I need you to be good.
The words ran through my head as I approached the red cafeteria doors. My newbies had never been threatened with elimination before. I didn’t know how to have that conversation.
I need you not to die.
I pushed open the door and was met by a wall of noise. The guards rarely let us get rowdy, but it seemed they’d made an exception today. A few uninterested Reboots remained at their tables—all of the One-twenties, and a few of the Under-sixties—but everyone else was in the corner of the cafeteria in a giant clump. Some cheered, some punched one another, but everyone tried to push their way to the middle to see what was going on.
Callum. My eyes darted around the room, but I couldn’t find him. I found Ever, pale and shaking at a table by herself, and she pointed a finger at the crowd.
I strode across the cafeteria, anger burning in my chest. I didn’t have time for the Nineties’ nonsense. I couldn’t afford for Officer Mayer to see Callum getting his ass kicked by other Reboots.
“Move,” I said, shoving aside a few Reboots to get to the center of the crowd. I heard them start to quiet as they noticed my presence, many of them running to their tables as they caught sight of me.
I pushed a Ninety out of the way and looked down at what they were all hollering about.
It was Callum, with a little Reboot. Thirteen years old or so. The boy was crazed, thrashing about and trying desperately to bite Callum. He’d already succeeded several times, from the looks of Twenty-two’s bloodied arms.
I didn’t know the kid’s number, but I could guess. Under sixty. And recently given shots.
Callum desperately tried to run but the crowd had penned him in. The kid lunged and sunk his teeth into Callum’s arm, tearing off a piece of flesh.
Callum snatched it away with a look of utter horror and confusion. His eyes darted around the circle and rested on me, his relief obvious. I wasn’t sure anyone had ever been happy to see me.
“Hey!” I yelled. The Reboots started scattering right away and I grasped the kid’s shirt as he went for Callum again. I punched him across the face, hard, and tossed him along the floor, in the direction of the door. Weren’t the guards going to come get him? They were just going to leave him in here like this?
A few of the Under-sixties headed for the kid so I turned back to Callum, kneeling down next to him. I opened my mouth to yell, to demand why he hadn’t punched the smaller, weaker kid trying to devour him, when he wrapped his arms around my waist and hugged me.
“Thank you,” he said, his breathing still heavy and panicked.
I stiffened at the warmth of the hug. It was too comfortable. And I couldn’t remember why I wanted to yell at him.
“I’m sorry,” he said, pulling away and bringing his arms in to his chest. “I’m getting blood on you.”
The cafeteria was much too quiet. All eyes were on us so I lowered my voice.
“Are you okay?”
Wait. That wasn’t what I meant to say. I was going to yell.
“That kid tried to eat me.” He looked down at his arms. “Look at this! He did eat me!”
There were large chunks bitten out of his arms. I swallowed, trying to keep the disgust off my face. That kid actually bit into his flesh like some kind of animal.
What were they doing to them?
“Why didn’t you fight back?” I asked. My voice came out steadier than I felt. I needed him to be calm, and better, not freaking out about HARC’s current experiment.
“I . . . I don’t know. He’s just a kid. And I was sort of thrown off by the whole him-eating-me thing.”
“You should have fought back.”
“They had me cornered!” He glanced behind me before his voice dropped to nearly a whisper. “Besides, he’s the same age as my little brother.”
“He’s not your brother.”
“I know, but still—”
“I need you to be better,” I said.
“You’re really not concerned about him eating me?” he asked, holding his arm out again.
“It’ll grow back in a minute.”
“That’s totally not the point. I’m traumatized.”
“I need you to be better,” I repeated.
A scream echoed through the cafeteria and I spun my head around to see the crazed kid leaping through the air for a guard who had just come through the door. It wasn’t natural, how high he could leap, even for a Reboot.
His teeth were in the human’s neck before anyone could react, and I grabbed Callum’s head and pushed it down. I heard the other Reboots hit the floor. The guns were moving.
Callum’s body jerked as several guns went off, firing ten or fifteen bullets before quieting. I stayed down a moment longer, until I was sure it was over, then slowly raised my head. The kid and the guard were both dead, although the guard had probably been gone the minute his throat was ripped out.
“What . . .” Callum’s eyes were big and scared. “What was wrong with him?”
“He went crazy,” I said. I didn’t know how else to explain it. I certainly couldn’t tell him the truth in the middle of the cafeteria, where HARC could hear every word.
He didn’t say anything, but his eyes darted to the Under-sixties table. Clearly he had already heard something about that.
He turned to me. His expression was serious, but I liked how it softened slightly when he looked at me. Like the way he looked at me was different from how he looked at everyone else.
“I need you to be better. Really. I need you to follow orders and work harder. They don’t tolerate stepping out of line here.” I jerked my head toward the dead Reboot, and he swallowed. He understood. “Yes?”
Ever was perched on her bed when I returned to the room before lights-out, her whole body shaking. Her eyes were dead, hopeless, but she was herself. A shivering, sad version of herself.
I sat down on my own bed and she raised her head, her gaze sharp and angry.
“We all are,” I said, attempting a smile.
A dry laugh escaped her throat, surprise crossing her face. “Did you just make a joke?”
“A little one. Not a very good one.”
“I liked it.” She pressed her lips together, bouncing her legs up and down, and I got the impression she was trying not to cry. “But I’m dead for real this time. They haven’t killed me yet, but I’m already gone.”