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But her body—will be hers.
She turns her back to me and unbuttons her uniform, waiting. For a moment I hesitate, my fingers hovering. Then I take a deep breath and pull her collar down. I’m careful not to brush her skin.
The mark isn’t there.
And then without thinking I do touch her. I put my hand on her with my palm flat against the bone at the base of her neck and my fingers curving up into her hair. Like I can hide this from her.
Then I draw in my breath and pull my hand back. Stupid. Just because I’m fully immune doesn’t mean I can’t still carry some form of the mutated Plague. “I’m sorry—” I begin.
“I know,” she says. She reaches over and takes my hand down without looking at me, and for a brief moment our fingers lock and hold on.
Then she lets go and pushes open the door, walking inside the building without looking back. And out of nowhere, I think: So this is how it feels to stand at the edge of a canyon.
The City of Oria looks like it got its teeth kicked out. The barricade here is no longer a neat circle. Instead, it’s riddled with gaps. The Rising must have run out of white walls to enclose the stillzone, so they’ve had to use metal fencing instead. I see the hot glint of it in the spring sun as we fly over. I try not to look in the direction of the Hill.
Others, Rising officers in black, wave up at us. We’re flying lower now, and I can see people looting and pushing against weak places in the fence. The barricade is about to be breached. Even from up here, I can feel the panic.
“The situation has deteriorated too much to land,” our commander says. “We’ll do a supply drop.”
I have to admit that there have been times when I wished something bad would happen to the people of the Boroughs in Oria. Like the time the Society took me away and no one but Cassia ran after me. Or when the people laughed during the showings because they didn’t understand death. I never wanted to see them die, but I would have liked for them to know how it felt to be afraid. I wanted them to know that their easy lives had a cost. But this is terrible to see. Over the past few weeks, the Rising has lost their grip on the people and the Plague. They won’t say what’s happened, but something has. Even the Archivists and traders seem to have completely disappeared. I have no way to get a message to Cassia.
One of these days, I’m not going to be able to resist flying to Central.
“The most secure area is located in front of City Hall,” says the commander. “We’ll make the drop there.”
“Are we dropping all our supplies at City Hall?” I ask the commander. “What about the Boroughs?”
“Everything in front of City Hall,” he says. “It’s the safest way.”
I don’t agree. We need to disperse the supplies, or it’ll be a bloodbath. People are already trying to break through the barricade. When they see us drop, they’re going to want to get inside even more, and I don’t know how long the Rising can hold off having to use violence in a situation like this. Will they send the fighters in like they had to do in Acadia?
Indie and I are last in the formation, so we circle around again while the others make their drop. We’re outside of the City proper now, moving back in over the Boroughs. As we do, I see people coming out of their homes to watch us fly. They’ve obeyed the Rising’s commands to stay put and wait instead of coming to the barricade.
And it means they’ll likely starve, while the others at the walls fight over the supplies we’ve brought.
I feel a fierce, unexpected surge of sorrow and loyalty to the people of the Boroughs. They try to follow orders and do the right thing. Is it their fault everything is such a mess?
“Prepare the drop,” the commander says. We’ve never done this before—left supplies without landing—but we’ve trained for it. There’s a hatch in the belly of the ship where we can let the cargo out.
“Caleb,” I say, switching on the speaker that goes down into the hold. “Are you ready?”
There’s no answer.
“I’m ready,” he says, but his voice sounds off.
I’m the pilot this time, so I’m in charge. “Go see what’s wrong with him,” I tell Indie. She nods and walks over to the hold, her balance perfect even with the motion of the ship. I hear her open the hatch to the hold and go down the ladder.
“Is there a problem?” the commander asks.
“I don’t think so,” I tell him.
“Caleb doesn’t look good,” Indie says a moment later, reappearing from the hold. “I think he’s sick.”
“I’m all right,” Caleb says, but his voice still has a hint of strain in it. “I think I’m having a reaction to something.”
“Do not drop your cargo,” the commander says. “Return immediately to the base.”
Indie looks at me and raises her eyebrows. Is he serious?
“I repeat,” he says, “do not drop cargo. Report immediately back to the base in Camas.”
I look at Indie and she shrugs her shoulders. I ease the ship around and we fly over the people. I was coming in low for the drop and so I can see their faces turned up to watch us. They look like baby birds waiting for food.
“Here,” I say to Indie, gesturing for her to take over the controls. I go down to check on Caleb.
