THEY are dead. They are dead. They are dead. I know it even if I can't see it. Even though I can't see past the fire, even though I can't hear past the screams, even though I can no longer smell death in the air, I know it. I know they're dead, and I can't do anything to help them.
I sit up in the dark, drenched in a cold sweat. It was a dream. The same dream I've had for the past eleven years. Out my window, I can see the early signs of a new day. The sky is a deep dark grey. The darkness that usually covers the Capitol is lighter today. I almost think I can see the sun fighting to shine through, but just as quickly another dark cloud moves in and hides any glimpse of sunlight. The sun hasn't shone through the clouds for as long as anyone can remember.
Climbing out of bed, I lift my tank top and see the dark blue bruises that cross my ribs and stretch over my back, concealing the scattered scars that are already there. Reminders of old failures and lessons learned. The stitches across my chest and thigh have already been taken out, but the ones on my cheek are still there because my wound reopened twice in training since my last punishment.
Training yesterday was more intense than usual, and I wasn't as focused as I should have been. He made me regret that. Rule Number Five: Never lose focus. Usually this is something I'm good at ‐ even great at. My nightmare helps me not to forget ‐ not that I would, even without it.
Changing slowly, I try not to cause myself more pain. This will be the last moment I have to myself for the rest of the day. If he catches me grimace in pain, he will not be happy and I will have to pay for it. He taught me the rules he lives by. The rules I live by. Rule Number Three: Never show pain. Pain is weakness and weakness is death.
I have to apologize for my weakness. I failed my Master. I failed him and I owe him everything.
When a voice comes over the intercoms, which are located throughout the Tower, I freeze. "Code Red. Code Red. Please stay in your rooms and lock the doors. This is a Code Re—"
The line disconnects, and I move quickly, grabbing my pistols. Opening the door a crack, I peer down the hallway. Code Red means there are intruders in the building.
A scream and a gunshot echo from the other end of the hallway past the elevators. I charge out in the opposite direction of the sounds. At the door to the stairway, I pass my hand over the keypad. It beeps and the door swings open. Darting up the stairs, I take two at a time until I reach the President's floor.
I pray this is a drill. I pray this is a test. No one has ever broken in here before. We have the best security in the sector. No one should be able to breach it ‐ unless, they had help from the inside. Unless, we have a traitor. Taking a breath, I run harder and faster. I have to get to the President. He could be locked up with the traitor right now. He could be in danger.
When I hear voices coming from the next hallway, I slow down, heart pounding harder as I close in on the President's bedroom. I take a deep breath, and everything around me slows down with my pulse. I listen carefully.
"I thought you said you knew where he would be at this time," a male voice whispers.
"You guys are late!" a woman whines. "Everyone is at breakfast."
Rounding the corner, I have my guns on them before they have a chance to look at me. "Do not move," I say calmly.
I recognize the woman as one of the President's wife's personal servants. The traitor. The moment her eyes lock with mine she knows it's over. She doesn't even have time to be afraid before I pull the trigger.
"Shit!" the man yells as the traitor hits the floor. He gapes at the blood oozing from the hole in the center of the woman's head. His light eyes darken with rage. "You killed her!"
Instead of answering, I step toward him. He makes a movement toward his gun. I gesture with my finger ever so slightly on the trigger and give him a small smile. He puts his hands up. Shoving him against the white wall, I take a zip tie out of my pocket and pull his hands behind his back.
"You're the one they all talk about, aren't you?" he whispers.
"I don't know," I shrug, dragging him to the elevators.
During a Code Red, elevators shut down. Only a special code, which only a few people have, opens them. I enter it into the panel attached to the wall beside the elevator, and the panel shifts into the wall replaced by an eye scanner, which I lean into so it can identify me.
The servant had said the President is already at breakfast, and we always eat in the ballroom located a few floors down. I know there are Rebels on my floor. I just hope they haven't made it to the ballroom yet.
"You're much more beautiful than the stories tell." The man's gentle voice catches me off guard, and I'm instantly suspicious. I glance at him as the elevator doors open. He can't be serious. Ignoring him, I push him onto the elevator.
At the forty-eighth floor, the door opens. We're almost to the ballroom now, and I haven't seen or heard anything else on our way here. I don't know if this is a good sign or not.
"Some say you are seven feet tall and look like a troll," my prisoner says, his voice stronger than before. "Others say the President found you by the mouth of Hell. More say that you have killed over a thousand people."
I frown at his last statement. A thousand people? No, I couldn't have. But then I've lost count.
"None of them actually say you are beautiful or that you are a young woman," he says. "I wonder why that is."
