tree branches holding it up looked shaky at best.
“Bell Trevis,” I called.
I heard a cough from inside; then the tent flaps parted and a young woman scooted out. Her greasy dark hair was matted to her head, her eyes sunken and black. Red flecks spotted her chin. Probably from when she coughed up blood.
She lifted her arms toward us. The sick rarely fought.
“I got her,” Twenty-two said, scooping her up.
“You need to cuff her,” I said.
“Why? What’s she going to do? Run?” He looked down at the human. “KDH?”
She nodded, her head wobbling around like a newborn. He carefully placed it on his chest.
“Don’t talk to her, Twenty-two.”
He only frowned in response and turned away as he headed for the shuttle.
“Twenty-two!” I let out an exasperated sigh and spoke into my com. “Wren One-seventy-eight with Twenty-two. We have the assignment.”
“Proceed to shuttle. Control your newbie, One-seventy-eight.”
I jogged to catch up with Twenty-two, who had his head down, speaking to the human.
“You eventually won’t feel anything at all,” he said.
“Everything goes numb. You won’t even realize it when you die—I promise.”
“You don’t speak to the humans,” I said, grabbing his arm. He stopped and glared at me. He yanked his arm away but was silent as we continued. He set the human down gently in the shuttle with the other sickies, pretending not to notice my annoyed expression as we trudged to our own shuttle.
The other Reboots stood in line and we joined the end. I felt my stomach clench as the officers frowned at us. Something was off. I glanced at Ever but she stared blankly at the ground.
“We’ve got Reboots bringing in items from the field and threatening officers,” Paul said. “We gotta search before boarding now.”
I took off my top shirt and spread my arms, like usual.
“Everything,” Paul said with a wave of his hand. “Undershirts, too. Pull your pockets out and drop your pants. Leave the underwear. We don’t need to be seeing that.”
The other Reboots followed the order immediately, shirts coming off and pants hitting the ground with a soft swish.
I fingered the button on my pants, my eyes flicking to the bare chests down the line. None of them even seemed fazed by the order. They’d probably all seen one another in their underwear anyway. Out of the corner of my eye I could see that even Twenty-two had followed the order.
No one had ever seen me without my clothes on.
I looked up to see Yellow Teeth lift his gun at me. He jerked his head, indicating for me to follow the order.
My fingers trembled so badly I couldn’t undo the button on my pants. It wouldn’t go through the hole. This wasn’t even the bad part. The pants, fine.
But the shirt. I couldn’t take off the shirt.
“Who is that?” Yellow Teeth asked.
“One-seventy-eight,” Paul said.
I shouldn’t have to take them off anyway. I saved Leb. It wasn’t me who pulled a knife on an officer.
“What’s wrong with you?” Paul demanded, shoving his gun into my back.
Every Reboot head down the line turned to me. Marie One-thirty-five frowned deeply, almost concerned, as she nodded for me to follow their orders.
I saved him. I wanted to scream it at them.
“Hey,” Twenty-two snapped, his hand shooting out and grabbing the barrel of the gun. I gasped. “Would you stop it? She shouldn’t have to if she doesn’t want.”
Paul wrenched the gun back and slammed the barrel into Twenty-two’s head. I winced as he stumbled, and I tugged at the button on my pants again. Paul stepped away from me, gun trained on Twenty-two instead.