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And for that, I am grateful.
“What happened on the red garden day?” the Pilot asks, and I look up. For a moment, I’d forgotten that he was listening.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t remember.”
“What does the paper say?” Xander asks.
“I haven’t decoded it yet,” I tell him.
“I can save you the time,” the Pilot says. “It reads, ‘Cassia, I want you to know that I’m proud of you for seeing things through, and for being braver than I was.’ It’s from your father.”
My father did send me a message. And Bram encoded it for him, and my mother wrapped it up.
I glance down at Bram’s code to make sure the Pilot has translated the note correctly, but then the Pilot interrupts me.
“This trade didn’t come through until recently,” the Pilot says. “It appears that after it left your family’s hands, the trader involved fell ill. When it did come through, we found the microcard intriguing, and the message as well.”
“Who gave this to you?” I ask.
“I have people who watch out for things they know might interest me,” the Pilot says. “The head Archivist in Central is one of those people.”
She has betrayed me again. “Trades are supposed to be secret,” I say.
“In a time of war, different rules apply,” the Pilot says.
“We are not at war,” I say.
“We are losing a war,” the Pilot says, “against the mutation. We have no cure.”
I look at Ky, who doesn’t have the mark, who isn’t safe, and I understand the urgency of the Pilot’s words. We can’t lose.
“You are either helping us to find and administer the cure,” the Pilot says, “or you are hindering our efforts.”
“We want to help you,” Xander says. “That’s why you’re taking us to the mountains, isn’t it?”
“I am taking you to the mountains,” the Pilot says. “What happens to you when you arrive there is something I haven’t determined yet.”
Ky laughs. “If you’re spending this much time deciding what to do with the three of us when there’s an incurable virus raging through the Provinces, you’re either stupid or desperate.”
“The situation,” the Pilot says, “is long past desperate.”
“Then what can you possibly expect us to do?” Ky asks.
“You will help,” the Pilot says, “one way or the other.” The ship turns a little and I wonder where we are in the sky.
“There are not very many people I can trust,” the Pilot says. “So when two of them tell me contradictory things, that worries me. One of my associates thinks that the three of you are traitors who should be imprisoned and questioned away from the Provinces, out where I’m certain of the loyalty of the people. The other thinks you can help me find a cure.”
The head Archivist is the first person, I think. But who is the other?
“When the Archivist drew my attention to this trade,” the Pilot says, “I was interested, as she knew I would be, both by the name on the microcard and the message included on the paper. Your father did not side with the Rising. What, exactly, did you do that he didn’t dare to do? Did you take things one step further and strike against the Rising?
“And then when I looked more closely, I found other things worthy of notice.”
He begins reciting the names of flowers to me. At first, I think he’s gone crazy, and then I realize what he’s saying:
Newrose, oldrose, Queen Anne’s lace.
“You wrote that and distributed it,” the Pilot says. “What does the code represent?”
It’s not a code. It’s just my mother’s words, turned into a poem. Where did he find it? Did someone give it to him? I meant for it to be shared, but not like this.
“Where is the place over the hill, under the tree, and past the border no one can see?”
When he asks the question like that, it sounds complicated, like a riddle. And it was only supposed to be simple, a song.
“Who were you meeting there?” he asks, his voice clear and even. But Ky’s right. The Pilot is desperate. There’s no undertone of fear when he speaks; but the questions he’s asking, the way he’s gambling some of his precious time on the three of us—it all makes me cold with fear. If the Pilot doesn’t know how to save us from the new Plague, who does?
“No one,” I say. “It’s a poem. It doesn’t have to have a literal meaning.”
“But poems often do,” the Pilot says. “You know this.”
He’s right. I’ve thought about the poem with the Pilot’s name in it and whether that was the one Grandfather really meant me to find. He gave me the compact, he told me the stories of hiking the Hill, of his mother, who sang forbidden poems to him. What did Grandfather want me to do? I’ve always wondered.
“Why did you gather people at the Gallery?” the Pilot asks.
“So they could bring what they’d made.”
“What did you talk about there?”
“Poetry,” I say. “Songs.”
“And that’s all,” the Pilot says.
His voice can be as cold or as warm as a stone, I realize. Sometimes it sounds generous and welcoming, like sandstone under sun, and other times it’s as unforgiving as the marble of the steps at City Hall.
I have a question of my own for him. “Why did my name interest you now?” I ask. “People in the Rising must have seen it before. It meant nothing to them.”