"I know why," I whisper as I slow my pace, crouch, and peek around the corner. The heavy ballroom door is closed. I bite my lip, debating on what I should do. If the President is there, I have no other choice but to get to him.
"Why?" he asks. It surprises me that he actually tries to be quiet, too.
"Because Rebels who see me don't survive long enough to tell anyone." I glance at him when he swallows, but he doesn't look angry anymore.
"At least I'll die fighting the good fight," he says strongly.
I can't help it. I laugh. The hard look he gives me surprises me. This whole time I've thought of him as a weak, pathetic creature, however, the look in his eyes tells me he is happy to die for his cause. I turn away so I don't have to see the determination on his face, because I know what he's trying to deny to himself. This is a wasted effort. He and the other Rebels who came here are all going to die ‐ and for nothing. He crouches next to me, straining against the binds around his hands.
"I have one question," he murmurs.
I stare at the heavy metal doors to the ballroom, trying to listen for voices. Without looking at him, I nod. I have no idea why I am letting him talk so much. It's not a good idea to talk to the people you are going to kill.
"Why do you serve the President?" he asks. "Why do you choose to work for the wrong side?"
I want to tell him that that's two questions, but I don't. I don't understand what he's talking about. I am on the good side. Doesn't he know which side he's fighting for?
Looking into his eyes, it's clear that he actually believes he is right. He actually believes he is fighting for the right side. He doesn't know that someone has been lying to him. He doesn't know that President Kaiser is trying to bring this Sector back together. He doesn't know that the President has plans to unite the sectors to form a lasting peace. Why is he fighting against that?
"You know I am fighting and protecting what's right," I say as quickly as I can. "You know the Resistance is wrong. The Resistance wants to control people. Rebels don't care about people. They only care about themselves."
At the sound of movement on the other side of the door, I pause and secure my hand around my prisoner's arm.
"Silly girl," he says. "The Resistance is the people."
"No," I say so quietly I don't think he can hear me. "They aren't."
I pull him to his feet and drag him to the door. To my surprise, the door is unlocked. I kick it open, push the Rebel to the floor, and scan the room. Every eye focuses on me.
The President, his wife, Margaret, and his son, Adrian, are sitting at the table. Margaret is sobbing. My President and Adrian are as still as statues. Three Rebels, two with guns, turn toward me. I pull up my prisoner and use him as a shield. The Rebels freeze, unsure what to do. The one who doesn't have a gun backs up slowly before bolting out the back door. At least one of the Rebels seems to have a brain in his head. The rest should have run when they had the chance.
"Drop your weapons," I say, jamming the barrel of one of my pistols against my Rebel's skull. I feel him shake his head slightly.
The Rebels' faces fall, and they back away. As the two Rebels turn and run, I flip on the intercom and call the guards. Where they have been this whole time, I have no idea, but someone is going to be punished for this.
Pushing my Rebel to the floor again, I step toward the President. "Is everyone all right?" I ask even though I only really care about the President.
"What took you so long?" Margaret screams.
I ignore her, watching the President for any sign of injury. He meets my eyes and gives me a nod. Relief floods through me. He's fine.
As two guards rush into the room, Adrian stands up and stops one of them in order to pull a gun from the man's holster. Then he walks over to my prisoner, who is still kneeling on the floor, and studies the weapon for a second before pointing it at my Rebel's head.
Without thinking, I jump in front of Adrian whose finger is already on the trigger. Lucky for me, Adrian has fast reflexes. He stops squeezing the trigger just before the gun would have fired.
"What the hell, Elizabeth?" Adrian yells, his grey eyes darkening. "I could have killed you!"
The President watches me carefully, obviously looking for any compassion or weakness I may have toward the Rebel. I harden my eyes, telling myself that I have good reason for saving my prisoner's life.
"I hate it when she calls you that," Margaret mutters. Everyone ignores her.
"Master," I say again. "I believe this prisoner is the leader of this group of Rebels." I hesitate, thinking. If I'm wrong about this, my Master isn't going to be happy. I take a breath and go with my instincts. "I think he is a Rebel Officer."
Adrian and Margaret both gasp.
"How do you know this?" Adrian asks, tightening his grip on his weapon.
"I saw it in his eyes."
Margaret laughs, but to my surprise, Adrian doesn't.
The President stares at me. "Very well," he says. "That Rebel will be kept alive ‐ for now."
"You can't be serious," Margaret says, but the President silences her with a look.
Glancing at the Rebel at my feet, I finally take in his appearance. He's wearing faded jeans and an old t‐shirt. He has thick brown hair, dark blue eyes, looks to be in his mid to late twenties, and has a strong build and tall frame. He's nice to look at but not overly handsome. Staring into his eyes now, it's hard to believe no one else sees the strength that I see in them.
