Unwind / Page 29

Page 29



"You'll do fine. You're a natural," the senior medic, who is all of seventeen, tells her. He's right. Once she gets used to the idea, handling first aid, standard illnesses, and even suturing simple wounds becomes as familiar to her as playing the piano. The days begin to pass quickly, and before she realizes it, she's been there a month. Each day that goes by adds to her sense of security. The Admiral was an odd bird, but he'd done something no one else had been able to do for her since she'd left StaHo. He'd given her back her right to exist.

34 Connor

Like Risa, Connor finds his niche by accident. Connor never considered himself mechanically capable, but there are few things he can stand less than a bunch of morons standing around looking at something that doesn't work and wondering who's going to fix it. During that first week, while Risa's off learning how to be an exceptionally good fake doctor, Connor decides to figure out the workings of a fried air-conditioning unit, then find replacement parts from one of the junk piles and get it working again.

He soon comes to realize it's the same way with every other broken thing he comes across. Sure, it began with trial and error, but the errors become fewer and fewer as the days go by. There are plenty of other kids who claim to be mechanics, and are really good at explaining why things won't work. Connor, on the other hand, actually fixes them.

It quickly gets him reassigned from trash duty to the repair crew, and since there are endless things to repair, it keeps his mind off of other things . . . such as how little he gets to see Risa in the Admiral's tightly structured world . . . and how quickly Roland is advancing through the social ranks of the place.

Roland has managed to get himself one of the best assignments in the Graveyard. By working the angles and applying plenty of flattery, he's been taken on as the pilot's assistant. Mostly, he just keeps the helicopter cleaned and fueled, but the assignment reeks of an apprenticeship.

"He's teaching me how to fly it," he overhears Roland tell a bunch of other kids one day. Connor shudders to think of Roland behind the controls of a helicopter, but many kids are impressed by Roland. His age gives him seniority, and his manipulations gain him either fear or respect from a surprising number of others. Roland draws his negative energy from the kids around him, and there are a lot of kids here for him to draw from.

Social manipulation is not one of Connor's strengths. Even among his own team, he's a bit of a mystery. Kids know not to tread on him, because he has a low tolerance for irritation and idiocy. But there's no one they'd rather have on their side than Connor.

"People like you because you've got integrity," Hayden tells him. "Even when you're being an ass."

Connor has to laugh at that. Him? Integrity? There have been plenty of people in Connor's life who would think differently. But on the other hand, he's changing. He's been getting into fewer fights. Maybe it's because there's more room to breathe here than in the warehouse. Or maybe he's been working out his brain enough for it to successfully muscle his impulses into line. A lot of that has to do with Risa, because every time he forces himself to think before acting, it's her voice in his head telling him to slow down. He wants to tell her, but she's always so busy in the medical jet—and you don't just go to somebody and say, "I'm a better person because you're in my head."

She's also still in Roland's head, and that worries Connor. At first Risa had been a tool to provoke Connor into a fight, but now Roland sees her as a prize. Now, instead of using brute strength against her he tries to charm her at every turn.

"You're not actually falling for him, are you?" he asks her one day, on one of the rare occasions he can get her alone.

"I'll pretend you didn't just ask that," she tells him in disgust. Rut Connor has reasons to wonder.

"On that first night here, he offered you his blanket, and you accepted it," he points out.

"Only because I knew it would make him cold."

"And when he offers you his food, you take it."

"Because it means he goes hungry."

It's coolly logical. Connor finds it amazing that she can put her emotions aside and be as calculating as Roland, beating him at his own game. Another reason for Connor to admire her.

* * *

"Work call!"

It happens about once a week beneath the meeting canopy—the only structure in the entire graveyard that isn't part of a plane, and the only place large enough to gather all 423 kids. Work call. A chance to get out into the real world. A chance to have a life. Sort of.

The Admiral never attends, but there are video feeds from the meeting canopy, just as there are feeds all over the yard, so everyone knows he's watching. Whether or not every camera is constantly monitored, no one knows, but the potential for being seen is always there. Connor did not care for the Admiral the first day he met him. The sight of all those video cameras shortly thereafter made Connor like him even less. It seems each day there's something to add to his general feeling of disgust with the man.

Amp leads the work call meeting with his megaphone and clipboard. "A man in Oregon needs a team of five to clear cut a few acres of forest," Amp announces. "You'll be given room and board, and taught to use the tools of the trade. The job should take a few months, and at the end you'll get new identities. Eighteen-year-old identities."

Amp doesn't let them know the salary, because there is none. The Admiral gets paid, though. He gets paid a purchase price.

"Any takers?"

There are always takers. Sure enough, more than a dozen hands go up. Sixteen-year-olds, mostly. Seventeens are too close to eighteen to make it worth their while, and younger kids are too intimidated by the prospect.

"Report to the Admiral after this meeting. He'll make the final decision as to who goes."

