- Text Font:
- Text Size:
- Line Height:
- Line Break Height:
It’s too much for one Pilot to handle.
Once again, I’ve been lucky. The least I can do is stick around. It’s the people like Lei whom I really admire. They know they’re not immune but they stay anyway so they can help the patients.
I move through the rest of the patients, all the way to the last bed, where Patient 100 draws in ragged, wet breaths. I try not to think too much about how the cure might have caused the mutation, or about where my family or Cassia might be. I’ve already failed them. But I can’t fail these hundred.
I don’t see Lei in the courtyard when I’m finished, so I break protocol and look in the sleeproom. She’s not there either.
She wouldn’t have run away. So where is she?
As I pass the darkened cafeteria, I see a flicker of light. The port is on. Who could be inside? Is the Pilot speaking to us? Usually, when he does, they have us watch on one of the larger screens. I open the door to the cafeteria and see Lei silhouetted against the port. When I get a little closer I see that she’s going through the Hundred Paintings.
I’m about to say something but then I stop myself and watch her for a second. I’ve never seen anyone look at the paintings the way she does. She leans forward. She takes a few steps back.
Then she pulls up a painting, and I hear her draw in her breath as she puts her hand right on the screen. She stays there looking at it so long that I clear my throat. Lei whirls around. I can barely see her face in the reflected light from the port.
“Still having trouble sleeping?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says. “This is the best remedy I’ve found. I try to picture the scenes again in my mind when I’m lying down.”
“You’re taking your time with them,” I say, trying to joke with her. “You’d think you hadn’t seen the paintings before.”
For a moment, I feel like she’s about to tell me something. Then: “Not this one,” she says, moving aside so I can see the screen.
“It’s number Ninety-Seven,” I say. The painting shows a girl in a white dress and a lot of light and water.
“I suppose I didn’t notice it until now,” Lei says, and her voice sounds final, like a door shutting tight. I don’t know what I said wrong. For some reason I’m desperate to open that door back up. I talk to everyone here, all the time, patient and medic and nurse, but Lei’s different. She and I worked together before we came in.
“What do you like about it?” I ask, trying to get her to keep talking. “I like how you can’t tell if she’s in the water or on the shore. But what’s she doing? I’ve never been able to figure it out.”
“She’s fishing,” Lei says. “That’s a net she’s holding.”
“Has she caught anything?” I ask, looking closer.
“It’s hard to say,” Lei tells me.
“So that’s why you like it,” I say, remembering Lei’s story about the fish that come back to the river in Camas. “Because of the fish.”
“Yes,” Lei says. “And because of this.” She touches a little patch of white at the top of the picture. “Is it a boat? The reflection of the sun? And here,” she says, pointing to darker spots on the painting. “We don’t know what’s casting these shadows. There are things going on outside the edges. It leaves you with a sense of something you can’t see.”
I think I understand. “Like the Pilot,” I say.
“No,” she says.
In the distance, we hear screaming and calling out. A fighter ship whirs overhead.
“What’s going on out there?” Lei asks.
“I think it’s the same as usual,” I tell her. “People outside the barricade wanting to come in.” The orange light of bonfires on the other side of the walls looks eerie, but it isn’t new. “I don’t know how much longer the officers can hold them.”
“They wouldn’t want in if they knew what it looked like,” she says.
Now that my eyes have adjusted to the light, I can see that Lei’s fatigue is actual pain. Her face has a drawn look, and her words, usually so light, sound heavy.
She’s getting sick.
“Lei,” I say. I almost reach out and take her by the elbow to guide her from the cafeteria, but I’m not sure how she’d feel about the gesture. She holds my gaze for a moment. Then, slowly, she turns away from me and lifts up her shirt. Red lines run around her back.
“You don’t have to say it,” she says. She tucks her shirt back in and turns around. “I already know.”
“We should get you hooked up to one of the nutrient bags,” I say. “Right now.” Thoughts race through my mind. You shouldn’t have stayed, you should have left like the others did until we knew we had something that worked—
“I don’t want to lie down,” Lei says.
“Come with me,” I tell her, and this time I do take her arm. I feel the warmth of her skin through her sleeve.
“Where are we going?” she asks me.
“To the courtyard,” I say. “You can sit on a bench while I go get a line and a nutrient bag.” This way, she won’t have to be inside when she goes down. She can stay outside as long as possible.
She looks at me with her exhausted, beautiful eyes. “Hurry,” she says. “I don’t want to be alone when it happens.”
