Chapter one

"I've got two words for you. Alien. Abductions," Jason said.

"Oh, shut up," Zoey replied with a sharp eye roll.

"No, okay, listen, it's the only thing that explains her horrible aim. I mean, look! She hasn't hit one can!" He gestured to the line up of ten tin cans that were arranged on a bench a hundred feet away.

"That's because you keep talking!" I hissed. "Jesus Christ, do you even listen to yourself? I think it makes a lot more sense to say that I'm having a bad day instead of creating a conspiracy stating that I was abducted by aliens!"

"But were you?" he asked.

I lowered the gun and turned on Jason. He was currently leaning against his back door, Zoey and I maybe five feet in front of him. He was "coaching" us. His words. "Was I what?"

"Were you abducted by aliens?" Jason clarified.

"I hate you," I grumbled violently.

"I hate you, too," Zoey added. "You suck, Jason."

He rolled his eyes. "And you guys suck at shooting—looking at you, Kristen, so stop talking and start practicing."

"This is a hostile work environment," I retorted angrily.

"I said stop talking."

I grumbled to myself but complied, raising the pistol back up to aim. This was so stupid. So, so stupid! It was all Zoey's fault, too—which was why she was acting all cheeky and nice.

A loud shot rang throughout the backyard as Zoey let loose a round. She missed; I wasn't sure where the bullet went.

"Your turn," Jason said. "Go on, Kristen."

I squinted, focusing my eyes on the can. "Be the can. See the can. Feel the can. I am the can."

"What does that even mean?" Zoey asked.

"I'm trying different methods of concentration," I admitted sadly. Jason was right; I was an awful shooter.

"Okay," she drawled.

I ignored her, refusing to let the girl break my concentration. I would prove Jason wrong. I would hit the can!

Bang.

"Ha," said Jason.

"I don't want to do this anymore," I announced, sliding on the safety and throwing the gun to the ground.

"Quitter," accused Jason.

"Why are you teaching us? You're a horrible teacher!" I declared, pointing a finger at Jason. "Zoey's the one that needs practice. I don't even know why you're making me shoot. Jackson just said I had to watch and make sure you didn't do anything weird."

"You're only mad because you suck," Jason said, ignoring what I mentioned about Jackson. The two of them had been on thin ice as of late. Jackson was mad at Jason for assaulting me every other day, and Jason was angry with him for some unknown reason.

As for me and Jason, our ice had long past broken. We both loathed each other openly, though neither of us tried killing the other anymore. Big achievement for Jason.

"She doesn't suck. You suck."

"Wow, nice one, Zoey," Jason complimented.

"It wasn't my best," she admitted.

"I thought it was good," I input.

"All right, enough chitchat. Back to work." Jason gestured to the cans. "You guys aren't leaving until all ten of them are down."

"We're leaving at eight thirty when Jackson springs us from this hell—hole," I replied. Jackson had been… busy, to say the least lately and was currently in the capital with Mr. Ligends working on something political.

"It's five now," Jason told me. "So I've got time. Shoot."

I panicked, displeased with this turn—around. I didn't like it when he ridiculed me for being a bad shot. I'd never had practice before! I'd never even held one until now! Guns were completely illegal in Aviance; here, not so much. Jason grew up with rifles and shotguns, whereas in my country they were shunned. Weapons were looked down on.

"Why are you so good with guns, anyway?" I asked.

"Because I'm in the rebellion army," Jason said with an eye roll, like it was common knowledge.

"So why aren't you at training like everyone else?" I inquired.

"Because I'm a rebel."

"You're rebelling against the rebellion," Zoey summarized with a laugh. "Neat. I like it."

"Thanks." He gave me a glare. "I'm glad someone thinks so."

I frowned, moving to sit down. "I am rebelling against your rebelling against the rebellion. I refuse to shoot!"

Jason opened his mouth to grit out a couple insults that would probably make his grandpa have a heart attack, and then faltered. He shrugged. "Whatever. Suit yourself. Die in combat."

"I'm not going into combat, you idiot."

"Well, you never know," he said. "All right, Zoey. You go."

She raised her gun, aiming at the far—off target. She took a long time—too long. Jason was about to say something, but then Zoey pressed the trigger. The loud shot directly hit the middle can.

