SOMEHOW, SNEAKING BACK into prison is always harder than sneaking out of it. The reasonable part of me knows it’s because everyone’s asleep when I sneak out at night, and that by the time I return in the early morning, the dreary gray building is already starting to wake. But the cynical part of me thinks it has more to do with how the guards would be only too happy to get rid of me and all too reluctant to take me back in. Past the distant glass cover of the dome that separates the city from the Outside, the sky is already a weak gray, steadily infecting the clouds with shades of orange-pink. It feels like the whole sector is watching as I pick my way through the trees surrounding the single walled-in block of a building that is the prison. Running a hand through my hair, I tangle the long brown strands into something resembling bedhead as I assess potential entrances. The barred windows are a no-go. I can usually sneak in through the warden’s office, but she’s probably at her desk by now. Which leaves the main entrance. I hold back a sigh. Why do I have to do something so troublesome this early in the morning without any sleep? I again ignore the reasonable part of me that says it’s my own fault. From the shadows of the trees, I scan the wall’s perimeter, but no one seems to be around. I can’t hear anyone’s thoughts, either, which is a good sign. I run to the wall and pause, back pressed against it, listening again for anyone’s thoughts. The secretary is at his desk.
On top of that, I’ll have to be careful to stay out of sight of the security cameras. I know where all of them are—it’s avoiding them that’ll be the tricky part. Especially the one right by the entrance. With the wall’s cameras’ blind spots in mind, I carefully scale the wall and drop down to the other side. No alarms sound. Beyond that, there’s no cover, so I sprint to the entrance. I have to be fast for the next part, before anyone comes in or out and sees me. I grip the small infrared laser in my pocket and concentrate on the secretary behind the front desk. His thoughts are scattered, trying to remember all the things he has to do today. Report yesterday’s prisoner checkups to the warden, arrange visiting time with Martin, call the District Committee to set up the monthly review meeting … This part is a gamble.
My gift allows me to hear others’ thoughts and pass along my own—usually when I want to communicate in secret—but when I put my thoughts in another person’s head, it’s obvious they’re not his or her own. However, the secretary is preoccupied, and he doesn’t know to suspect that anyone might try to break into his mind, so I’m betting I can disguise my message as one of his own thoughts. Don’t forget, need to deliver yesterday’s prisoner checkups to the warden before she gets in. I feel the sudden surge of panic in the man’s thoughts as he realizes the warden is already in for the day. I can’t see the secretary, but I can easily imagine him shuffling through the papers on his desk, searching for the documents he doesn’t actually need to deliver right now. His thoughts recede as he heads for the warden’s office, never once pausing to question the made-up deadline I put in his head. If he didn’t have so much to do, maybe he would’ve noticed it wasn’t his own thought. Honestly. Sometimes Etioles don’t even think to suspect things that are obviously strange. A Nyte never would’ve fallen for a trick like that so easily.
When the secretary is safely gone and I can’t hear anyone else nearby, I remove the infrared laser from my pocket. I need to be precise and fast before anyone comes. There’s a single security camera hanging over the front desk that’s pointed toward the entrance. After all this time, I know the position of it well. I crack the front door—hopefully slightly enough that no one watching the surveillance feed will notice—and carefully aim the laser at the camera lens. There’s no surefire way to know if I hit my mark. If my aim is even slightly off, they’ll be able to see my face. But from around the corner, I hear the thoughts of an approaching guard. I need to go. I open the door just wide enough to slip through, careful not to make a sound as I shut it behind me.
Keep the laser steady on its mark. Get out of here before the guard comes. Closer, closer. I’m almost there. The guard’s almost here. Hurry. In the same instant the guard is about to round the corner into the front hall, I leave the camera’s range. I shut off the laser and bolt into the next hall as quickly and noiselessly as I can. I don’t stop moving—careful to skirt the remaining cameras—until the guard’s thoughts are far behind me. Once I’m far enough away, I stop to catch my breath.
