Unwind / Page 33

Page 33

"How much do you hate them?" Cleaver asks again.

"Totally and completely," answers Lev.

"And how much do you hate the people who would take parts of you and make them parts of themselves?"

"Totally and completely."

"And how much do you want to make them, and everyone else in the world, pay?"

"Totally and completely." Someone has to pay for the unfairness of it all. Everyone has to pay. He'll make them.

"Good," says Cleaver.

Lev is amazed by the depth of his own fury—but he's becoming less and less frightened of it. He tells himself that's a good thing.

"Maybe he's for real," says Blaine.

If Lev makes this commitment, he knows there's no turning back. "One thing I need to know," Lev asks, "because Julie-Ann . . . she wasn't very clear about it. I want to know what you believe."

"What we believe?" says Mai. She looks at Blaine, and Blaine laughs. Cleaver, however, puts his hand up to quiet him. "No—no, it's a good question. A real question. It deserves a real answer. If you're asking if we have a cause, we don't, so get that out of your head." Cleaver gestures broadly, his hands and arms filling the space around him. "Causes are old news. We believe in randomness. Earthquakes! Tornados! We believe in forces of nature—and we are forces of nature. We are havoc. We're chaos. We mess with the world."

"And we messed pretty good with the Admiral, didn't we," says Blaine slyly. Cleaver throws him a sharp gaze, and Mai actually looks scared. It's almost enough to give Lev second thoughts.

"How did you mess with the Admiral?"

"It's done," says Mai, her body language both anxious and angry. "We messed, and now it's done. We don't talk about things that are done. Right?"

Cleaver gives her a nod, and she seems to relax a bit. "The point is," says Cleaver, "it doesn't matter who or what we mess with, just as long as we mess. The way we see it, the world doesn't move if things don't get shaken up—am I right?"

“I guess.”

"Well, then, we are the movers and shakers." Cleaver smiles and points a finger at Lev. "The question is, are you one too? Do you have what it takes to be one of us?"

Lev takes a long look at these three. These are the kinds of people his parents would hate. He could join them just out of spite, but that's not enough—not this time. There must be more. Yet, as he stands there, Lev realizes that there is more. It's invisible, but it's there, like the deadly charge lurking in a downed power line. Anger, but not just anger: a will to act on it as well.

"All right, I'm in." Back at home Lev always felt part of something larger than himself. Until now, he hadn't realized how much he missed that feeling.

"Welcome to the family," says Cleaver, and gives him a slap on the back so painful, he sees stars.

36 Risa

Risa is the first to notice something's wrong with Connor. Risa is the first to care that something's wrong with Lev.

In a moment of selfishness, she finds herself aggravated by it, because things are going so well for her now. She finally has a place to be. She wishes this could remain her sanctuary beyond her eighteenth birthday, because in the outside world she'd never be able to do the things she's doing now. It would be practicing medicine without a license—fine when you're in survival mode, but not in the civilized world. Perhaps, after she turned eighteen, she could go to college, and medical school— but that takes money, connections, and she'd have to face even more competition than in her music classes. She wonders if maybe she could join the military and become an Army medic. You don't have to be a boeuf to be in a medical unit. Whatever her choice ends up being, the important thing is that there could be a choice. For the first time in a long time she can see a future for herself. With all these good thoughts in her life, the last thing she wants is something that will shoot it all down.

This is what fills Risa's mind as she makes her way to one of the study jets. The Admiral has three of his most accessible and well-appointed jets set aside as study spaces, complete with libraries, computers, and the resources to learn anything you want to learn. "This is not a school," the Admiral told them shortly after they arrived. "There are no teachers, there are no exams." Oddly, it's precisely that lack of expectation that keeps the study jets full most of the time.

Risa's duties start shortly after dawn, and it has become her habit to begin her day at one of the study jets, since at that time of the morning she's usually the only one there. She likes it that way, because the things she wants to learn make other kids uncomfortable. It's not the subject matter that bothers them, it's the fact that Risa's the one studying it. Anatomy and medical texts, mostly. Kids assume that just because she works in the medical jet, she knows all there is to know. It disturbs them to see her actually having to learn it.

When she arrives today, however, she discovers Connor already there. She stops at the hatch, surprised. He's so absorbed in whatever he's reading that he doesn't hear her come in. She takes a moment to look at him. She's never seen him so tired—not even when they were on the run. Still, she's thrilled to see him. They have both been so busy, there hasn't been much time to spend together.

"Hi, Connor."

Startled, he looks up quickly and slams his book closed. When he realizes who it is, he relaxes. "Hi, Risa." By the time she sits down beside him, he's smiling, and doesn't seem quite so tired. She's glad she can have that kind of effect on him.

