I looked up at Ever as she sank the knife into the wall again.
“How many is that?” she asked.
I couldn’t help a smile as she grinned at the target. Maybe the Under-sixties weren’t all hopeless.
MANNY MARCHED THE NEWBIES INTO THE GYM EARLY THE NEXT morning for the choosing. They followed him through the door in a straight line, their faces tight with fear and exhaustion.
They were followed by a few doctors in lab coats. Their tests and X-rays continued into today, which contributed to the newbies’ exhaustion. I remembered having to run on a treadmill at a steep incline while attached to all sorts of contraptions. The doctors kept increasing the speed until I finally fell off.
Groups of Reboots stood in clumps behind the trainers, curious to see who got which trainer. Ever was in the corner to my left with several Under-sixties, leaning against the wall as she watched the newbies line up in front of us.
I turned and my eyes went immediately to Twenty-two. His gaze was on Lissy, but when he caught me looking a smile broke out on his face, followed by a pout.
Please? he mouthed.
Pleading didn’t work with me. Human targets pleaded with me all the time. “Please don’t take me.” Or, “Please don’t touch me.” Or, “Please don’t kill me.” Didn’t work.
That smile, on the other hand . . . I almost let one creep onto my own face.
No. That was ridiculous. I couldn’t let this weird smiling boy convince me to do something stupid. I was the best trainer; I only took the best newbies.
Maybe they’re the best because you make them that way. The thought had been nagging at me since last night.
The door banged open and the gym quieted as Officer Mayer, commanding officer of the five HARC facilities, strolled across the room. He came to a stop next to the medical personnel and folded his arms over his protruding stomach. Officer Mayer spent the most time in Rosa, the largest of the five facilities, and often showed up to observe the newbies. He watched them throughout the entire six-week process, to keep an eye out for the good ones and weed out any who might be trouble.
“One-seventy-eight,” Manny said.
I turned my gaze to One-twenty-one, who nodded at me. He already knew I would choose him. The other Reboots would have told him.
I looked at Twenty-two. How long did he have with Lissy? They’d be out in the field in a couple weeks, and with Lissy’s track record, he’d be dead within two months.
His dark eyes held mine. Not many people looked me in the eye. Humans didn’t want to look at me at all and Reboots were either scared or felt I was some sort of superior.
And that smile. That smile was strange here. Newbies didn’t come in smiling; they came in terrified and miserable.
He was definitely weird.
“One-seventy-eight?” Manny repeated, looking at me expectantly.
“Twenty-two.” It was out of my mouth before I could change my mind. A grin spread across his face.
The trainers looked down the line in astonishment. Lissy’s mood was already improved.
“Twenty-two?” Manny repeated. “Callum?”
“Yes,” I confirmed. I stole a look across the gym to see Officer Mayer rubbing his chin, his mouth twisted in something bordering on disappointment. I thought he might object, make me chose a higher number, but he stayed silent.
“All right,” Manny said. “One-fifty?”
Hugo opened his mouth, closed it, and turned to me with a frown. “Are you sure?”
Twenty-two laughed, and Manny motioned for him to be quiet.
No. “Yes,” I said.
“I . . . One-twenty-one, then,” Hugo said, looking at me like I might protest.
I didn’t. I stood there as the other trainers picked their newbies and broke off to start discussing the process. I waited, numb from my decision, until Twenty-two strolled over to me, his hands shoved into the pockets of his black pants.
“You like me after all,” he said.
I frowned. I didn’t know about that. I was curious. Intrigued. Like? That was pushing it.
“Or maybe not,” he said with a laugh.
“I considered what you said. About the lower numbers not having me.”
“Ah. So not because of me.”
He smiled at me and I got the impression he didn’t believe a word that had just come out of my mouth. I shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably. I wanted to fidget, and I never fidgeted.
“Are you a good runner?” I asked quickly.
“I doubt it.”
I sighed. “We’ll meet at the indoor track every morning at seven.”
“Try not to scream when I break your bones. It bothers me. You can cry if you want; that’s fine.”
He burst out laughing. I didn’t realize that was a funny statement.
“Got it,” he said, trying unsuccessfully to cover his grin. “Screaming, no. Crying, yes.”
“Have you ever handled any weapons?”
“I’m good with tech stuff.”
“Tech stuff?” I repeated with a confused frown. “Where did you see computers in the slums?”
“I’m not from the slums.” He lowered his voice when he said it.
I blinked. “You’re from the rico?”
He laughed slightly. “No one calls it that. It’s just Austin.”
No one from the rico called it that. Outside, in the slums, we used the Spanish word for rich to refer to the wealthy side of the cities.
I took a quick glance around the gym. There were a few Reboots from the rico, but they were certainly in the minority. I’d never trained one. My last trainee, Marie One-thirty-five, had lived on the streets in Richards, and she’d been tougher for it. Slum life made better, stronger Reboots. Twenty-two was doubly screwed. I wasn’t sure I would have picked him if I’d known that.
“How’d you die?” I asked.
“I thought they had mostly eradicated the KDH virus in the wealthy parts of town,” I said.
“They’re close. I’m just one of the lucky few.”
I grimaced. KDH was a nasty way to die. They named the virus for the city that had been ground zero of the outbreak, Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. It was a different strain of a respiratory virus common in children, and killed most humans within a few days.
“My parents took me to a slum hospital because they couldn’t afford any medicines,” he continued.