And then there’s a clearing, a millisecond of a second when a crack in the wall of bodies allows me to catch the briefest glimpse. But it’s all I need. I know who it is. The stretcher is pulled away, down the hall.
I close my eyes in disbelief. I still see her hair secured into a bun, a few loose, dangling strands dragging along the tiled floor. A fervent ripe redness glosses them, like arteries filled with blood. I see the high bridge of her nose, the soft protrusions of cheekbones, the stark line of jawbone pale against the dark tiles of the hospital floor.
SHE IS THE problem,” the Ruler says, an acerbic tone replacing his softness. “Your fellow classmate at school. Your compatriot on the Heper Hunt. Your date at the Gala. And, as we’re finding out now, an important member of the HiSS organization.”
The screen fades to black.
“She is a huge, gigantic problem.” He enunciates the words slowly, distastefully, with deliberation. “The writing was on the wall back at the Heper Institute. During the training period. Of her rebellious streak, her wily nature.”
“What are you talking about?”
The Ruler snorts, a quick blow out of his nostrils. “She pulled off an infantile stunt right before the start of the Heper Hunt. Displayed an enormous lapse of judgment, decided she wanted to be the center of attention. Must have sprayed herself with some fake heper odor, and got the Institute staff all riled up chasing after her. Locked herself inside the Pit in the Introduction. After she sobered up, after all the faux-heper spray had dissipated, she emerged out of the Pit. She would have gotten a beat down from the administration if it hadn’t been so distracted by the Heper Hunt. As a result, they failed to discipline her.”
The Ruler’s eyes stare directly at me. “And that was a mistake. Because she slipped away, back to the metropolis, notified the HiSS leaders. Told them everything she knew, which, according to our informants, had something to do with a getaway boat on the Nede River. It would transport the hepers to some far-off paradise made out of honey and milk shake. This information didn’t come as a complete surprise to the HiSS leaders—in fact, they’d gotten a whiff of such rumors a decade ago and had been steadily amassing their own fleet of boats. But the girl gave them all the motivation they needed. They quickly set sail down the Nede River. In their pretty little boats.” He inhales. “But for all that, that isn’t the reason why she’s such a problem.”
His fingers twitch with agitation. Even his thumb, held above the button, spasms slightly. “She’s done the unthinkable: she survived the journey back,” he whispers. “That’s why she’s a problem. She was there. At the Mission. She must have seen the train tracks.”
“How do you know this?” I ask. “Maybe she didn’t even make it to the eastern mountains.” I know this isn’t true. I saw her with my own eyes at the Mission—where I was clawed and almost turned by her—but I’m curious to know how the Ruler got his information.
“Your friend,” he says, calmly, slowly.
“Your friend. He told me.”
“Who are you talking about?”
“The one you designate ‘Epap.’ ”
“A few hours ago. After news first broke out. We got concerned. Perhaps she saw the Mission; perhaps she didn’t. Then we realized—I realized—we had new arrivals from the Mission who might know for certain. So we had Epap brought up.”
“Where is he now?”
“He told us he saw her at the Mission,” the Ruler says, ignoring my question. “And so now we know. That she knows. About the Mission. About the train tracks.” He snaps his wrist, cracking a bone. “Already, she’s called for a big event. At the Convention Center, tomorrow. One hour after the crack of dusk, she’ll disclose something ‘mind-blowing’ and ‘earth-shattering.’ Twenty thousand online tickets for the event were sold out in fifteen seconds.”
“Where is Epap?”
The Ruler doesn’t reply immediately. Fatigue circles his eyes. “There’s no way we can allow the girl to speak. She blabs about the Mission and the train tracks and everyone will connect the dots. Within minutes, five million citizens will be gunning for the Palace. They’ll shred this place to pieces looking for hepers.”
But still the Ruler barely seems to notice me. His next words are spoken in a whisper, not with the kind of hushed tone gossipers employ but with the disquiet of disgust. “Let her knowledge die unspoken,” he whispers hoarsely. “Let her be silenced forever.” He looks at me. “We need to kill her.”
His eyes slide across my face. “You are stunned into silence, I see. But I think you’re already one minute along in this conversation. I think you realize why, at last, you’ve been brought to my chambers.” He studies me. “See how your eyes search the walls for a clock, or even an unshuttered window to peer through. See how keenly you seek the time. Because you want to know if it’s daytime or nighttime. Allow me to confirm what you already suspect. It’s three hours past dawn.”