A few guards trickle into the ballroom, hauling the Rebel who abandoned his men earlier. They explain that there were more Rebels in the Tower that managed to escape, although the guards don't know how.
While I explain the servant and her fate to my Master, I feel the Rebel's eyes on me. For some reason, I can't bring myself to look at him.
As the guards explain how they killed two other Rebels before catching the one kneeling between them, I see my prisoner tense. His face drops when he learns the fate of his two friends. I'm not sure what he expected to happen when he broke into the Tower.
The President steps over to the Rebel who abandoned his friends. "What is your name?" my Master asks, kneeling to be eye level with the Rebel.
"Brian," the Rebel sobs.
"Brian," the President says slowly and pointing at my prisoner. "Is this your Rebel Officer?"
Brian doesn't answer.
"Listen, if you answer the few simple questions I ask, you will be my friend. I am good to my friends."
Brian looks up, hearing the promises in the President's words. He knows he'll be safe if he only gives the President the information he wants. My Master is good at getting what he wants.
"Yes," the sad pathetic man chokes out. "He's one of the Rebel Officers of Camp 63."
"Parker, shut up!" screams my prisoner.
It takes me longer than it should to kick my prisoner in the stomach to silence him. My Master stares at me for a few seconds. When his gaze returns to Brian, I watch my prisoner hunched over, trying to catch his breath after my blow, and feel a weird tightening in my stomach.
"Continue, my friend," the President says, gently patting Brian's hand.
Brian looks into the President's eyes before glancing at my prisoner. Brian seems to gain courage and when his gaze moves back at the President, his eyes are stone. "Nothing. I have nothing more to say."
My Master nods slowly before standing. When his eyes slide to Adrian and he nods once more, Adrian moves silently toward Brian. Thunder echoes outside and through the windows, I watch rain slide effortlessly down the glass.
"What's your name?" I whisper to my prisoner.
"John," I say, hesitating and looking at the floor. "You are not going to want to watch this."
I can't believe I said that. I should make him watch. He should see the consequences of his actions.
"I have to," John says. "Brian deserves that much."
For some reason I don't understand, I take a small step closer to John. Time slows down around me as I watch Adrian walk behind Brian, who is on his knees with his head hanging low.
"Coward," John calls out.
I stiffen and look at John out of the corner of my eye just as Adrian's gaze snaps up and locks onto John. It takes a split second for Adrian to cross the room. It takes less than a second for me to react and block Adrian's advance toward John. I don't know what has gotten into me. No, it does make sense. John is an important source of information. We need him to find the other Rebels. But I still can't look at the President.
"Get out of the way," Adrian hisses at me.
Adrian likes to think of himself as a man's man. He's not used to anyone getting in his way. However, in this case, he doesn't have a choice. I won't let him get around me. I keep telling myself that we can get valuable Intel from this man. He is, after all, a Rebel Officer. Rebel Officers are among the highest leaders in the Resistance. They report to the Council, made up of a few people, who in turn report to the Rebel Commander. I've located two Council members in my time, but sadly, I've never even heard a whisper of the so-called Commander's name.
"Adrian, calm down," I say, my voice as level as humanly possible given the situation.
His eyes bulge. At any moment, he is going to try to fight past me. The last thing I want to deal with right now is fighting Adrian. I need to get John to the holding cell before my Master has a change of heart.
"Seriously, Elizabeth!" Adrian says, his voice strained with the intensity of his anger. "Get the fuck out of my way."
I know what he is going to do before he does it, and I wait for him to act first. Time slows down around me. I feel like it takes forever for him to drag his arm back and form a fist, preparing to swing at me. When his arm is fully cocked, I start to move my hand upwards, readying it to block his punch. Time speeds up. He swings, and I catch his fist in my hand. With all my force, I shove his hand against his chest, and he stumbles backward, swearing under his breath. He bumps into the back of a chair at the end of the long, metal table in the center of the room.
Everyone holds their breath as they stare at me, then Adrian, then the President, and back again. Adrian has his talents, and I have mine. He may be stronger and he can dish out pain like no one else, but fighting is my art ‐ among other things.
"Spencer," the President says.
My eyes snap to my Master, my President, the one person I owe everything to, but he isn't looking at me. He's staring at one of the guards. I want him to look at me. I don't want him to look at me. I need him to look at me. I don't think I'll be able to handle it if he does look at me. I think I'll break if he doesn't.
