Unwind / Page 30

Page 30



Lev steps toward him.

"Stay in line!" orders Amp. "The supply jet's this way."

But Connor waves Amp off. "It's okay—I know7 this one."

Amp reluctantly gives in. "Make sure he gets to the supply jet." Then he returns to herding the others.

"So, how are things?" says Lev. Just like that. How are things. You'd think they were buds back from summer vacation.

Connor knows what he has to do. It's the only thing that will ever make things right between him and Lev. Once again, it's instinctive action without time for thought. Instinctive, not irrational. Impassioned, but not impulsive. Connor has come to know the difference.

He hauls off and punches Lev in the eye. Not hard enough to knock him down, but hard enough to snap his head halfway around and give him a nasty shiner. Before Lev can react, Connor says, "That's for what you did to us." Then, before Lev can respond, he does something else sudden and unexpected. He pulls Lev toward him and hugs him tightly—the way he hugged his own little brother last year when he took first place in the district pentathlon. "I'm really, really glad you're alive, Lev."

"Yeah. Me, too."

He lets Lev go before it starts feeling awkward, and when he does, he can see Lev's eye is already beginning to swell. And an idea occurs to him. "C'mon—I'll take you over to the medical jet. I know someone who'll take care of that eye."

* * *

It isn't until later that night that Connor gets an inkling of how much Lev has truly changed. Connor is shaken awake sometime during the night. He opens his eyes to a flashlight shining in his face, so close the light hurts.

"Hey! What is this?"

"Shhh," says a voice behind the flashlight. "It's Lev."

Lev should have been in the newcomers' jet—that's where all the kids go until they get sorted into their teams. There are strict orders that no one is to be out at night. Apparently Lev is no longer a boy bound by rules.

"What are you doing here?" Connor says. "Do you know the trouble you could be in?" He still can't see Lev's face behind that flashlight.

"You hit me this afternoon," says Lev.

"I hit you because I owed that to you."

"I know. I deserved it, and so it's okay," says Lev. "But don't you ever hit me again, or you'll regret it."

Although Connor has no intention of ever punching Lev-out again, he does not respond well to ultimatums.

"I'll hit you," says Connor, "if you deserve it."

Silence from behind the flashlight. Then Lev says, "Fair enough. But you better make sure that I do."

The light goes off. Lev leaves, but Connor can't sleep. Every Unwind has a story you don't want to know. He supposes that Lev now has his.

* * *

The Admiral calls for Connor two days later. Apparently he has something in need of repair. His residence is an old 747 that was used as Air Force One years before any of the kids here were born. The engines had been removed and the presidential seal painted over, but you could still see a shadow of the emblem beneath the paint.

Connor climbs the stairs with a bag of tools, hoping that whatever it is, he can get in and out quickly. Like everyone else, he has a morbid curiosity about the man, and he wonders what an old presidential jet looks like on the inside. But being under the Admiral's scrutiny scares the hell out of him.

He steps through the hatch to find a couple of kids tidying up. They're younger kids that Connor doesn't know; he thought the Goldens might be in here, but they're nowhere to be seen. As for the jet, it's not nearly as luxurious as Connor had expected. The leather seats have tears, the carpet is almost worn through. It looks more like an old motor home than Air Force One.

"Where's the Admiral?"

The Admiral steps out from the deeper recesses of the jet. Although Connor's eyes are still adjusting to the light, he can see the Admiral is holding a weapon. "Connor! I'm glad you could make it." Connor winces at the sight of the gun—and at the realization the Admiral knows him by name.

"What do you need that for?" Connor asks, pointing at the gun.

"Just cleaning it," says the Admiral. Connor wonders why he would still have a clip in a gun he was cleaning, but decides it's best not to ask. The Admiral puts the gun into a drawer and locks it. Then he sends the two kids off and seals the hatch behind them. This is exactly the kind of situation Connor feared most, and he can feel a rush of adrenaline begin to tingle in his fingers and toes. His awareness becomes heightened.

"You need me to fix something sir?"

"Yes, I do. My coffeemaker."

"Why don't you just take one from the other planes?"

"Because," says the Admiral calmly, "I prefer to have this one repaired."

He leads Connor through the jet, which seems even larger on the inside than out, filled with cabins, conference rooms, and studies.

"You know, your name comes up quite often," the Admiral says.

This is news to him, and not welcome news, either. "Why?"

"First, for the things you repair. Then for the fighting."

Connor senses a reprimand on the way. Yes, he's had fewer fights here than usual, but the Admiral is a man of zero tolerance. "Sorry about the fighting."

"Don't be. Oh, there's no question that you're a loose cannon, but more often than not you're aimed in the right direction."

"I don't know what you mean, sir."

"From what I can see, each fight you've engaged in has resolved one problem or another. Even the fights you lose. So, even then, you're fixing things." He offers Connor that white-toothed smile. Connor shudders. He tries to hide it, but he's sure the Admiral sees it.