No more staying out past dawn again. This is way too much of a hassle. When my breathing is back to normal, I make for the hall that’ll lead to my floor. My worn shoes pad silently over white-and-black-patterned tiles, passing wards upon wards of other prisoners. Well, I say prisoners, but this place is hardly a top-security facility. Most of the people here have only committed light crimes. Their thoughts drift toward me, two dozen voices crowding in my head, and it takes more effort than usual to block them out. It’s always harder when I’m tired. I stick to the shadows and corners and focus all my attention on my surroundings, but I don’t see anyone else. Some security.
Then again, what normal person is going to break into prison? Then I turn a corner and run straight into one of the guards. We both stumble back. How did I not hear him coming? Did I accidentally block his thoughts out along with all the others? I scan the hall for an escape route, but there isn’t one. There’s nowhere to go, and even if there was, I’ve already been identified. “Cathwell,” the guard says, eyebrows slanting down over small, too-narrow eyes. I think his name is Jacobs. What’s the demon doing wandering around? His bald head shines like a light bulb in a hall already oversaturated with what can only be described as interrogation lights. He rubs his pudgy arm where we collided. The thoughts I had been working so hard to keep out of my head before rush in with my panic. They press against the insides of my skull, blocking out everything else, even my own thoughts, until I fight them down and reach for my usual calm.
When I’ve finally got everything back under control, I blink and find the guard is watching me with a mixture of expectancy and annoyance. “Sorry, did you say something?” “I said, what are you doing out of your room?” Exasperation coats his words, but this isn’t an unusual exchange. Everyone in the prison knows me as being perpetually distracted. They just don’t know why. “Oh. Walking.” “You’re not supposed to leave your room without an escort.” “You’re here now. Will you be my escort?” The more I speak, the more my initial dread lessens somewhat. I can do this.
I’ve been doing it for two and a half years. This is the same as any other day. If I can just get him to think I was so out of it that I wasn’t intentionally breaking the rules, everything will be fine. I am, after all, the resident eccentric. Jacobs shakes his head. His eyebrows are dangerously close to merging with his eyes. “Listen here, freak. The only reason we allow you any amount of freedom is because you’re an ex-soldier. If you want to keep that freedom, you’re going to have to follow our rules.” I tilt my head.
“Soldier rules? Salute. Fight.” “Not soldier rules. Prison rules.” “Yes.” He clicks his tongue. “Who’s your primary guard? I’ll need to tell him you went out after I’ve taken you back.” My mind scrambles. If my guard finds out I was gone, and then the warden, I’ll be put under watch. I might not be allowed to leave my room anymore, ex-soldier or not.
Sneaking out to the Order will be nearly impossible. No choice, then. I put a hand to my chin and squint, pretending to think. “Omar Khan?” He freezes. “What?” “My primary guard,” I say. “Was that his name?” I know perfectly well it’s not. That my primary guard is a withered old man named Hallows who seems more suited to be a physician than a guard. But after two and a half years of constantly overhearing everyone’s thoughts, I’m well aware that Khan is a good friend of this man, and, should push come to shove, he’ll protect his buddy. Someone who allowed a prisoner to wander out of her room and alone in the prison is sure to get in serious trouble. Especially when that prisoner is an exsoldier and a Nyte.
Jacobs searches my face with doubt and barely discernible distress. If I tell anyone she went out on her own, it’s just going to come back on Omar. Punishments for letting an assigned prisoner escape are harsh. “Are you certain that’s your primary guard?” he asks. “Maybe?” If I say it as a question, it’s not technically a lie. She’s never done anything like this before, has she? Isn’t her record clean? Maybe if I let her off the hook just this once … He glares at me and thinks and continues to glare at me and think. Finally, he says, “Look, you can’t be going out on your own. Since this is the first time and you’ve got a good track record, I’ll let it slide just this once and escort you back to your room. But if I ever catch you sneaking around again, you can say goodbye to all of your privileges.” I have to hold back a sigh of relief.
I lower my eyes and try to appear as remorseful as possible when I say, “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” We’re not far from my room, so the walk is short. And with a guard escorting me, I no longer have to worry about being seen. Only a little farther and I’ll be able to relax. It feels like a miracle when Jacobs drops me off at my room without further incident. He goes on his way, intending to reprimand Khan for letting his ward out, and I slip in a thought that no, it wasn’t really his fault, it was just an accident, it might be better not to mention it. I don’t know if he buys the thought like the secretary did, but it’d be better if he didn’t bring up my little escapade with anyone. Especially since I don’t want him finding out Khan isn’t really in charge of me. With the door firmly shut behind me and locked from the outside, I let the exhaustion I’d been holding back until now sweep over me.