"Cool," Zoey uttered, somewhat dully. She didn't seem so impressed or happy, even though she'd been trying to shoot the can for quite some time now.

"Hallelujah! Did you see that?" cried Jason. "Take a good long look at what you'll never be, Kristen!"

"I hate you," I said.

He nodded in understanding though didn't egg me on. He simply turned back to Zoey, gesturing for her to continue shooting. I supposed that made sense; Jason really was supposed to be helping her. She wasn't going into battle, but she wanted to know how to fight—low—key.

Jackson was okay with a gun, but he hadn't been around a lot lately. After Mr. Ligends came to our house two months ago, Jackson had turned into his personal assistant. I say that jokingly; they were doing serious work.

Mr. Ligends came to us, apparently already knowing about Jackson's trait (didn't mention how he'd heard). He wanted to try to replicate it or help Jackson control it for combat. It mirrored what Aviance wanted, though I didn't voice my concerns.

I'd said I was in, so I was in.

Despite how weird and creepy Mr. Ligends was, I had to stand by him. He wanted to protect America, and that was the most important thing to take from him. He would help, or die trying—or just die. Any worked fine with me.

Bang.

"Miss," Jason called.

"Who are you, the narrator?" Zoey demanded, turning to give him a look.

"I'm just trying to help." He lifted up his hands in defense. "I mean, you want to get better, right?"

"How is this supposed to help me?" she asked. "You're just telling me all the things I do wrong without offering a solution."

"You need to figure the solutions out on your own," Jason replied.

Zoey's nostrils flared, eyes narrowing. "You're supposed to be teaching me. You told Jackson you would."

After Zoey's sixteenth last month, she had begun a phase of fighting. She wanted to learn everything. I supposed the reality of war was setting in. The fear of death fueled her.

"I am. You two just don't appreciate my techniques." Jason wrinkled his nose at the two of us. "I'm going to go take a piss. Don't shoot each other—or do. I don't care."

"Christ," I remarked as Jason swung the spring door shut and stomped inside of the old house.

Zoey nodded her agreement, eyes rolling. "He's so frustrating. I don't think he even knows what he's talking about."

"Oh, he knows. He's just being annoying."

"Ugh, I can't believe I used to like him," she groaned. Zoey blushed slightly as she realized what she'd just said, gaze falling downward. She didn't think a lot before she spoke, causing regret to be a prominent emotion in her life.

My brows raised. "What? How long ago was 'used to?'"

"I don't know… like… four months ago." Zoey cringed at the look on my face. "It was totally one—sided, though. He didn't try anything with me, and I eventually just got over it."

"Jackson would freak if he found out you liked a boy," I told her.

"Not really, I've talked about it with him before." She paused. "He'd just freak out if he knew it was Jason. I mean, you know, Jason's kind of volatile."

"Oh, I know," I said.

Zoey winced. "Yeah, I stopped liking him after he hit you."

"Me, too."

She laughed slightly. "Anyway, with Jackson… I'll tell him eventually," she promised. "Just not now. It hardly seems important. I mean, it's in the past. No use in digging it up."

"Yeah, I guess," I said. "Tell him some time soon. I hate having to lie to him."

"You're not lying," Zoey said.

"Well, I hate keeping things from him."

She bit her lip. "Me, too."

"I guess it's not so bad," I reasoned. "And besides, you should be the one to tell him yourself."

She nodded in agreement. "I will. I swear. Like I said, he's just been so preoccupied…"

I knew what she meant. Jackson was much more important to Mr. Ligends than either of us ever could be. I wasn't jealous at all, more curious and fearful for Jackson. I wanted him to take all of this slow, place his toe in the water; he wanted to jump right in.

"Don't worry about it," I advised. "He's never too busy for us."

A smile appeared on her face. "Yeah, I know."

"You know what?" Jason asked.

Zoey sighed loudly. "Nothing! How was your pee?"

"It was very nice, thanks." Jason peered at the both of us. "Have you two been talking this entire time and not shooting?"

"You never told me to shoot," Zoey said.

"Now I'm telling you to shoot," he hissed.

