“I take it you aren’t on board with it either,” she says.
“No. I’m not.”
“There are a lot of secrets in this place,” she says. “One of them is that, to them, a GD is expendable. Another is that some of us are not just going to sit back and take it.”
“What do you mean, expendable?” I say.
“The crimes they have committed against people like us are serious,” Nita says. “And hidden. I can show you evidence, but that will have to come later. For now, what I can tell you is that we’re working against the Bureau, for good reasons, and we want you with us.”
I narrow my eyes. “Why? What is it you want from me, exactly?”
“Right now I want to offer you an opportunity to see what the world is like outside the compound.”
“And what you get in return is . . . ?”
“Your protection,” she says. “I’m going to a dangerous place, and I can’t tell anyone else from the Bureau about it. You’re an outsider, which means it’s safer for me to trust you, and I know you know how to defend yourself. And if you come with me, I’ll show you that evidence you want to see.”
She touches her heart, lightly, as if swearing on it. My skepticism is strong, but my curiosity is stronger. It’s not hard for me to believe that the Bureau would do bad things, because every government I’ve ever known has done bad things, even the Abnegation oligarchy, of which my father was the head. And even beyond that reasonable suspicion, I have brewing inside me the desperate hope that I am not damaged, that I am worth more than the corrected genes I pass on to any children I might have.
So I decide to go along with this. For now.
“Fine,” I say.
“First,” she says, “before I show you anything, you have to accept that you won’t be able to tell anyone—even Tris—about what you see. Are you all right with that?”
“She’s trustworthy, you know.” I promised Tris I wouldn’t keep secrets from her anymore. I shouldn’t get into situations where I’ll have to do it again. “Why can’t I tell her?”
“I’m not saying she isn’t trustworthy. It’s just that she doesn’t have the skill set we need, and we don’t want to put anyone at risk that we don’t have to. See, the Bureau doesn’t want us to organize. If we believe we’re not ‘damaged,’ then we’re saying that everything they’re doing—the experiments, the genetic alterations, all of it—is a waste of time. And no one wants to hear that their life’s work is a sham.”
I know all about that—it’s like finding out that the factions are an artificial system, designed by scientists to keep us under control for as long as possible.
She pulls away from the wall, and then she says the only thing she could possibly say to make me agree:
“If you tell her, you would be depriving her of the choice I’m giving you now. You would force her to become a coconspirator. By keeping this from her, you would be protecting her.”
I run my fingers over my name, carved into the metal panel, Tobias Eaton. These are my genes, this is my mess. I don’t want to pull Tris into it.
“All right,” I say. “Show me.”
I watch her flashlight beam bob up and down with her footsteps. We just retrieved a bag from a mop closet down the hall—she was ready for this. She leads me deep into the underground hallways of the compound, past the place where the GDs gather, to a corridor where the electricity no longer flows. At a certain place she crouches and slides her hand along the ground until her fingers reach a latch. She hands me the flashlight and pulls back the latch, lifting a door from the tile.
“It’s an escape tunnel,” she says. “They dug it when they first came here, so there would always be a way to escape during an emergency.”
From her bag she takes a black tube and twists off the top. It sprays sparks of light that glow red against her skin. She releases it over the doorway and it falls several feet, leaving a streak of light on my eyelids. She sits on the edge of the hole, her backpack secure around her shoulders, and drops.
I know it’s just a short way down, but it feels like more with the space open beneath me. I sit, the silhouette of my shoes dark against the red sparks, and push myself forward.
“Interesting,” Nita says when I land. I lift up the flashlight, and she holds the flare out in front of her as we walk down the tunnel, which is just wide enough for the two of us to walk side by side, and just tall enough for me to straighten up. It smells rich and rotten, like mold and dead air. “I forgot you were afraid of heights.”
“Well, I’m not afraid of much else,” I say.
“No need to get defensive!” She smiles. “I actually have always wanted to ask you about that.”
I step over a puddle, the soles of my shoes gripping the gritty tunnel floor.
“Your third fear,” she says. “Shooting that woman. Who was she?”
The flare goes out, so the flashlight I’m holding is our only guide through the tunnel. I shift my arm to create more space between us, not wanting to skim her arm in the dark.
“She wasn’t anyone in particular,” I say. “The fear was shooting her.”
“You were afraid of shooting people?”
“No,” I say. “I was afraid of my considerable capacity to kill.”
She is silent, and so am I. That’s the first time I’ve ever said those words out loud, and now I hear how strange they are. How many young men fear that there is a monster inside them? People are supposed to fear others, not themselves. People are supposed to aspire to become their fathers, not shudder at the thought.
“I’ve always wondered what would be in my fear landscape.” She says it in a hushed tone, like a prayer. “Sometimes I feel like there is so much to be afraid of, and sometimes I feel like there is nothing left to fear.”
I nod, though she can’t see me, and we keep moving, the flashlight beam bouncing, our shoes scraping, the moldy air rushing toward us from whatever is on the other end.
After twenty minutes of walking, we turn a corner and I smell fresh wind, cold enough to make me shudder. I turn off the flashlight, and the moonlight at the end of the tunnel guides us to our exit.
The tunnel let us out somewhere in the wasteland we drove through to get to the compound, among the crumbling buildings and overgrown trees breaking through the pavement. Parked a few feet away is an old truck, the back covered in shredded, threadbare canvas. Nita kicks one of the tires to test it, then climbs into the driver’s seat. The keys already dangle from the ignition.
“Whose truck?” I say when I get into the passenger’s seat.
“It belongs to the people we’re going to meet. I asked them to park it here,” she says.
“And who are they?”
“Friends of mine.”
