Unwind / Page 32

Page 32



"Very few people know what I'm about to tell you," says the Admiral.

"So why tell me?"

"Because it serves my purposes for you to know."

It's an honest answer, but one that still keeps his motives hidden. Connor imagines he must have been very good in a war.

"When I was much younger," begins the Admiral, "I fought in the Heartland War. The scars you so impertinently assumed were transplant scars came from a grenade."

"Which side were you on?"

The Admiral gives Connor that scrutinizing look he's so good at. "How much do you know about the Heartland War?"

Connor shrugs. "It was the last chapter in our history textbook, but we had state testing, so we never got to it."

The Admiral waves his hand in disgust. "Textbooks sugar-coat it anyway. No one wants to remember how it really was. You asked which side I was on. The truth is, there were three sides in the war, not two. There was the Life Army, the Choice Brigade, and the remains of the American military, whose job it was to keep the other two sides from killing each other. That's the side I was on. Unfortunately, we weren't very successful. You see, a conflict always begins with an issue—a difference of opinion, an argument. But by the time it turns into a war, the issue doesn't matter anymore, because now it's about one thing and one thing only: how much each side hates the other."

The Admiral pours a little more whiskey into his mug before he continues. "There were dark days leading up to the war. Everything that we think defines right and wrong was being turned upside down. On one side, people were murdering abortion doctors to protect the right to life, while on the other side people were getting pregnant just to sell their fetal tissue. And everyone was selecting their leaders not by their ability to lead, but by where they stood on this single issue. It was beyond madness! Then the military fractured, both sides got hold of weapons of war, and two opinions became two armies determined to destroy each other. And then came the Bill of Life."

The mention of it sends ice water down Connor's spine. It never used to bother him, but things change once you become an Unwind.

"I was right there in the room when they came up with the idea that a pregnancy could be terminated retroactively once a child reaches the age of reason," says the Admiral. "At first it was a joke—no one intended it to be taken seriously. But that same year the Nobel Prize went to a scientist who perfectedneurografting—the technique that allows every part of a donor to be used in transplant."

The Admiral takes a deep gulp of his coffee. Connor hasn't had a bit of his second cup. The thought of swallowing anything right now is out of the question. It’s all he can do to keep the first cup down.

"With the war getting worse," says the Admiral, "we brokered a peace by bringing both sides to the table. Then we proposed the idea of unwinding, which would terminate unwanteds without actually ending their lives. We thought it would shock both sides into seeing reason—that they would stare at each other across the table and someone would blink. But nobody blinked. The choice to terminate without ending life—it satisfied the needs of both sides. The Bill of Life was signed, the Unwind Accord went into effect, and the war was over. Everyone was so happy to end the war, no one cared about the consequences."

The Admiral's thoughts go far away for a moment, then he waves his hand. "I'm sure you know the rest."

Connor might not know all the particulars, but he knows the gist. "People wanted parts."

"Demanded is more like it. A cancerous colon could be replaced with a healthy new one. An accident victim who would have died from internal injuries could get fresh organs. A wrinkled arthritic hand could be replaced by one fifty years younger. And all those new parts had to come from somewhere." The Admiral paused for a moment to consider it. "Of course, if more people had been organ donors, unwinding never would have happened . . . but people like to keep what's theirs, even after they're dead. It didn't take long for ethics to be crushed by greed. Unwinding became big business, and people let it happen."

The Admiral glances over at the picture of his son. Even without the Admiral telling him, Connor realizes why—but he allows the Admiral the dignity of his confession.

"My son, Harlan, was a great kid. Smart. But he was troubled—you know the type."

"I am the type," says Connor, offering a slight grin.

The Admiral nods. "It was just about ten years ago. He got in with the wrong group of friends, got caught stealing. Hell, I was the same at his age—that's why my parents first sent me to military school, to straighten me out. Only, for Harlan there was a different option. A more . . . efficient option."

"You had him unwound."

"As one of the fathers of the Unwind Accord, I was expected to set an example." He presses his thumb and forefinger against his eyes, stemming off tears before they can flow. "We signed the order, then changed our minds. But it was already too late. They had taken Harlan right out of school to the harvest camp, and rushed him through. It had already been done."

It had never occurred to Connor to consider the toll unwinding had on the ones who signed the order. He never thought he could have sympathy for a parent who could do that—or sympathy for one of the men who had made unwinding possible.

"I'm sorry," Connor says, and means it.

The Admiral stiffens up—sobers up—almost instantly. "You shouldn't be. It's only because of his unwinding that you're all here. Afterward, my wife left me and formed a foundation in Harlan's memory. I left the military, spent several years more drunk than I am now, and then, three years ago, I had The Big Idea. This place, these kids, arc the result of it. To date I've saved more than a thousand kids from unwinding."