Work call infuriates Connor. He never puts his hand up, even if it's something he might actually want to do. "The Admiral's using us," he says to the kids around him. "Don't you see that?"

Most of the kids just shrug, but Hayden's there, and he never misses an opportunity to add his peculiar wisdom to a situation. "I'd rather be used whole than in pieces," Hayden says.

Amp looks at his clipboard and holds up the megaphone again. "Housecleaning services," he says. "Three are needed, female preferred. No false IDs, but the location is secure and remote—which means you'll be safe from the Juvey-cops until you turn eighteen."

Connor won't even look. "Please tell me no one raised their hand."

"About six girls—all seventeen years old, it looks like," says Hayden. "I guess no one wants to be a house-girl for more than a year."

"This place isn't a refuge, it's a slave market. Why doesn't anyone see that?"

"Who says they don't sec it? It's just that unwinding makes slavery look good. It's always the lesser of two evils."

"I don't see why there have to be any evils at all."

As the meeting breaks up, Connor feels a hand on his shoulder. He thinks it must be a friend, but it's not. It's Roland. It's such a surprise, it takes Connor a moment before he reacts. He shakes Roland's hand off. "Something you want?"

"Just to talk."

"Don't you have a helicopter to wash?"

Roland smiles at that. "Less washing, more flying. Cleaver made me his unofficial copilot."

"Cleaver must have a death wish." Connor doesn't know who he's more disgusted with: Roland, or the pilot for being suckered in by him.

Roland looks around at the thinning crowd. "The Admiral's got some racket going here, doesn't he?" he says. "Most of the losers here don't care. But it bothers you, doesn't it?"

"Your point?"

"Just that you're not the only one who thinks the Admiral needs some . . . retraining."

Connor doesn't like where this is going. "What I think of the Admiral is my business."

"Of course it is. Have you seen his teeth, by the way?"

"What about them?"

"Pretty obvious that they're not his. I hear he keeps a picture of the kid he got them from in his office. An Unwind like us, who, thanks to him, never made it to eighteen. Makes you wonder how much more of him comes from us. Makes you wonder if there's anything left of the original Admiral at all."

This is too much information to process here and now— and considering the source, Connor doesn't want to process it at all. But he knows he will.

"Roland, let me make this as clear to you as I can. I don't trust you. I don't like you. I don't want to have anything to do with you."

"I can't stand you, either," Roland says, then he points to the Admiral's jet. "But right now, we've got the same enemy."

Roland strolls off before anyone else can take notice of their conversation, leaving Connor with a heaviness in his stomach. The very idea that he and Roland could in any way be on the same side makes him feel like he swallowed something rancid.

* * *

For a week the seed that Roland planted in Connor's brain grows. It's fertile ground, because Connor already distrusted the Admiral. Now, every time he sees the man, Connor notices something. His teeth are perfect. They're not the teeth of an aging war veteran. The way he looks at people—looking into their eyes—it's as if he were sizing those eyes up, looking for a pair that might suit him. And those kids that disappear on work calls—since they never come back, who's to know where they really go? Who's to say they don't all get sent off to be unwound? The Admiral says his goal is to save Unwinds, but what if he's got an entirely different agenda? These thoughts keep Connor awake at night, but he won't share them with anyone, because once he does, it aligns him with Roland. And that's an alliance he never wants to make.

* * *

During their fourth week in the Graveyard, while Connor is still building his case against the Admiral in his own mind, a plane arrives. It's the first one since the old FedEx jet that brought them here, and like that jet, this one is packed full of live cargo. While the five Goldens march the new arrivals from their jet, Connor works on a faulty generator. He watches them with mild interest as they pass, wondering if any of them would be more mechanically skilled than him and bump him into a less enviable position.

Then, toward the back of the line of kids is a face he thinks he recognizes. Someone from home? No. Someone else. All at once it comes to him who this is. It's the boy he was sure had been unwound weeks ago. It's the kid he kidnapped for his own good. It's Lev!

Connor drops his wrench and runs toward him, but gains control before he gets there, burying his mixed flood of feelings beneath a calm saunter. This is the kid who betrayed him. This is the kid he once swore he'd never forgive. And yet the thought of him unwound had been too much to bear. But Lev hasn't been unwound—he's right here, marching off to the supply jet. Connor is thrilled. Connor is furious.

Lev doesn't see him yet—and that's fine, because it gives Connor some time to take in what he sees. This is no longer the clean-cut tithe he pulled out of his parents' car more than two months before. This kid has long, unkempt hair and a hardened look about him. This kid isn't in tithing whites but wears torn jeans and a dirty red T-shirt. Connor wants to let him pass, just so he can have time to process this new image, but Lev sees him, and gives him a grin right away. This is also different—because during that brief time they knew each other, Lev had never been pleased by Connor's presence.


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