“Yes. And I don’t train such low numbers.”
“Because they’re no good.”
Marie One-thirty-five let out a short laugh, and Twenty-two cast an amused glance from her back to me.
“Maybe because they don’t have you. Also, I’m insulted.” His smile suggested he was not.
I poked at my plate with a fork. He could have a point. The lowest of the newbie groups never stood a chance. Was it because of their number? Or because of Lissy, who trained by screaming at them? I looked up at him, at a loss for what to say. I’d never thought about it.
His smile faded, clearly taking my silence as a rejection. It was not how I meant it, but I kept my mouth shut as he began eating.
I wandered down to the sixth floor after lunch. I was often bored in the days between training cycles, unsure what to do with myself. I couldn’t imagine being a lower-number Reboot, one of the many not cut out to be a trainer. They had little to fill their days, especially since HARC considered most forms of entertainment unnecessary for a Reboot.
I peeked into the indoor track room and saw several Reboots running, some racing or chasing after one another. I moved on to the next room, the shooting range, which was full, as usual. It was a favorite pastime. Reboots at every booth pointed their guns at the paper men lined up against the wall. Most hit the intended target—the head—every time. HARC didn’t trust us with real bullets, so the ones we used inside the shooting range were made of plastic.
I pushed my hands into the pockets of my black pants as I headed for the last door, the gym. I pulled it open and glanced at the groups of Reboots in various corners. Some were just talking; others were making halfhearted attempts at fighting to avoid yells from the guards.
Ever was in the corner, one of the paper men from the shooting range taped to the wall in front of her. She bounced from foot to foot as she gripped a knife in her hand, studying the target in front of her seriously. A tall girl stood next to her, Mindy Fifty-one, and she watched as the knife flew from Ever’s hand and landed in the wall, in the middle of the paper man’s head.
Ever stepped closer to Fifty-one and leaned in to talk to her as I headed toward them. Reboots used to play darts in this corner of the gym, but HARC had put a stop to that. The knife throwing was a game, too, just one that looked like practice. I didn’t participate, but a few Under-sixties kept a record of how many throws hit the head in a single session. Ever was in the top three, last I’d heard.
Ever started to run her hand down Fifty-one’s arm but caught sight of me and quickly stepped away from her, pasting a smile on her face as I approached. “Hey.”
“Hi,” I said, glancing at Fifty-one. She wiped her eyes with shaky fingers and I wished I hadn’t come over. Under-sixty emotion made me uncomfortable. I moved back, ready to make an excuse to leave, when she took a few steps away from us.
“I gotta go,” she said. “Ever’s at forty-two throws.”
I nodded and turned back to Ever, who was pulling the dull knife out of the cork wall. She held it out to me and I shook my head. She went back to her spot on the gym floor and squinted at the target as she turned the knife around in her hands.
“You let Callum sit with you today at lunch,” she said, raising an eyebrow at me just before she threw the knife. It landed right in the middle of the forehead.
“He can sit anywhere he wants,” I said, that defiant look he’d given Lissy today flashing in front of my eyes.
Ever laughed as she grabbed the knife out of the wall. “Right. Because you always eat with Under-sixties.”
I shrugged. “He asked. I couldn’t figure out a good reason to say no.”
She laughed again and took her spot a few feet in front of the paper man. “Fair enough.” Her eyes lit up as she glanced over at me. “Do you like him?”
“Why not? He’s cute.”
“Everyone here is.”
It was true that all Reboots were attractive, in a way. After death, when the virus took hold and the body Rebooted, the skin cleared, the body sharpened, the eyes glowed. It was like pretty with a hint of deranged.
Although my hint was more like a generous serving.
Ever gave me a look like I was a cute puppy who had wandered over for attention. I never liked that look. “It’s okay to think he’s cute,” she said. “It’s natural.”
Natural for her. I didn’t have feelings like that. They didn’t exist.
I shrugged, avoiding her eyes. She often looked distressed when I told her I didn’t have the same emotions she did. I found it was better to say nothing at all.
She turned away and rocked from foot to foot, letting out a breath as she prepared to throw again. She stilled as she focused on the target, the knife poised in the air and ready to throw. As she let go one boot came off the ground, her body shifting forward with the effort. She smiled at the knife lodged in the wall.
She threw the knife several more times as I watched, until she hit an even fifty and turned to look at me.
“What did you talk about?” she asked. “I saw him trying to engage you in conversation, that brave soul.”
A smile tugged at the edges of my lips. “Food, mostly. He’d never had meat.”
“And he asked me to train him.”
Ever snorted as she turned away from me. “Poor guy. I can’t imagine you training a Twenty-two. You’d probably break the guy in half.”
I nodded, watching as the knife sped through the air again. Ever was only a Fifty-six, and she was a good Reboot. Or an adequate one, at least. She’d kept herself alive four years, following orders and successfully completing her assignments.
“Who was your trainer?” I asked. I hadn’t paid much attention to Ever as a newbie, even though we lived in the same room. She’d come to HARC almost a year after me, and I hadn’t been a trainer myself yet.
“Marcus One-thirty,” she said.
I nodded. I vaguely remembered him. He’d died in the field several years ago.
“I was the lowest number in my newbie group, so he got stuck with me.” She shrugged. “He was good, though. Thank goodness Lissy wasn’t here yet. I probably would have been dead the first week.”
Plenty of Lissy’s trainees had made it through training perfectly fine, but a string of bad ones had cemented her reputation as a newbie killer. Perhaps it was deserved. Perhaps Twenty-two would be the next victim of her bad luck.