Connor now understands why the Admiral was telling him these things. It was more than just a confession. It was a way of securing Connor's loyalty—and it worked. The Admiral was a darkly obsessed man, but his obsession saved lives. Hayden once said that Connor had integrity. That same integrity locks him firmly on the Admiral's side, and so Connor holds up his mug. "To Harlan!" he says.

"To Harlan!" echoes the Admiral, and together they drink to his name. "Bit by bit I am making things right, Connor," the Admiral says. "Bit by bit, and in more ways than one."

35 Lev

Where Lev was between the time he left CyFi and his arrival at the Graveyard is less important than where his thoughts resided. They resided in places colder and darker than the many places he hid.

He had survived the month through a string of unpleasant compromises and crimes of convenience—whatever was necessary to keep himself alive. Lev quickly became street-smart, and survival-wise. They say it takes complete immersion in a culture to learn its language and its ways. It didn't take him very long to learn the language of the lost.

Once he landed in the safe-house network, he quickly made it known that he was not a guy to be trifled with. He didn't tell people he was a tithe. Instead, he told them his parents signed the order to have him unwound after he was arrested for armed robbery. It was funny to him, because he had never even touched a gun. It amazed him that the other kids couldn't read the lie in his face—he had always been such a bad liar. But then, when he looked in the mirror, what he saw in his own eyes scared him.

By the time he reached the Graveyard, most kids knew enough to stay away from him. Which is exactly what he wanted.

The same night that the Admiral and Connor have their secret conference, Lev heads out into the oil-slick dark of the moonless night, keeping his flashlight off. His first night there he had successfully slipped out to find Connor, in order to set him straight about a few things. Since then, the bruise from Connor's punch has faded, and they haven't spoken of it again. He hasn't spoken much to Connor at all, because Lev has other things on his mind.

Each night since then he's tried to sneak away, but every time, he's been caught and sent back. Now that the Admiral's five watchdogs have left, though, the kids on sentry duty are getting lax. As Lev sneaks between the jets, he finds that a few of them are even asleep on the job. Stupid of the Admiral to send those other kids away without having anyone to replace them.

Once he's far enough away he turns on his flashlight and tries to find his destination. It's a destination told to him by a girl he had encountered a few weeks before. She was very much like him. He suspects he'll meet others tonight who are very much like him as well.

Aisle thirty, space twelve. It's about as far from the Admiral as you can get and still be in the Graveyard. The space is occupied by an ancient DC-10, crumbling to pieces in its final resting place. When Lev swings open the hatch and climbs in, he finds two kids inside, both of whom bolt upright at the sight of him and take defensive postures.

"My name's Lev," he says. "I was told to come here."

He doesn't know these kids, but that's no surprise—he hasn't been in the Graveyard long enough to know that many kids here. One is an Asian girl with pink hair. The other kid has a shaved head and is covered in tattoos.

"And who told you to come here?" asks the flesh-head.

"This girl I met in Colorado. Her name's Julie-Ann."

Then a third figure comes out from the shadows. It's not a kid hut an adult—midtwenties, maybe. He's smiling. The guy has greasy red hair, a straggly goatee to match, and a boney face with sunken cheeks. It's Cleaver, the helicopter pilot.

"So Julie-Ann sent you!" he says. "Cool! How is she?"

Lev takes a moment to think about his answer. "She did her job," Lev tells him.

Cleaver nods. "Well, it is what it is."

The other two kids introduce themselves. The flesh-head is Blaine, the girl is Mai.

"What about that boeuf who flies the helicopter with you?" Lev asks Cleaver. "Is he part of this too?"

Mai gives a disgusted laugh. "Roland? Not on your life!"

"Roland isn't exactly . . . the material for our little group," Cleaver says. "So, did you come here to give us the good news about Julie-Ann, or are you here for another reason?"

"I'm here because I want to be here."

"You say it," says Cleaver, "but we still don't know you're for real."

"Tell us about yourself," says Mai.

Lev prepares to give them the armed-robbery version, but before he opens his mouth, he changes his mind. The moment calls for honesty. This must begin with the truth. So he tells them everything, from the moment he was kidnapped by Connor to his time with CyFi and the weeks after that. When he's done, Cleaver seems very, very pleased.

"So, you're a tithe! That's great. You don't even know how great that is!"

"What now?" asks Lev. "Am I in, or not?"

The others become quiet. Serious. He feels some sort of ritual is about to begin.

"Tell me, Lev," says Cleaver. "How much do you hate the people who were going to unwind you?"

"A lot."

"Sorry, that's not good enough."

Lev closes his eyes, digs down, and thinks about his parents. He thinks about what they planned to do to him, and how they made him actually want it.


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