“And it’s sunny today, isn’t it, not a cloud in the sky,” I say in a barely audible voice.
“The most toxic blue sky imaginable.”
I don’t move. The bodies in the tanks drift and float. Their hair swirling, their limbs moving in slow motion.
“You do know, don’t know?” the Ruler says. His voice has regained its timidity, and he asks with genuine shyness. “You know what I’m asking of you.”
Two rows back, the chief advisor stands amidst the staffers, his face cast in shadows. But his shoulders are tense with barely contained panic. He stares at me, at his precious, suddenly precarious Origin.
“An impassable barrier of sunlight, miles long, stands between us and the metropolis,” the Ruler says. “It is an impenetrable wall between us and the girl. Desperate as we might be, try as we may, there is simply no way we can reach her. Not before she appears at the Convention Hall shortly after dusk. Not before she spills to the whole world the fatal secret.” He cracks his neck. “But we are not without our options.”
“I won’t go. Don’t even think about it.”
He gazes at me with apology. “I know how you feel. I know.” His thumb caresses the button. “I’m really sorry how quickly this is coming at you. In an ideal world, it would be dusk and we’d be able to send out our own team of assassins. But we’re not in the ideal world, are we? We’re forced to be practical, pragmatic. The way I see it, the only person who stands a chance of successfully assassinating the girl has two qualities: first, he must be able to withstand the sun, and second, he must know how to disappear in a crowd, even despite his newfound fame. And that,” he says, looking with admiration at me, “is you.”
“I won’t do it. I’m not at your beck and call. Let them come and—”
“I’m really sorry to have to say this, but I can easily depress this button here. If you don’t comply, I mean.”
“Hm-m.” He considers. “I’ll bring up one heper after another to be sacrificed until you accede to my request.”
He pauses. “Okay. I’ll bring up just one. The girl. The pretty dome girl. The one you designate ‘Sissy.’ Once she’s arrived, I’ll push this button. The staffers will have at her.”
“Go ahead.” But my reply comes a fraction of a second too late, the slightest pitch too high. They know. On the other side of the glass, they scratch their wrists.
“Yes, I can bring her up right now. Will take no more than two minutes. Then the feeding will begin. Nom. Nom nom nom.” A chorus of wails sounds from the other side. The Ruler is tantalizing them, egging them on.
“Go ahead,” I say. “We’re all dead anyway.”
“Really? What if I told you that was not the case? What if I make a promise to you?” He gazes at me with an innocence that defies cynicism. “What if I vow that if you successfully assassinate the girl before she reveals the truth I’ll grant you freedom? To both you and ‘Sissy.’ And just to show you I mean well, I’ll throw in the young dome boy as well, if you want. The one who you designate ‘David.’ We’ll release all three of you.”
“Epap as well.”
The Ruler pauses. “Ah, yes. Epap.” He purses his lips. “There might be a slight problem with that.”
“What do you mean?”
“He . . . well, listen, I’m truly sorry. I am. Please accept my apology.”
Alarm ticks in my throat. “What did you do to him?”
The Ruler pauses. “Well . . . it’s just that I . . . This is really hard. . . .”
With a sudden, horrific realization, I turn my gaze to the tanks around us. Darkened bodies float, some facing me, others away. But none have Epap’s physique. Which leaves one other possibility.
“Did you eat him?” I say.
The Ruler licks his lower lip. “I did not.” He doesn’t say anything more.
“Did somebody else?”
“No. Well, I don’t think so. I don’t know.”
Saliva drools out of the corner of his mouth, sliding down to the tip of his chin. The droplet hangs there, growing pregnant, but does not drop.
“I’ll be honest with you,” he says. “I’d slotted Epap for that tank over there. The tank’s been empty for a week now, been begging to be occupied. Epap would’ve been perfect. We usually don’t get boys that old and tall; he would have been a nice addition to my collection. So different from the usual little runts.”
“Just tell me where he is,” I demand.
The Ruler withers under my berating tone. “We s-s-ent him out,” he stammers. “We thought him a solid choice. Older, more mature, like I’d just mentioned, smarter than all the little boys here. He seemed capable, of course, like he could handle the assignment—”