I don’t know how she finds her way through the maze of streets before us, but she does, steering the truck around tree roots and fallen streetlights, flashing the headlights at animals that scamper at the edge of my vision.
A long-legged creature with a brown, spare body picks its way across the street ahead of us, almost as tall as the headlights. Nita eases on the brakes so she doesn’t hit it. Its ears twitch, and its dark, round eyes watch us with careful curiosity, like a child.
“Sort of beautiful, aren’t they?” she says. “Before I came here I’d never seen a deer.”
I nod. It is elegant, but hesitant, halting.
Nita presses the horn with her fingertips, and the deer moves out of the way. We accelerate again, then reach a wide, open road suspended across the railroad tracks I once walked down to reach the compound. I see its lights up ahead, the one bright spot in this dark wasteland.
And we are traveling northeast, away from it.
It is a long time before I see electric light again. When I do, it is along a narrow, patchy street. The bulbs dangle from a cord strung along the old streetlights.
“We stop here.” Nita jerks the wheel, pulling the truck into an alley between two brick buildings. She takes the keys from the ignition and looks at me. “Check in the glove box. I asked them to give us weapons.”
I open the compartment in front of me. Sitting on top of some old wrappers are two knives.
“How are you with a knife?” she says.
The Dauntless taught initiates how to throw knives even before the changes to initiation that Max made before I joined them. I never liked it, because it seemed like a way to encourage the Dauntless flair for theatrics, rather than a useful skill.
“I’m all right,” I say with a smirk. “I never thought that skill would actually be worth anything, though.”
“I guess the Dauntless are good for something after all . . . Four,” she says, smiling a little. She takes the larger of the two knives, and I take the smaller one.
I am tense, turning the handle in my fingers as we walk down the alley. Above me the windows flicker with a different kind of light—flames, from candles or lanterns. At one point, when I glance up, I see a curtain of hair and dark eye sockets staring back at me.
“People live here,” I say.
“This is the very edge of the fringe,” Nita says. “It’s about a two-hour drive from Milwaukee, which is a metropolitan area north of here. Yeah, people live here. These days people don’t venture too far away from cities, even if they want to live outside the government’s influence, like the people here.”
“Why do they want to live outside the government’s influence?” I know what living outside the government is like, by watching the factionless. They were always hungry, always cold in the winter and hot in the summer, always struggling to survive. It’s not an easy life to choose—you have to have a good reason for it.
“Because they’re genetically damaged,” Nita says, glancing at me. “Genetically damaged people are technically—legally—equal to genetically pure people, but only on paper, so to speak. In reality they’re poorer, more likely to be convicted of crimes, less likely to be hired for good jobs . . . you name it, it’s a problem, and has been since the Purity War, over a century ago. For the people who live in the fringe, it seemed more appealing to opt out of society completely rather than to try to correct the problem from within, like I intend to do.”
I think of the fragment of glass tattooed on her skin. I wonder when she got it—I wonder what put that dangerous look in her eyes, what put such drama in her speech, what made her become a revolutionary.
“How do you plan on doing that?”
She sets her jaw and says, “By taking away some of the Bureau’s power.”
The alley opens up to a wide street. Some people prowl along the edges, but others walk right in the middle, in lurching groups, bottles swinging from their hands. Everyone I see is young—not many adults in the fringe, I guess.
I hear shouting up ahead, and glass shattering on the pavement. A crowd there stands in a circle around two punching, kicking figures.
I start toward them, but Nita grabs my arm and drags me toward one of the buildings.
“Not the time to be a hero,” she says.
We approach the door to the building on the corner. A large man stands beside it, spinning a knife in his palm. When we walk up the steps, he stops the knife and tosses it into his other hand, which is gnarled with scars.
His size, his deftness with the weapon, his scarred and dusty appearance—they are all supposed to intimidate me. But his eyes are like that deer’s eyes, large and wary and curious.
“We’re here to see Rafi,” she says. “We’re from the compound.”
“You can go in, but your knives stay here,” the man says. His voice is higher, lighter than I expected. He could be a gentle man, maybe, if this were a different kind of place. As it is, I see that he isn’t gentle, doesn’t even know what that means.
Even though I myself have discarded any kind of softness as useless, I find myself thinking that something important is lost if this man has been forced to deny his own nature.
“Not a chance,” Nita says.
“Nita, is that you?” says a voice from inside. It is expressive, musical. The man to whom it belongs is short, with a wide smile. He comes to the doorway. “Didn’t I tell you to just let them in? Come in, come in.”
“Hi, Rafi,” she says, her relief obvious. “Four, this is Rafi. He’s an important man in the fringe.”
“Nice to meet you,” Rafi says, and he beckons for us to follow him.
Inside is a large, open room lit by rows of candles and lanterns. There is wooden furniture strewn everywhere, all the tables empty but one.
A woman sits in the back of the room, and Rafi slides into the chair beside her. Though they don’t look the same—she has red hair and a generous frame; his features are dark and his body, spare as wire—they have the same sort of look, like two stones hewn by the same chisel.
“Weapons on the table,” Rafi says.
This time, Nita obeys, putting her knife on the edge of the table right in front of her. She sits. I do the same. Across from us, the woman surrenders a gun.
“Who’s this?” the woman says, jerking her head toward me.
“This is my associate,” Nita says. “Four.”
“What kind of a name is ‘Four’?” She doesn’t ask with a sneer, the way people have often asked me that question.
“The kind you get inside the city experiment,” Nita says. “For having only four fears.”
It occurs to me that she might have introduced me by that name just to have an opportunity to share where I’m from. Does it give her some kind of leverage? Does it make me more trustworthy to these people?
“Interesting.” The woman taps the table with her index finger. “Well, Four, my name is Mary.”