Finally made it. Right. I’ll make some quick notes about the intelligence directives I need to send out, maybe review the supplies count from last night’s meeting, and then— Someone knocks on my door. The sound suffocates in the dead air. My heart jumps up my throat. Did Jacobs come back? Did he tell someone after all? Am I going to be put under watch? The door opens. It’s my actual primary guard, Hallows. He doesn’t look angry, but I’m too exhausted from the long night out and the break-in and dealing with Jacobs to be able to concentrate enough on his thoughts to know for sure. I’ll need to recharge before I can focus in on individual thoughts again. “Good morning, Miss Cathwell,” Hallows says.
“How are you feeling today?” I guess I should count myself lucky that the guard assigned to look after me actually respects that I was once a soldier. He doesn’t treat me like a prisoner, but rather like a patient. Not that it means I’m going to act any differently toward him. I stare at him blankly. A long pause later, he shakes his head. “Well, maybe you’ll feel better after meeting with your visitor.” My head snaps up. Who would come to see me? I haven’t had a visitor since I entered this prison two and a half years ago. Curious now, I let Hallows lead me back into the hallway. I wish I could focus enough to read his thoughts and find out who came—I’m not exactly fond of surprises.
The hallway is bathed in sunlight and patterned by the sun-dappled shadows from the trees surrounding the prison. Long black lines cast by the bars on the windows form a sharp contrast against the indistinct shades. The smell of mold wanders the corridors. We walk down a maze of identical hallways and staircases until we reach one of the rooms off the lobby. It’s a small, circular space with two couches facing each other across a coffee table. The wall paintings are obnoxiously bright colors, reds and oranges and yellows with shades of neon green. Sitting on one of the couches is a tan, square-faced man in his early forties. He stands, smiling, as we enter. His black hair has more streaks of gray in it than the last time I saw him, but he still has that same strict, straight-backed stance and upward tilt of his chin. “First Lieutenant Cathwell.
It’s been some time.” My heart thuds up my throat. I throw a salute while trying to rearrange whatever expression is on my face into something neutral. “General Austin.” “Why don’t you have a seat, Miss Cathwell?” my guard says. I sit down on the couch across from Austin and the general says, “Thank you for escorting her.” When the guard remains standing by the table, Austin adds, “I can take it from here.” “But, sir, I need to stay to monitor—” “That will not be necessary.” The general’s tone leaves no room for argument, and after a few tense seconds, the guard leaves. As soon as the door closes, I straighten my back and try to smooth the wrinkles out of my prison uniform.
I even try to fix my hair. Austin doesn’t bother trying to hide his amusement at the shift. His eyes soften. “It’s good to see you again, Lai. It really has been too long.” Despite the fact that I’m a Nyte and he’s an Etiole, despite all the trouble I’ve put him through these past many years, his expression is as kind as what I imagine a real father’s to be like. It takes more effort than I would’ve expected to hide how happy I am. “You’re telling me. What are you doing here? And where’s Noah?” “That’s it?” Austin asks. “No ‘Good to see you, how’ve you been?’ No saying how much you missed me?” I raise an eyebrow.
“And Noah isn’t always with me.” “Yeah, okay.” “Fine, fine. He left for Sector Two a few days ago on a mission from the High Council. He likely won’t be back for some time.” “Are you sure you’ll be able to manage without your second shadow around?” Austin cracks a small smile. “Well, the office is already looking a bit messier without him to keep things organized.” “A bit. Right.” Austin’s version of “a bit messier” is pretty much equivalent to a freak tornado running through someone’s office.
For his own sake, I hope his assistant returns from his mission soon. “So? If you’re here after all this time, something must have happened.” His smile remains, but something about his expression changes. It tempers my happiness at seeing him again. “Well, I hadn’t planned on cutting straight to business, but if that’s what you prefer.” His eyes hold mine. “I want you to come back.” Silence stretches between us. “Come back?” I repeat. He sighs and leans against the couch as his gaze drifts to the window.
