Chapter 1: Detonation
"Dear God, will no one get out of here alive?"—Backlash by 10 Years
When you're standing against a wall, a briefcase stuffed with explosives in your shaking hands, things get real. Once upon a time, you thought you had it—some inner light leading you along, and you thought you'd do the right thing. When your hands are going numb from the bite of the wind, and a building full of people you're about to kill is around the corner, the light's pretty hard to see.
When I breathe, the ice in the air bites the back of my throat. It's a cold day—even by Saprotinian standards. This is the type of day that'll freeze your fingers together and glue your eyelids shut. The sun is out, but it's miles away, and the check center's only a few feet away.
That inner light. Do you see it? I don't.
Trouble is, people hold back when things get tough. They think that they have to be sure about something before they take the leap. But you don't have to be sure about it—nobody ever knew anything, anyway. It's all a guess in the end.
I step around the corner—and after the first step, it's easy.
There are two people huddled outside the check center. A tall, shivering woman, and a younger boy, probably here for their check-ins. Her hand rests on his shoulder. She tugs him closer when she sees me. It's probably the mask tied around my face, or my ragged clothes.
"Go home," I tell her.
She opens her thin mouth wider, and her wispy blond hair whips around her face. Her eyes drop to the briefcase. She grabs the boy and hurries away.
The worst part is the people. If there were any other way, I'd find it. But we can't all live—there has to be sacrifices.
Flakes of ice fall from the open white sky. I push through the door.
The inside's just like any other check center. It's only warmer in here because there isn't any wind. The walls are dark—painted white, but in the light from the electricals overhead, they just look gray. Really, the only furniture is a heavy wooden desk, and the only person in it is the uniformed guard sitting behind it.
He sees me, and his mouth goes a bit slack.
I straighten up and stride forward before he can say something. "Hello," I say.
"What are you wearing?" He isn't too suspicious yet—he's honestly confused.
"What, this scarf?" I ask. "It's cold outside. I didn't want to be sick for my check."
I drop the briefcase. He frowns and scoots his chair back, but doesn't stand. Under the white cap and stiff uniform, he's just some old dude. You just wait until you see them wearing masks, beating the shit out of some child at a work camp. He's not some old dude.
"Sir?" I ask. "What's this name? It looks like mine, but I can't—"
He leans forward to look, and I stab him in the side of the neck with my wooden knife. He gurgles out a cry before I can silence him.
I need to learn how to kill people quietly.
There's a crash behind the door to the next room, and a yell. Fuck. I drop the gummed-up knife into the spreading stain and take off. Couple steps, and I'm out the door, slipping in the ice and gasping in the cold.
I fumble for the detonator. Have to time this right. How close are they?
I get past the edge of the next building before I hear the door bang open, and know I'm out of time. My hand clamps down on the button.
The blast tears at my eardrums and tips me forward. The ground is hard. I try to sit up at my elbows, but everything tilts, so I flop back down. Everything swirls white around me—the silence echoes and throbs.
I exhale and let my eyelids fall shut.
The alarm bell goes off. The sound comes from a speaker system mounted on the eastern wall of each classroom—a brown square at the head of the bare wall, and the recorded sound comes out filtered, canned.
Across the table, Nick sighs through his nose and closes his textbook. His face expresses no emotion. Him and I and the rest of the class stand, as the air around us shudders with the expanse of sound, and the professor walks to the door and pulls it open.
We do not have these drills often.
We all wear the same uniform—a stiff gray collared shirt and a white vest. I try to pick out my friends as we file out the door and down the hallway, but it's hard to recognize anybody from the back of his head, and turning to look behind me would be a disruption. It's the same procedure we've practiced once or twice. At the same time, we wonder if this is the real thing.
Leif is next to me now. He smiles at me, even though we aren't supposed to talk. His white-blond hair sets him out from our classmates. Other students' arms brush past mine, and the recording blares in a loop.
This would seem more routine if there hadn't been that bombing the week before—and the two the week before that.
When we reach the outside, wee spill out into a disorderly clump, and everybody begins to talk, even though we aren't supposed to. Nick catches up to Leif and I.
"Was this planned?" I ask him.
He shoves another student out of his way and shakes his head. "My father would've told me."
Everybody is spread out into the street, looking around and shivering in the cold, while the professors stand in silence. It's impossible to tell if this is a drill.
"The Underground doesn't target schools," Nick says. He rubs his hands on his arms. Nick always has a calm, thoughtful expression, like the blank-faced professors or the guards themselves.
This doesn't make sense. I don't see any guards, and we don't seem to be in immediate danger.
"What do you think is going on?" Leif asks Nick.
Then an explosion rips through a building down the street.