When I return with the equipment, Lei waits in the courtyard with her shoulders slumped in exhaustion. It’s strange to see her with less-than-perfect posture. She holds out her arm and I slide the needle in.
The fluid begins to drip. I sit down next to her, holding the bag higher than her arm so that the line keeps running.
“Tell me a story,” she says. “I need to hear something.”
“Which one of the Hundred would you like?” I ask. “I remember most of them.”
I hear a faint trace of surprise in her voice under the fatigue. “Don’t you know anything else?”
I pause. Not really. The Rising hasn’t had time to give us new stories, and it’s not like I know how to create. I just work with what I have.
“Yes,” I say, trying to think of something. Then I borrow from my own life. “About a year ago, back in the Society, there was a boy who was in love with a girl. He’d watched her for a long time. He hoped she’d be his Match. Then she was. He was happy.”
“That’s all?” Lei asks.
“That’s all,” I say. “Too short?”
Lei begins to laugh and for a moment she sounds like herself. “It’s you,” she says. “It’s obvious. That’s no story.”
I laugh, too. “Sorry,” I say. “I’m not very good at this.”
“But you love your Match,” Lei says, no longer laughing. “I know that about you. You know it about me.”
“Yes,” I say.
She looks at me. The liquid drips into the line.
“I know an old story about people who couldn’t be Matched,” she says. “He was an Aberration. She was a citizen and a pilot. It was the first of the vanishings.”
“The vanishings?” I ask.
“Some people inside the Society wanted to get out,” Lei says. “Or wanted to get their children out. There were pilots who would fly people away in exchange for other things.”
“I’ve never heard of anything like this,” I say.
“It happened,” Lei says. “I saw it. Some of those parents would trade anything—risk everything—because they thought sending their children away was the best way to keep them safe.”
“But where would they take them?” I ask. “Into Enemy territory? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“They’d take them to the edge of Enemy territory,” Lei says. “To places called the stone villages. After that, it was up to people to decide whether they’d stay in the villages, or try to cross Enemy territory to find a place known as the Otherlands. No one who went on to the Otherlands ever came back.”
“I don’t understand it,” I say. “How would sending your children out to the middle of nowhere—closer to the Enemy—be safer than staying in the Society?”
“Perhaps they knew about the Plague,” Lei says. “But obviously your parents didn’t feel that way. Neither did mine.” She looks at me. “You almost sound like you’re defending the Society.”
“I’m not,” I say.
“I know,” she says. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to tell you history. I meant to tell you a story.”
“I’m ready,” I say. “I’m listening.”
“The story, then.” She lifts her arm and looks at the liquid running in. “This pilot loved the man but she had obligations at home, ones that she couldn’t break, and obligations to her leaders, too. If she left, too many people would suffer. She flew the man she loved all the way to the Otherlands, which no one had done before.”
“What happened after that?” I ask.
“She was shot down by the Enemy on her way back,” Lei says. “She never got to tell people what she had seen in the Otherlands. But she had saved the one she loved. She knew that, no matter what else happened.”
In the silence that follows her story, she leans against me. I don’t think she even knows she’s doing it. She’s going down.
“Do you think you could do that?” she asks.
“Fly?” I say. “Maybe.”
“No,” she says. “Do you think you could let someone go if you thought it was best for them?”
“No,” I say. “I’d have to know it was best for them.”
She nods, as if she expected my answer. “Almost anyone could do that,” she says. “But what if you didn’t know and you only believed?”
She doesn’t know if it’s true. But she wants it to be.
“That story would never be one of the Hundred,” she says. “It’s a Border story. The kind of thing that can only happen out here.”
Was she a pilot once? Is that where her husband is? Did she fly him out and now she’s going down? Is this story true? Any of it?
“I’ve never heard of the Otherlands,” I say.
“You have,” she says, and I shake my head.
“Yes,” she says, challenging me. “Even if you never heard the name, you had to know they existed. The world can’t only be the Provinces. And it isn’t flat like the Society’s maps. How would the sun work? And the moon? And the stars? Didn’t you look up? Didn’t you notice that they changed?”
“Yes,” I say.
“And you didn’t think about why that might be?”
My face burns.
“Of course,” Lei says, her voice quiet. “Why would they teach you? You were meant to be an Official from the very beginning. And it’s not in the Hundred Science Lessons.”
“How do you know?” I ask.
“My father taught me,” she says.