“Last week, a group of civilians transporting supplies to another sector was attacked and killed by a group of rebels. It’s the first time they’ve killed nonmilitary personnel. The High Council has decided to act.” He waits for me to say something. When I don’t, he says, “If we don’t destroy the rebel Nytes’ organization soon, this may well turn into an open war. Before they get any stronger, we have to stop them.” His hands fold together. “As I recall, you’re quite the officer.” I shake my head. “You can’t be serious.
” “I assisted you in leaving the military over two years ago. Don’t you think it’s time you returned to help?” “If the military wasn’t so hell-bent on keeping Nytes in its service, I wouldn’t have needed your help in the first place,” I say. The only way for a Nyte to leave military service is by dishonorable discharge or death. The latter didn’t really fit in with my plans. “But yeah, thanks for helping convince everyone I committed a crime so I could be put in prison. I really appreciate it.” “Regardless of how or why it happened, the fact of the matter is that Sector Eight is in a precarious situation right now.” I level a solid look at him. “You know why I wanted to leave the military.” He is, as ever, unfazed.
“I do. I am aware that the military doesn’t treat the gifted as it should. But I also know we both wish to see an end to the rebels who want to kill all ungifted. Wouldn’t it be worth putting aside our differences for this? Besides, you must be going crazy being stuck in here, so far removed from everything.” I resist the urge to bite my lip. Austin isn’t aware of the fact that I sneak out of this prison all the time, nor does he know about the existence of the Order. I’m not exactly stuck here. But it’s true that being on the inside of the military, the very heart of information on the rebels and the sector in general, would be incredibly beneficial. It’d be a big help to the Order in particular. Especially with my gift.
“Why ask me to come back now?” I say to buy time. “The rebels have been around and threatening to kill all the ungifted for over two years.” Now that I’ve had some time to recharge, I could read his mind to find out, but Austin is one of only two people whom I swore never to use my gift on. Albeit, at the time, I swore to him and Noah more out of necessity than out of any respect of privacy. It was one of the conditions for Austin adopting me off the streets. He hesitates, which makes me worried. “It was the High Council’s wish to both create an elite team to deal with the rebels and to make Nytes more accepted within the military by allowing them the chance to prove how capable they are. Therefore, they have decided to make a team consisting entirely of Nytes. If you choose to return, you will join this team.” I can tell from his tone that he thinks about as highly of that plan as I do.
Nytes have the ability to attain high military ranking through an initial entrance test, so long as they’re at least thirteen years old and willing to admit what they are. Most Nytes prefer to lie low in normal society if they can, but the military is a good route for those of us who have nowhere else to go. And the higher your rank, the better the benefits. But a side effect is being hated by the ungifted within the military. Well, more than usual. The fact that Nytes are physically stronger than Etioles, faster to heal, gifted with unique powers, and able to survive Outside the domed sectors without safety equipment doesn’t help. A team of only Nytes? That will separate us further. “That idea sounds about as great as being dropped in a pit with a pack of starving Ferals,” I say. Austin sighs. “The rebels don’t want compromise.
They’re Nytes whose only goal is to completely wipe out the ungifted, and so we must fight back with the intention of destroying them. You know as well as I do that the Council needs more firepower in order to do that. Only Nytes can face Nytes head-on and expect to win.” “I’m surprised the Council didn’t think of this brilliant idea sooner.” He taps a single finger against the table, which for him is the same as rolling his eyes. “They’ve only had twenty years of Nytes being around, Lai.” “More likely people are afraid of what would happen if we banded together.” I try to say it lightly, but I falter over the truth of it. Austin keeps his mild smile, succeeding where I failed. He’s waiting.
I need more time. “If I were to come back,” I say slowly, “I wouldn’t want to be constantly responsible for a bunch of stuff like before. I want some time to myself.” Austin shrugs. “You’ll only be responsible for the gifted team and normal duty shifts. As long as it doesn’t get in the way of your work, you’re free to do what you please.” Austin’s always been like that. So long as you’re capable, he’ll let you do pretty much whatever else you care to. He clasps his hands around his knee. “Then your answer?”