"You're up early."

"No, I'm up late," he says. "I couldn't sleep, so I came here. He glances out one of the little round windows. "Is it morning already?"

"Just about. What are you reading?"

He tries to push it out of view, but it's too late for that. He has two books out. The bottom volume is a book on engineering. That's no surprise, considering the interest he's taken in the way things work. It's the book on top—the one his nose was in when she arrived—that catches her by surprise, almost making her laugh.

"Criminology for Morons?"

"Yeah, well, everyone needs a hobby."

She tries to take a long look into him, but he looks away. "There's something wrong, isn't there?" she asks. "I don't need to read Connor for Morons to know that you're in some kind of trouble."

He looks everywhere but into her eyes. "It isn't trouble. At least not for me. Or maybe it is in some ways, I don't know."

"Want to talk about it?"

"That," says Connor, "is the last thing I want to do." He takes a deep breath and shifts in his chair. "Don't worry, everything will be fine."

"You don't sound too sure."

He looks at Risa, then looks at the hatch, making sure they're still alone. Then he leans in close to her and says, "Now that the Goldens are ... no longer around, the Admiral's going to be looking for replacements. I want you to promise me that if he asks you to help him, you'll turn him down."

"The Admiral doesn't even know I exist. Why would he ask me for anything?"

"Because he asked me," Connor says in an intense whisper. "And I think he's asked Emby, too."


"All I'm saying is that I don't want you to be a target!"

"A target for what? For whom?"

"Shhh! Keep your voice down!"

She looks again at that book he was reading, trying to piece it all together, but there just aren't enough pieces. She gets close to him, forcing him to look at her. "I want to help you," she says. "I'm worried about you. Please let me help you."

He darts his eyes back and forth, trying to find an escape from her gaze, but he can't. Suddenly, he bridges the small distance between them and kisses her. She did not expect it, and when he breaks off the kiss she realizes from the look on his face that he hadn't expected it either.

"What was that for?"

It takes a moment for him to get his brain functioning again. "That," he says, "is in case something happens and I don't see you again."

"Fine," she says, and she pulls him into another kiss—this one longer than the first. When she breaks it off, she says, "That's in case I do see you again."

He leaves, awkwardly stumbling out and nearly falling down the steel steps to the ground. In spite of all that just went on between them, Risa has to smile. It's amazing that something as simple as a kiss can overpower the worst of worries.

* * *

Lev's troubles appear to be of a different nature, and Risa finds herself frightened by him. He comes to infirmary call that morning with a bad sunburn. Since he's a fast runner, he's been assigned messenger duty. Mostly, it involves running back and forth between the jets carrying notes. It's one of the Admiral's rules that all messengers wear sunscreen, but it seems Lev is no longer bound by anyone's rules.

They make small talk for a bit, but it's awkward, so she quickly gets down to business. "Well, now that your hair is longer, at least your forehead and neck seem to have been spared. Take off your shirt."

"I kept my shirt on most of the time," he says.

"Let's have a look anyway."

Reluctantly, he removes his shirt. He's burned there as well, but not as badly as on his arms and cheeks. What catches her attention, however, is a welt on his back in the faint shape of a hand. She brushes her fingers across it.

"Who did this to you?" she asks.

"Nobody," he says, grabbing the shirt back from her and slipping it on. "Just some guy."

"Is someone on your team giving you trouble?"

"I told you, it's nothing—what are you, my mother?"

"No," says Risa. "If I were your mother, I'd be rushing you off to the nearest harvest camp."

She means it as a joke, but Lev doesn't find it funny, "Just give me something to put on the burns."

There's a deadness to his voice that's haunting. She goes to the cabinet and finds a tube of aloe cream, but she doesn't hand it to him just yet. "I miss the old Lev," she says.

That makes him look at her. "No offense, but you didn't even know me."

"Maybe not, but at least back then I wanted to."

"And you don't want to anymore?"

"I don't know," says Risa. "The kid I'm looking at now is a little too creepy for my taste." She can tell that gets to him. She doesn't know why it should, because he seems proud of his new creep factor.

"The old Lev," he says, "tricked you into trusting him, then turned you in to the police the first chance he got."

"And the new Lev wouldn't do that?"

He thinks about it, then says, "The new Lev has better things to do."

She puts the tube of burn cream in his hand. "Yeah, well, if you see the old one—the one who always thought about God and his purpose and stuff—tell him we want him back."

There's an uneasy silence and he looks down at the tube in his hand. For a moment she thinks he might say something that brings a hint of that other kid back into the room, but all he says is, "How often do I put this on?"

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