I looked down at Twenty-two, who had slumped to the ground, his face scrunched up in agony. He looked up at me and I thought he might yell. They usually yelled at me after I broke their arms.
“You’re not going to break anything else, are you?” he asked.
“No. Not right now.”
“Oh, so later, then? Great. I’ll look forward to that.” He winced as he looked down at his arm.
Manny pointed for the trainers to go back to the wall and gestured for the newbies to come to him.
“You should get up,” I said to Twenty-two.
Oblivious to Manny’s glare, Twenty-two slowly got to his feet, raising an eyebrow at me.
“Are we doing my leg next?” he asked. “Can I get some warning next time? A quick ‘Hey, I’m going to snap your bone with my bare hands right now. Brace yourself.’”
One of the trainers behind me snorted, and Manny snapped his fingers impatiently. “Get over here, Twenty-two, and sit. Quietly.”
I joined the trainers, taking a quick glance at Twenty-two as he plopped down in the circle. He was still watching me, his eyes sparkling, and I quickly looked away. What a strange newbie.
I SNUCK ANOTHER GLANCE AT THE END OF THE LINE AS I PICKED up my tray for lunch. Twenty-two was there, scanning the cafeteria. His eyes rested on me and I quickly turned away as he began to wave.
I focused my attention on the human behind the counter as she plunked the steak on my tray. There were three of them lined up behind the glass counter, two women and a man. Reboots used to do the service jobs at HARC as well, until the humans began to get restless about the lack of employment and HARC created a few more jobs to keep them happy. Still, they often looked less than enthused about serving Reboots.
I let them fill my tray, and then I headed across the cafeteria to take my usual seat next to Hugo. I stuck my fork into the perfectly cooked steak and popped a bite in my mouth. HARC gave a line to parents of Reboots about how we were so much better off in their care (not that the parents had a choice). We would be useful, they said. We could have something resembling a life. I didn’t know if we were better off, but we were certainly better fed. A Reboot could survive on less food, but we performed at our best when we were fed regularly, and well. We became weak and useless, like a human, if we were denied food.
“Can I sit here?”
I looked up to see Twenty-two standing in front of me, tray in hand. His white shirt was bloodied, probably from one of the Nineties taking a second opportunity to break him in. It would often go on for a couple days, until the guards got tired of the commotion.
“The Under-sixties are over there,” I said, pointing to Ever’s table. They were talking and laughing, one boy gesturing wildly with his arms.
He looked back at them. “Is that a rule?”
I paused. Was it? No, we started that one ourselves. “No,” I replied.
“Then can I sit here?”
I couldn’t think of a reason why not, although it still struck me as a bad idea.
“Okay,” I said hesitantly.
He plopped down in the seat across from me. Several of the One-twenties turned to me, a combination of confusion and annoyance on their faces. Marie One-thirty-five squinted, her head swinging from me to Twenty-two. I ignored it.
“Why do you do that if it’s not a rule?” he asked, gesturing around the cafeteria.
“The closer numbers have more in common,” I said, taking a bite of steak.
I frowned. It wasn’t stupid. It was the truth.
“I don’t see how the minutes you were dead affect your personality,” he said.
“That’s because you’re a Twenty-two.”
He raised an eyebrow before returning his attention to his meat. He poked it like he was afraid it might jump up and return the favor if he bit into it. He wrinkled his nose and watched as I popped a chunk in my mouth.
“Is it good?” he asked. “It looks funny.”
“Yeah, it’s good.”
He looked down at it doubtfully. “What is it?”
“Yes. Never had meat, huh?” All types of meat were hard to come by in the slums, unless a human took a job with HARC. They controlled the farms, and hunting was often a fruitless effort. Overhunting had stripped the land of most wild animals years ago. A rabbit or squirrel would pop up on occasion, but I didn’t see them often. Reboots ate better than most humans, which only made them hate us more.
“No,” Twenty-two replied. His expression suggested he had no interest in changing that.
“Try it; you’ll like it.”
He raised a bite to his lips and shoved it in quickly. He chewed slowly and swallowed with a grimace. He looked down at the hunk of steak left on his plate.
“I don’t know. It’s weird.”
“Just eat it and quit bitching about it,” Lissy snapped from a few seats down. She had little patience for her newbies. Twenty-two would be no exception.
He glanced over at her briefly, then back to me. Lissy frowned at his total disregard for her.
“She’s kinda grouchy, huh?” he said quietly to me.
Always. I almost smiled when I looked over to see Lissy stabbing her meat like it was trying to get away. Hugo raised his knife over his steak with a grimace, imitating her. Ross One-forty-nine blinked twice at him, which I was pretty sure was his version of a smile.
“Everyone’s saying she’ll be my trainer,” Twenty-two said.
Lissy’s head popped up and she pointed her knife at him as she spoke. “Everyone is right. So shut it and eat that.”
Twenty-two’s defiant face was different from any other I’d seen. His smile didn’t disappear; it merely changed to a mocking, challenging grin. He dropped his fork and leaned back in his chair. He didn’t have to say make me. It was clear.
Lissy shoveled her remaining food in her mouth and jumped to her feet, muttering to herself. She shot a look at Twenty-two as she stomped past.
“I hope you get yourself killed quickly so I don’t have to put up with you for long,” she growled.
“I think that’s the strategy she takes with all her newbies,” Hugo said with a chuckle, watching as she pushed Fifty-one out of her way and flew through the exit doors.
“She’s supposed to make them good Reboots,” I said, the memory of pulling the knife out of Forty-five’s head flashing through my mind.
“Then maybe you should do it,” Twenty-two said, perking up. “You get to pick, don’t you?”