She rolled her eyes, raising her gun back up. She shot two times—both missed. Jason thought that was really funny, like the success of his students did not depend on his teaching.

"Go again," Jason ordered sternly. He'd brought a magazine with him from when he'd gone to the bathroom and didn't look up from it to watch Zoey. It was some sort of fitness magazine with a shirtless, ripped guy on the front.

Bang.

Another miss.

"This is impossible!" Zoey cried. "You aren't even helping me! How am I supposed to get better if you aren't helping?"

He ignored her last statements. "What do you mean impossible? You hit the can before."

"That was a fluke. A freak of nature!" Zoey declared emphatically. "It happens."

"Try to make it happen again," Jason said. He still was staring at his magazine.

"Do you even know what a fluke means?" I demanded.

"Yeah I know what it means," he spat, glancing up for a mere second to shoot me a glare.

Zoey groaned. "Can't you help at all?"

"No," Jason told her, flipping a page.

"I am so tattling on you to Jackson!" she cried.

He didn't respond, just cleared his throat loudly to confirm that he'd heard what she said.

Zoey scowled but took another shot. It missed. "God!" she growled. Zoey stared at her gun. "I'm taking a break."

"No you aren't," Jason said.

"I am. There's no point of continuing," she retorted, taking a seat beside me. "Besides, I'm out of ammo."

He stood immediately. "I'll go get some more. They're in my room."

Zoey and I both tried to tell him not to go and to not get more ammo so she would have to shoot, but he was already gone. He probably wouldn't have listened to us if he heard us, anyway. Jason was so caught up in his own selfish little world.

"Was he always this bad?" I asked Zoey.

"Jason?"

I nodded. "Yeah."

"No," she admitted. "He used to be really nice and funny… well, he had a strange sort of humor. I liked it. Anyway, I don't know, he's just been so moody and mean lately."

"He was kind to me at first… sometimes," I told her. "And then…"

"What happened?" she questioned.

"I told him about Elise." I stuttered over her name; it was still too raw, too new to address. I'd never get over it. "Did you know his dad was killed the same way in Aviance?"

Zoey nodded slowly, leaning back on her forearms. "Yeah, wow, that explains it." She paused. "Try not to feel too bad."

I breathed out slowly, watching as my breath showed in the cold air. It was March but winter was still here; Zoey and I were both bundled up tight in coats and hats.

"The sun is going to set soon," she observed.

"Think he'll still make you practice?"

"Oh, without a doubt." Zoey sighed. "I don't know why—I can't shoot in the light, so I'll be even worse in the dark."

"You're better than me," I praised.

"That's not saying much."

I laughed, not even insulted. I'd known Zoey long enough to know that she was just kidding around. She never really said things to hurt other people.

"You just need more practice," Zoey assured me, moving our shoulders together.

"I don't even want to know how to use a gun," I said. "I'm anti—violence now."

"Are you Buddhist?" she asked.

"No," I told her. Religion was the only thing that carried on through the civil war; Christianity, Islam, Judaism. Despite this, I didn't believe in anything. I couldn't. The concept that a higher being would allow such monstrosity to occur was beyond my comprehension. "Are you?"

"No, I like the idea, though."

The door slammed open as Jason strode out holding way too many cases of bullets. "No excuses now," Jason said as he tossed a pack at her. "Load up."

"You never taught me how," Zoey retorted.

"Figure it out yourself," he told her.

"You know—" she began angrily, getting cut off by the door bell. We ignored the sound, all having had pretty bad experiences with people at the door. Zoey continued on, "You're being really rude."

Jason shrugged and picked up his magazine. "Okay."

"I bet you can't even shoot," I said.

He stared at me. "I bet I can."

The doorbell rang again.

Zoey offered her gun to him. "Well, please, demonstrate for us, oh wonderful master. I'd love to observe your technique."

He rolled his eyes. "I don't have to prove anything."

"Because you can't," I gloated.

At the challenge, Jason immediately stood. He had the largest ego I'd ever seen, and upon insult, he would fight for it. He grabbed the gun from Zoey, which I thought was dangerous for him to do, and loaded it on his own.

"That's how you do it," he told her when it was filled.

"Gee, thanks," she said.