The check center, I realize, before we all stumble back in shock. Somebody bombed it.
Leif yells in fear.
It's like the building has split in two, with debris lying in piles and black smoke flooding the cold sky. I've never seen an accident before—never seen anything really remarkable, and here the check center closest to the school has exploded. Even as everybody steps back, I step forward.
"Inside," a professor yells, and the mass of uniformed young men rushes to the doors. I tear away from the confusion and peer down the street. There's a dark pile of rubble on the ground—no, not rubble, but my confused mind can't identify the shape.
"Jerrep," my professor calls. Everybody else has filed inside, except I'm standing in the middle of the yard, and he's waiting for me by the door.
It's a body, laying in the middle of the road. "Somebody's hurt."
"Come inside. The guards will be here—don't try to play the hero," he says.
Play the hero. But it really is a person, laying in the road. I take a step toward the school, but then I stop. There's an almost-magnetic pull—this is the most important moment in my life so far, and they want me to go inside and forget it happened.
"I have to go," I tell him. I turn and jog towards the burnt-out building. In that moment, I know I've made the stupidest decision of my life.
The snow on the ground covers a thick layer of ice. The air feels like freezing water in my lungs. It's one of the clear, dry days, and the spreading stain of inky smoke clouds the sky.
It's a boy—I couldn't be sure from a distance, but as I jog closer I can see. His hair is dark—darker than the almost-brown of Nick's, the boy's is black as the smoke drifting from the crumpled building beside him. I squat beside him, and for a moment I don't know what to do.
He's small—thin and wasted like most workers; I can see the sharp angles of his shoulders through his shirt, and his arms are thin and brittle-looking. Being so close to a worker unsettles me. He doesn't look like the greedy roach my father says they are, but he must be.
There's blood all down the side of his face, mingling with his dark hair. I grab his shoulder with some revulsion and shake him.
"Wake up," I say. "Are you okay?"
His mouth is half-open. The features of his face are sharp and oddly pretty. I ease him onto his side. The back of his shirt is burned through, and the flesh on his back is raw and oozing. I hiss in disgust and withdraw.
He stirs. His eyes aren't brown, but gray, like the lead of the pencils we use for math. They're somehow softer than the rest of his face.
"Are you okay?"
There's something taped over his ID number. He blinks and touches the gash on his forehead.
"Don't," I say. I try to help him sit up, but he pushes me away with surprising force and manages on his own. I've never seen anybody so thin close-up—the threadbare shirt hardly conceals the skeletal outline of his torso. The thought ignites an unexpected spark of desire in my gut, and I push the abnormal feeling away.
"What happened?" I ask.
He touches his eyes and then looks down in the snow. I'm bewildered with his behavior and the tape covering his ID—concealment is illegal. He could be deployed for the infraction.
He finds a black piece of fabric in the snow and stands, with some difficulty, and his palm pressed to his temple. He looks at me for the first time.
"Did anybody else get out?"
"No," I say. It's an odd question. "Why is there tape over your number? That's against code."
His knees buckle and he barely regains his balance. With his back to me, I can really see the damage done by the fire. Pink patches of chewed-up flesh show through the holes in his t-shirt, with ash settling and sticking to the oozing spots.
"Where are you going?" I ask.
He frowns and shakes his head. "I can't stay."
"But the guards—"
"Don't tell them you saw me."
He wraps his arms around himself, and his voice breaks. "Please," he adds.
He can't be older than sixteen.
"You did something," I say. The realization sends confusion spiraling in my gut. "You set off the bomb."
He stumbles again and keeps walking.
All the things my father said about the Underground come crashing around me—that they're madmen, that they kill for the sake of stirring things up—and nothing matches with this starved, wounded, dark-haired boy.
I expect him to ignore me, but he turns around. "I wanted to make a difference. They're killing us, and we can't do anything. I have to do something."
He seems like he's trying to make me understand something. His tone is almost apologetic. It doesn't fit. Madmen aren't sorry.
"You're killing people," I say.
"So are they. There's nothing else to—" he cuts himself off and swallows. "Turn me in, if you feel that way." His gaze drops to my belted uniform. "You'll be one of them, some day."
I don't know what to say. The guards aren't killing anybody—but he says it with such conviction that I wonder.
"Who are you? Are you doing this for the Underground?"
But he keeps walking.
When he's out of my sight, I stand and walk back to the school. I don't tell anybody what I saw.
"Fear God, for now you've gone and lost your sight of man. Drunk with power, your final hour is running out of sand."—Backlash by 10 Years
AN: In the process of rewriting and replacing chapters. Check the bottom of each chapter for notes on when it was last edited or rewritten. Anonymous re-reviews will be returned like signed ones, given that they address changes made.