He’s not strapped in anymore. He stands at the back of the hold, his hands pressed against the side of the ship, his head bent down, every muscle tight in agony. When he looks at me I see fear in his eyes.
“Caleb,” I say. “What’s happening?”
“Nothing,” he says. “It’s fine. Go back up above.”
“You’re sick,” I say. But with what? We can’t get the Plague.
Unless something went wrong.
“Caleb,” I say. “What’s happening?”
He shakes his head. He won’t tell me. The ship shifts a little and he stumbles. “You know what’s going on,” I say, “but you won’t tell me. So how am I supposed to help you?”
“There’s nothing you can do,” Caleb says. “You shouldn’t be here anyway if I’m sick.”
He’s right. I turn to leave. When I sit down Indie raises her eyebrows at me. “Lock the hold,” I say. “Don’t go back down.”
We’re almost back to Camas before Caleb speaks again. We’re flying over the long flat fields of Tana and I am, of course, thinking of Cassia and her family when Caleb’s voice comes over the speaker.
“I changed my mind,” he says. “There is something you can do. I need you to write something down for me.”
“I don’t have any paper,” I say. “I’m flying the ship.”
“You don’t have to write it now,” he says. “Later.”
“All right,” I say. “But first, you tell me what’s happening.”
The commander is silent. Is he listening?
“I don’t know,” Caleb says.
“Then I can’t write,” I tell him.
“Tell me this,” I say to Caleb. “What was in those cases you kept bringing back when we delivered the cure?”
“Tubes,” Caleb says immediately, surprising me. “We brought out tubes.”
“Which tubes?” I ask, but I think I know the answer. They’d fit in the cases perfectly. They’re about the same size as the cures. I should have figured it out long ago.
“The tubes with the tissue preservation samples in them,” Caleb says.
I’m right. But I don’t understand the reasoning. “Why?” I ask Caleb.
“The Rising took over the storage facilities where the Society kept the tubes,” he says, “but some members of the Rising wanted their families’ samples under their own personal control. The Pilot provided that service for them.”
“That’s not fair,” I say. “If the Rising really is for everyone, they should have given all the samples back.”
“Pilot Markham,” our commander says, “you’re engaging in speculation about your commanding officers, which amounts to insubordination. I order you to cease this line of conversation.”
Caleb doesn’t say anything.
“So does the Rising think they can bring people back?” I ask. The commander starts speaking again, but this time I talk over him and so does Caleb.
“No,” Caleb says. “They know they can’t. They know the Society couldn’t either. They just want the samples. Like insurance.”
“I don’t understand it,” I say. “Someone like the Pilot should have seen enough death to know the tubes aren’t worth anything. Why would he waste resources doing something so stupid?”
“The Pilot knows you can’t bring people back with the samples,” Caleb says. “Not everyone else does. He uses that to his advantage.” He exhales. “The reason I’m telling you all this,” he says, “is that you need to believe in the Pilot. If you don’t, we’re going to lose everything.”
“I didn’t know I was so important,” I say.
“You’re not,” he says. “But you and Indie are two of the best pilots. He’ll need everyone he can get before this is all over.”
“What’s this?” I ask. “The Plague? The Rising? You’re right. The Pilot does need all the help he can get. He hasn’t managed to get anything under control so far.”
“You don’t even know him,” Caleb says. He sounds angry. That’s good. There’s a little more life in his voice.
“I don’t,” I say. “But you do, don’t you. You knew him before the Rising came to power.”
“We’re both from Camas,” Caleb says. “I grew up on the Army base where he was stationed. He was one of the pilots who flew to the Otherlands. He took more people out to the stone villages than any other pilot. And he never got caught. He was the obvious choice to lead the Rising when it was time for a new Pilot.”
“I’ve lived in the Outer Provinces,” I say, “and I’ve never heard of the stone villages or the Otherlands.”
“They’re real,” Caleb says. “The Otherlands are the places far past Enemy territory. And the stone villages were built by Anomalies along the edge of the Outer Provinces when the Society came to power. The villages are like stepping-stones in a river. That’s how they got their name. They run north to south and they’re all built a day’s journey apart from one another. When you reach the last one, you have to cross through Enemy territory if you want to go on to the Otherlands. You really haven’t heard of the villages?”
“Not by that name,” I say, but my mind races. The farmers in the Carving were far away from any other Anomalies, but they did have the map with another village marked in the mountains. That village could have been the southernmost of the stone villages, the final one. It’s possible.