They come to a small dining room and galley. "Here we are," says the Admiral. The old coffeemaker sits on a counter. It's a simple device. Connor's about to pull out a screwdriver to open up the back when he notices that it's not plugged in. When he plugs it in, the light comes on, and it starts to gurgle out coffee into the little glass pot.

"Well, how about that," says the Admiral, with another of his terrible grins.

"I'm not here for the coffeemaker, am I?"

"Have a seat," the Admiral says.

"I'd rather not."

"Have one anyway."

That's when Connor sees the picture. There are several photos up on the wall, but the one that captures Connor's attention is of a smiling kid about his age. The smile looks familiar. In fact, it looks exactly like the Admiral's smile. It's just like Roland had said!

Now Connor wants to bolt, but Risa's voice is in his head again, telling him to scan his options. Sure, he can run. Chances are, he can get to the hatch before the Admiral can stop him—but opening the hatch won't be easy. He could hit the Admiral with one of his tools. That might give him enough time to get away. But where would he go? Beyond the Graveyard there's just desert, desert, and more desert. In the end, he realizes his best choice is to do as the Admiral says. He sits down.

"You don't like me, do you?" asks the Admiral.

Connor won't meet his gaze. "You saved my life by bringing me here. . . ."

"You will not avoid answering this question. You don't like me, do you?"

Connor shudders once more, and this time doesn't even try to hide it. "No, sir, I don't."

"I want to know your reasons."

Connor lets out a single rueful chuckle as his answer.

"You think I'm a slave dealer," says the Admiral. "And that I'm using these Unwinds for my own profit?"

"If you know what I'm going to say, why ask me?"

"I want you to look at me."

But Connor doesn't want to see the man's eyes—or, more accurately, doesn't want the Admiral seeing his.

"I said look at me!"

Reluctantly, Connor lifts his eyes and fixes them on the Admiral's. "I'm looking."

"I believe you are a smart kid. Now I want you to think. Think! I am a decorated Admiral of the United States Navy. Do you think I need to be selling children to earn money?"

"I don't know."

"Think! Do I care about money and lavish things? I do not live in a mansion. I do not vacation on a tropical island. I spend my time in the stinking desert living in a rotting plane 365 days a year. Why do you think that is?"

"I don't know!"

"I think you do."

Connor stands up now. In spite of the Admiral's tone of voice, he feels less and less intimidated by him. Whether it's wise or whether it's foolhardy, Connor decides to give the Admiral what he's asking for. "You do it because of the power. You do it because it lets you keep hundreds of helpless kids in the palm of your hand. And you do it because you can pick and choose who gets unwound—and which parts you'll get."

The Admiral is caught off guard by this. Suddenly, he's on the defensive. "What did you say?"

"It's obvious! All the scars. And those teeth! They're not the ones you were born with, are they? So, what is it you want from me? Is it my eyes, or my ears? Or maybe it's my hands that can fix things so well. Is that why I'm here? Is it?"

The Admiral's voice is a predator)' growl. "You've gone too far."

"No, you've gone too far." The fury in the Admiral's eyes should terrify Connor, but his cannon has come loose, and it's beyond locking down. "We come to you in desperation! What you do to us is ... is .. . obscene!"

"So I'm a monster, then!"

"Yes!"

"And my teeth are the proof."

"Yes!"

"Then you can have them!"

Then the Admiral does something beyond imagining. He reaches into his mouth, grabs onto his own jaw, and rips the teeth out of his mouth. His eyes blazing at Connor, he hurls the hard pink clump in his hand down on the table, where it clatters in two horrible pieces.

Connor screams in shock. It's all there. Two rows of white teeth. Two sets of pink gums. But there's no blood. Why is there no blood? There's no blood in the Admiral's mouth, either. His face seems to have collapsed onto itself—his mouth is just a floppy, puckered hole. Connor doesn't know which is worse—the Admiral's face, or the bloodless teeth.

"They're called dentures," the Admiral says. "They used to be common in the days before unwinding. But who wants false teeth when, for half the price, you can get real ones straight from a healthy Unwind? I had to get these made in Thailand— no one does it here anymore."

"I ... I don't understand. . . ." Connor looks at the false teeth, and jerks his head almost involuntarily toward the picture of the smiling boy.

The Admiral follows his gaze. "That," says the Admiral, "was my son. His teeth looked very much like my own at that age, so they designed my dentures using his dental records."

It's a relief to hear an explanation other than the one Roland gave. "I'm sorry."

The Admiral neither accepts nor rejects Connor's apology. "The money I get tor placing Unwinds into service positions is used to feed the ones who remain, and to pay for the safe houses and warehouses that get runaway Unwinds off the street. It pays for the aircraft that get them here, and pays off anyone who needs bribery to look the other way. After that, the money that remains goes into the pockets of each Unwind on the day they turn eighteen and are sent out into this unforgiving world. So you see, I may still be, by your definition of the word, a slave dealer—but I am not quite the monster you think I am."


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