“Things have happened since you first joined the Rising several months ago,” the Pilot says. “Poisoned lakes. Mysterious codes. A Gallery built where people could gather and exchange things they’d written. It seemed your name was worth a second look. And when we looked again, there was a great deal to find.” And now his voice is very cold.
“Cassia’s not fighting against the Rising,” Xander says. “She’s part of the Rising. I can vouch for her.”
“So can I,” Ky says.
“That might mean something to me,” the Pilot says, “if it weren’t for the confluence of data around the three of you. There’s enough to make all of you suspect.”
“What do you mean?” I ask. “We did whatever the Rising wanted us to do. I came back to Central to live. Ky flew ships for you. Xander saved patients.”
“Your small obediences did serve to camouflage your other actions to those in the Rising with less authority and information,” the Pilot tells me. “They initially had no reason to report you to me. But after you were brought to my attention, I saw things and made connections that were unavailable to others. As the Pilot, I have access to more information. When I looked closely, I found the truth. People died wherever you went. The decoys in your camp, for example, many of whom were Aberrations.”
“We didn’t kill those decoys,” Ky says. “You did. When the Society sent people out to die, you sat back and watched.”
The Pilot continues, relentless. “A river near the Carving was poisoned while you were in the area. You detonated wiring in the Carving, destroying part of a village that belonged to Anomalies. You destroyed tubes in a storage facility in the canyons, a facility that the Rising had infiltrated. You conspired to obtain and carry blue tablets. You even killed a boy with them. We found his body.”
“That’s not true,” I say, but in a way, it is. I didn’t mean to kill that boy by giving him the blue tablets, but I did. And then I realize why the Archivist asked me about locations where tissue preservation samples might be stored. “You’re the one who wanted to know how much I knew about the tubes,” I say. “Do you really trade them?”
“You trade the tubes?” Ky asks.
“Of course,” the Pilot says. “I’ll use whatever I need to secure loyalty and resources for finding the cure. The samples are a currency that works when almost nothing else will.”
Ky shakes his head, disgusted. I can’t help but be grateful that we were able to get Grandfather’s tube away from the Cavern. Who knows what the Pilot would have used it for.
“There’s something more,” the Pilot says. “The Cities where you lived were among those who suffered contaminated water supplies.”
The lake. I remember those dead fish. But I don’t understand what he means. The three of us look at each other. We have to figure this out.
“The Plague spread too quickly,” Xander says, his eyes lighting up. “It stayed contained in Central for a long time, and then all of a sudden it was widespread. Until the virus went into the water, we had an epidemic—people getting sick from transferring it to one another. After the water supplies were contaminated, we had a pandemic.”
And now Ky and I are right there with Xander, putting together the pieces. “It’s a waterborne Plague,” Ky says. “Like the one they sent to the Enemy.”
The numbers of the Plague make sense to me now. “The sudden outbreak we saw at the beginning of the Rising—widespread contamination in several different Cities and Provinces—means that someone added the virus to water sources to hurry up the process.” I shake my head. “I should have realized. So that’s why the illness was everywhere, all at once.”
“And that’s why we were stretched so thin at the medical center,” Xander says. “The Rising didn’t anticipate the sabotage. But we handled it anyway. Everything would have been fine, except for the mutation.”
“You can’t think the three of us could coordinate all of that,” Ky says.
“No,” the Pilot says. “But the three of you were a part of it. And it’s time to come clean with what you know.” He pauses. “There’s something else for Cassia on the datapod.”
I look back at the screen and see a second file embedded. Inside I find a picture of my mother, and one of my father. The screen flashes back and forth between the two of them.
“No,” I say. “No.” My parents look up from the screen, glassy-eyed. They are both still.
“They have the mutation,” the Pilot says. “There is no cure. They are both in a medical center in Keya.” He anticipates my next question before I ask it. “We have been unable to locate your brother.”
Bram. Is he lying somewhere where no one can find him? Is he dead like that boy in the Carving? No. He’s not. I won’t believe it. I can’t imagine Bram still.
“Now,” the Pilot says, “you have an incentive to tell us everything you can. Who do you work for? Are you Society sympathizers? Someone else? Did your group introduce the mutation? Do you have a cure?”
For the first time, I hear him lose control while he speaks. It’s only on the last word, cure, and I can tell how truly desperate and driven he is. He wants this cure. He will do anything he can to find it.
But we don’t have a cure. He’s wasting his time with us. What should we do? How can we convince him?