Jason ignored the sarcasm and raised the gun. He stood with his back to Zoey and me for maybe two seconds before four loud shots rang out. He turned back around. "See?"

"You hit three cans," I said. "Not four. You missed one."

"You've missed a hundred times," Jason spat back.

"At least I accept it!"

"Can you guys calm down?" Zoey was laughing. "This isn't that big of a deal."

Jason handed her the gun, moving back behind me to flip through his magazine idly. "I don't hear any shots," he commented after a few seconds had passed.

Zoey groaned, standing once more. "Fine, fine!"

She readied herself and was about to aim, but a man walking around the side of the house interrupted her focus. "Hello," he called. "Is everything all right? I've been knocking, but no one answered."

Jason peered at him. "Who are you?"

He was tall and burly; muscles obvious, despite his black jacket. The man was maybe thirty—perhaps older. He looked young but aged in his forehead, where there were wrinkles. His hands were in his pockets.

"My name is Detective Brant," he said, striding forward. "I'm here to…" Our eyes locked. "Are you Kristen Fehler?"

Jason heaved a sigh. "Look, sir, I don't know what you've heard, but this is private—"

Without any more preamble, Detective Brant took out an automatic gun. We all noticed it in slow motion, and Jason barely had time to scream, "Take cover!" before we were being bombarded with bullets.

Zoey and I ducked behind a tree while Jason ran for the table the cans were lying on. Detective Brant shot after him as he sprinted, and just as Jason made the leap for cover, he cried out in pain.

"Hell! Was he hit?" Zoey asked frantically.

I peeked out only slightly, trying not to get shot. Jason was cradling his leg, cussing. "Yeah. I think."

Brant must've noticed my eyes sticking out because he raised the large gun in my direction, and I swooped down just as wood chips flew every which way. That could've been my head, I thought. I almost died.

"Why is he shooting at us? He asked for you!" Zoey cried. "We didn't do anything!"

I ignored the questions. "Do you still have the gun?"

She nodded, eyes wide. "But I can't shoot."

Bang.

More wood chips exploded as a direct hit was landed on the tree. My head, which was lying against it, felt the immense vibration.

"Can you toss it to Jason?" I asked.

"I don't know! Maybe Jason is already armed!"

I glanced out. "No." Brant was coming closer to us, reloading. "Okay, we can try to hit him at close range."

"I don't think I can do that!" Zoey told me, panicked. Her eyes were tearing up. "I can't kill someone!"

I opened my mouth to tell her that she had to, but then I remembered that this was what happened with Elise. I didn't want to hurt her, but I thought I had to. Aviance stole my free will. I wouldn't put that onto someone else. Never.

That pain was reserved for me only. I'd do whatever I could to keep that from Zoey.

"Give me the gun," I said.

"You said you were against violence!" she wept.

"I'm all for it if it's that or getting my head blown off!" As if Brant could hear me and wanted desperately to prove my point, he shot at us again, this time hitting the grass by our feet.

She stared at me for a moment, uncertain. I knew what she was thinking, that I wouldn't be able to handle another death. "Kristen—"

"Give me the gun," I repeated.

Zoey handed it over, and I glared at the weapon. I felt like scolding it, and though it would've been odd, maybe it would've worked. Be better. Do not miss. Do not suck.

I was blaming the gun for my own problems.

"Hey, Detective!" I heard Jason scream.

"Oh, God," I said, peeking out. He was throwing the cans at Brant, trying to force his attention away from the two of us… so we could get away.

"What is he doing?" Zoey asked.

I blinked in surprise at his willing sacrifice. "He's giving us a chance to run."

"I'm not leaving him."

"Me either."

Zoey breathed unsteadily. "So what do we do?"

I thought for a few seconds the same way I had the morning I woke up on my eighteenth birthday. Calculating. Detached. "Okay," I said slowly.

"I don't want to kill you, really," Brant announced. He was talking to Jason. "I just want Kristen."

"Said no one ever!" Jason retorted. "She's so not worth this, trust me."

I rolled my eyes at Jason's antics and deliberated leaving him. Nope. Not worth the guilt. "Okay, so this is what we'll do. I'll distract Brant while you throw the gun to Jason."

"How will you distract him?" she asked.

