Ever and I didn’t eat together. Once we got our food, she split off to the table for the Under-sixties with her tray and I sat down at the table for One-twenties and higher. The only one who came close to my number was Hugo, at One-fifty.
Marie One-thirty-five nodded at me as I sat down, as did a few others, but Reboots over 120 minutes dead were not known for their social skills. There was rarely much talking. The rest of the room was noisy, though; the chatter of Reboots filled the cafeteria.
I bit into a piece of bacon as the red doors at the end of the room opened and a guard marched in, followed by the newbies. I counted fourteen. I’d heard a rumor the humans were working on a vaccine to prevent Rebooting. It didn’t look like they’d succeeded yet.
There were no adults among them. Reboots over the age of twenty were killed as soon as they Rebooted. If they Rebooted. It was uncommon.
“They ain’t right,” a teacher once told me when I asked why they shot the adults. “The kids ain’t all there anymore, but the adults . . . they ain’t right.”
Even from a distance, I could see some of the newbies shaking. They ranged in age from about eleven or twelve to older teenagers, but the terror that radiated from them was the same. It would have been less than a month since they Rebooted, and it took most much longer to accept what had happened to them. They were placed in a holding facility at the hospital in their hometown for a few weeks to adjust until HARC assigned them to a city. We continued to age like normal humans, so Reboots under the age of eleven were held at the facility until they reached a useful age.
I’d had to spend only a few days at the holding facility, but it was one of the worst parts of Rebooting. The actual building where they kept us wasn’t bad, simply a smaller version of where I lived now, but the panic was constant, all consuming. We all knew there was a good possibility we would Reboot if we died (it was almost certain in the slums), but the reality of it was still horrifying. At first, anyway. Once the shock wore off and I made it through training, I realized I was much better off as a Reboot than I’d ever been as a human.
Rebooting itself was simply a different reaction to the KDH virus. KDH killed most people, but for some—the young, the strong—the virus worked differently. Even those who died of something other than KDH could Reboot, if they’d had the KDH virus even once in their lifetime. It Rebooted the body after death, bringing it back stronger, more powerful.
But also colder, emotionless. An evil copy of what we used to be, the humans said. Most would rather die completely than be one of the “lucky” ones who Rebooted.
The guards ordered the newbies to sit. They all did so quickly, already informed that they followed orders or got a bullet in the brain.
The guards left, letting the doors slam as they hurried out. Not even our hardened guards liked to be in the presence of so many Reboots at once.
The laughter and scuffling started right away, but I turned my attention back to my breakfast. The only newbie I had any interest in was my next trainee, but we wouldn’t be paired up until tomorrow. The Nineties liked to break ’em all in right away. Considering the speed at which we healed, I saw no problem with the newbies being roughed up a little. Might as well start toughening them up now.
The Nineties were rowdier than usual today. I shoved the last piece of bacon in my mouth as the hollering rose to an annoying level. I dropped my tray on top of the trash can and headed for the exit.
A flash of color streaked across the white floor, coming to a stop at my feet with a squeak. It was a newbie, shot down the slick tile like a toy. I just missed stepping on his head and planted my boot on the floor.
Blood trickled from his nose and a bruise had formed under one eye. His long, lanky legs were sprawled across the floor, his thin white T-shirt clinging to the frame of an underfed former human.
His close-cropped black hair matched his eyes, so dark I couldn’t find his pupils. They probably used to be brown. Brown eyes usually took on a golden sort of glow after death, but I liked his blackness. It was in stark contrast to the white of the cafeteria, to the glow of the other Reboots’ eyes.
No one came near him now that he was in my space, but someone yelled, “Twenty-two!” and laughed.
Twenty-two? That couldn’t be his number. I hadn’t seen anyone under forty in a few years. Well, there was a Thirty-seven last year, but she died within a month.
I nudged at his arm with my boot so I could see his bar code. Callum Reyes. Twenty-two.
I raised my eyebrows. He was only dead twenty-two minutes before he Rebooted. He was practically still human. My eyes shifted back to his face to see a smile spreading across his lips. Why was he smiling? This didn’t seem like an appropriate time to be smiling.
“Hi,” he said, propping himself up on his elbows. “Apparently they call me Twenty-two.”
“It’s your number,” I replied.
He smiled bigger. I wanted to tell him to stop it.
“I know. And yours?”
I pulled up my sleeve and turned my arm to reveal the 178. His eyes widened and I felt a surge of satisfaction when his grin faltered.
“You’re One-seventy-eight?” he asked, hopping to his feet.
Even humans had heard of me.
“Yes,” I said.
“Really?” His eyes flicked over me quickly. His smile had returned.
I frowned at his doubt, and he laughed.
“Sorry. I thought you’d be . . . I don’t know. Bigger?”
“I can’t control my height,” I said, trying to pull myself up an extra inch or two. Not that it would help. He towered over me and I had to lift my chin to look him in the eye.
He laughed, although I had no idea at what. Was my height funny? His laugh was big, genuine, echoing across the now-silent cafeteria. It didn’t belong here, that laugh. He didn’t belong here, with those full lips curving up with actual happiness.
I sidestepped him to walk away, but he grabbed my wrist. A few Reboots gasped. No one touched me. They didn’t even come near me, except for Ever.
“I didn’t catch your name,” he said, turning my arm so he could see, oblivious to the fact that this was a weird thing to do. “Wren,” he read, releasing me. “I’m Callum. Nice to meet you.”
I frowned at him over my shoulder as I headed for the door. I didn’t know what it was to meet him, but nice was not the word I would have picked.
Newbie day was my favorite. As I headed into the gym later that morning with the other trainers, excitement rippled through my chest. I almost smiled.