After what seems like an eternity, his eyes meet mine, but only for a brief second. As he looks back to the guard, I nearly crumble to the ground. His eyes. The look in his eyes. It's worse than I imagined. He isn't angry with me. He isn't disappointed with me. He is absolutely disgusted with me.
By standing in front of John, I showed weakness. I protected the enemy, the Rebels who have been trying to ruin everything the President has worked hard to build. People are struggling and dying all the time because of the Rebels. Rule Number Ten: Know your enemies. The Rebels are my enemies. You don't protect your enemies.
Everyone was worse off before President Kaiser's father gained control of Sector Three. No one knew where to turn for help. This lasted for years. People died in the streets. No one helped each other. They were either too scared to help or just didn't care. It wasn't until a group of people pooled resources and started to build a new center, a new Capitol where people could come for help, food, and shelter.
President Kaiser's father was one of these people. After a few months, he spread his influence further and further from what is now known as the Tower. After governing Sector Three for fifty‐seven years, he decided it was time for new leadership. An election was held where everyone in Sector Three could vote as long as they were registered with the government. My Master won by a landslide.
Now, people are safe here as long as they follow the rules and laws set by the President. There isn't as much death and struggle as before, until the Rebels get involved. Then there's mass chaos and more people end up dying.
The Resistance is led by a few Rebels who want power for themselves. They claim to care about the people, but when they don't get what they want, they kill. I'm proof of that. When my family didn't bend to the Resistance, they were killed.
In addition to having had my family ripped away from me by the Resistance, I hear about the graves. The mass graves spread throughout the unregulated areas of Sector Three.
This Rebel kneeling beside me, who hasn't taken his eyes off of me, is a part of these people. He wants to ruin everything my Master has worked toward. He was here to kill the President ‐ my greatest reason for living.
This Rebel's eyes remind me of something from my past life when the world seemed perfect, when I didn't know anything else. I see something in them that I can't fully recognize anymore. Maybe when my family was alive, my mother and father looked at me with the same kind eyes. But I can't remember if they did because people like John took them away from me. Through fire and ash, they burned my family away.
My eyes harden, and I let my mind go blank. I broke so many of my Master's rules. He has every right to be disgusted with me. I'm disgusted with myself. My weakness could have gotten us all killed. I shouldn't have stopped Adrian, and I shouldn't have protected this Rebel, regardless of what information he holds.
I sense my Master's eyes on me. I don't want to meet them and see the disgust I know will be there. But I do anyway, and I'm surprised. He doesn't look quite so disgusted anymore. He seems confused, maybe even worried. When he looks back at Spencer, I realize I'm still standing between Adrian and John.
I know I have to move. I have to take one small step to the side. Only one step. But my feet feel heavy. I don't want to move. I don't know what Adrian will do if I do. After all this, after the look on my Master's face, the face of the one I owe everything to, I still don't want to move. I don't want Adrian to kill John, and I don't understand why.
I take a breath, holding my breath, and force my feet to one side. Adrian watches me. He has a clear shot at John. I hold my breath. Why do I even care?
Adrian takes one quick step forward, smiling unpleasantly at John.
"Adrian, get over here and finish questioning this Rebel," my Master says.
Adrian hesitates, still staring at John.
"Now," my Master barks. "Spencer, take the Rebel Officer to the holding cells. I will deal with him later."
"Yes, sir," Spencer says. He rushes to John and yanks him to his feet. John grimaces in pain, and I want to tell Spencer to take it easy, but stop myself. I don't understand what has gotten into me.
"Yes, Master?" I say, forcing myself to look at him again. His grey eyes are dark, hard, and unreadable. Margaret mumbles something.
"Go to the training rooms," my Master says. "Adrian and I will be there shortly."
I nod once before turning out of the ballroom and heading down the hall. Walking slowly, my eyes linger on the white floor, then the white walls and the white ceiling. Everything in the Tower is white, silver, or clear glass. Clean and perfect. Unstained by life outside the Tower walls.
It all looks high tech and expensive. I've never once asked how we could live in such an expensive sophisticated building with intense security and air conditioning while some people live without electricity on a daily basis. I never asked. I've never even wondered. Why did this thought suddenly cross my mind now?
I take the elevator down, which is covered with mirrors. I usually don't look at myself, but I need a distraction from my thoughts. I'm still wearing my pajamas: a black tank top that stops around my bellybutton, black shorts, no socks. My dark brown hair, layered with natural red streaks, hangs loose down my back. My eyes are a dark shade of green.