"Don't worry about it." I pulled her in for a hug—a quick one, though a necessary kind. "Be safe, kiddo."

"You too," she whispered.

We moved away from each other, me running out from the tree. "Hey, here I am!" I screamed at Brant.

He jerked around, completely forgetting Jason. "You're finally making things easy, huh?"

"Hell no!" I yelled, running for the gun I'd initially been using to shoot the cans. I took it in my hands and sprinted for my life as Brant opened fire. I managed to duck behind yet another tree before I could get shot, cradling the weapon in my hands.

My breathing was erratic, heart even more unsteady. Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God.

"Kristen!" Brant called furiously. He was close.

I closed my eyes momentarily, leaning against the tree. If these were to truly be my last moments, then I wanted the universe to know that I regretted nothing. For all the trouble it had caused, I was glad I'd come to America.

Thinking of my family and Jackson and all of the things I still had left to do, I opened my eyes and raised the gun just as Brant came around the corner. I squeezed the trigger, and Brant froze in fear.

Nothing happened.

"Safety," Brant said smugly.

I'd forgotten I'd put it on.

Bang.

I looked down at myself, feeling no pain whatsoever. Had I been shot? Was I already dead? There was blood all over me, so I had no idea where the entry wound could be.

Brant fell on top of me, then, and I screamed in surprise and fear. Was he going to attack me again? What was happening?

Jason stood (though that was a loose word to use; his left leg had no weight on it) a few paces behind where Brant had previously been standing, his gun still raised. He looked at me, and everything became clear: Jason had shot Brant. He killed him.

I pushed the dead body off, still too traumatized to move.

Zoey ran over. "Hey, are you okay?" She was suddenly next to me, shaking me. "Kristen, are you okay?"

"Yeah." I blinked. I couldn't believe this. Jason hated me. He hated me. Why did he save my life? He'd said, months ago, that he wouldn't cover for me anymore. Why didn't he just give me up? "Yeah… I'm fine."

"Good for you," Jason snapped, "because I'm not."

Zoey and I gazed over at him as he fell to the ground, holding his wound as it oozed blood. Immediately, Zoey hopped up and ran inside, calling over her shoulder, "I'll get an ambulance!"

I scooted over to Jason, taking off my jacket so I could rip a piece of my shirt off. It was a little tricky to accomplish, but I managed. When I had the cloth, I reached for Jason's leg, but he swatted my hands aside.

"What are you doing?" he hissed. "Did your mother drink when you were pregnant?"

"It's a tourniquet," I said. I ignored what he said about Mom since he didn't know that was such a sensitive subject—also he was bleeding. "To stop the bleeding."

"Oh." His face relaxed slightly. "Okay."

I wrapped the piece of shirt around the bullet wound, cringing as he yelled out in agony. "I'm sorry," I told him genuinely. I was just trying to help.

"Yeah, right," Jason grunted. "You're loving this."

"Shut up, no I'm not." I pulled back with a sigh, finished in my task. "Okay, I don't think it hit the femoral artery." The bullet had landed an inch or two above his knee.

"Oh, are you a doctor now?" he asked.

I set my jaw. "I'm just trying to help."

"Yeah, well—"

Zoey ran out, spring door slamming shut behind her. "Guys," she panted. "Guys, they're on their way."

"Okay, good." But they'd have questions. "What do we say about…" My eyes drifted to Brant.

"I don't know." Jason moaned suddenly, laying down with his back to the grass. He squeezed his eyes shut, nostrils flaring. "God, it hurts. It hurts!"

"I'll go get water," Zoey said, racing back inside.

Jason groaned again, fingers twitching into claws that dug and scratched at the dirt. Perhaps the pain in his hands would replace the agony in his thigh.

"They'll be here soon," I told him comfortingly. I had the strangest motherly urge to rub his shoulders. "Just hang in there."

"Why are you being nice to me?" Jason asked.

"You saved my life."

"I was just saving myself," he said quickly. He opened one eye for a second to stare at me. "He was going to hurt us next."

"Well, whatever the reason… thanks," I muttered. "You didn't have to. We both know that."

He nodded and maybe said something in return, but it was too muffled to pick up. Perhaps it was you're welcome.