Nowadays, green eyes are few and far between. It has something to do with the gene pool. Ever since the bombs dropped a long time ago, killing most of the population, there are fewer people with blue eyes or blond hair, and there are even less with green eyes or red hair. The majority of people now have brown hair and brown eyes. Sometimes I wish I looked more like everyone else. It would make blending in so much easier.
My fingers absently trace the small scar above my left hip, which I got when I was out on a mission, and a man caught me off guard. It's the only time I have ever gotten hurt on assignment.
I don't see what John sees. I don't see anything pretty about the girl staring back at me. My eyes are dead. My face is plain. The only thing interesting in my reflection are the two pistols strapped on me. My eyes keep drifting back to them. They help keep me safe.
The elevator opens and I step onto the fifth floor. I feel the most alive here when I'm training, but then I think the President knows this. I think that's his way of punishing me, by taking this piece of happiness away from me.
I used to be punished on the seventh floor, but two years ago that changed. Now there's a small piece of Hell right in the middle of my Heaven.
"Happiness can be a drug," my Master said, "if it isn't controlled."
I wait ten minutes before Adrian and the President show up. My suspicions are confirmed when none of the guards are with them. My Master doesn't like witnesses when he needs to punish someone. It isn't pretty, but it is necessary. I failed him today. I failed myself. Rule Number Seven: Do not fail.
I broke more than one rule today, but I failed when I broke Rule Number Two. Nothing is worse than breaking Rule Number Two. Well, obviously Rule Number One, but that's a rule I know I will never break. It's not even possible.
"I'm sure you know why we are here, Elizabeth," my Master says, holding my life in his hands. Of course, I know why we are here.
"Yes, sir," I answer strongly even though I'm breaking on the inside.
"Adrian, do you?" my Master asks, his eyes remaining on me.
I want to break his gaze. I want to drop my eyes to the floor. I want to...but I don't. I can't disappoint him anymore. I don't think I've disappointed him this much since my first month living here, back when I couldn't do what he wanted me to do back. Eventually, I did, and I promised myself I would never disappoint him again. And now, I break his rules. I deserve whatever punishment I get.
I try not to think about the pain coming, but it's hard not to. I'm not afraid of pain. Pain is important. Pain is how you know you're alive. My Master taught me that. I just don't want to disappoint him anymore.
Adrian glares at me. "Sure, Elizabeth got involved in my business."
In one quick movement, faster than an old man should be able to move, my Master lands a blow into Adrian's stomach. As Adrian falls to the floor, his father stands calmly, still as a statue, staring at me. His eyebrows rise in my direction.
"I broke Rule Number Two," I say. The look he gives me tells me there's more to it. I hold in a sigh then say, "More than once."
The President nods, and Adrian finally grasps what is going on. His eyes meet mine as he stands. I see fear in him, but not for his safety, for mine. We both know how his father feels about Rule Number Two.
I wonder how long my recovery will take. I also wonder if I will survive this punishment, but that thought is gone as soon as it appeared. I will survive because I will not disappoint him again.
"Adrian, get the rope and lower the hook," the President says. When Adrian looks like he's going to argue, my Master adds, "This is a test for you, too, boy."
Adrian brings the rope and binds my hands, his eyes glazed over. I understand. He's shut down all emotion, all feelings. Everything shuts down so he can do whatever his father tells him. I know the feeling well.
The rope is tight around my wrists, and they're already chaffing. Adrian puts the rope through the hook in the ceiling and pulls, raising me a few inches off the floor. He ties off the rope, then goes to stand behind me. My wrists are on fire with my weight pulling down on them.
My Master walks toward me and removes my guns, tossing them to Adrian. He takes away the weapons that help keep me safe, that let me hide from who I am. I'm alone now, and there's nothing I can do.
"I'm sorry, Elizabeth," my Master whispers so Adrian doesn't hear. "I've let you down. I should have been reinforcing the rules stronger. I'm sorry. It won't happen again."
I frown slightly. I want to tell him he hasn't done anything wrong. I want to tell him it's my fault that I've let him down, but when I go to open my mouth, he shakes his head once. I don't say anything.
Then he repeats the very first thing he ever said to me. The first thing he said to me after he rescued me from my burning house. "I'm going to keep you safe. I'm going to make you strong."
When he turns and walks away from me, I close my eyes. I won't make a sound. I won't make a sound. I'll show him how strong I am, that he hasn't done anything wrong. He has made me strong. He saved me that day. I won't let him regret that.
"Rule Number Two," Adrian says to himself more than to me. When I look over my shoulder and meet his eyes, I watch them darken and turn icy just as he lifts the whip in his hand.
"Never show mercy," I finish.
A/N: Hey there! Here's my first story on fictionpress! Any feedback and comments are appreciated!