The 5th Wave
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There’s nothing menacing or funny about the way she says it. As if she’s stating a fact, like it’s cold outside.
“I’ll spread the word,” I say.
“And when I’m in the shower, off limits. Total privacy.”
“Roger that. Anything else?”
She pauses, staring at me from across the room. I feel myself tense up. What next? “I like to play chess. Do you play?”
I shake my head. Holler at the boys, “Any of you pervs play chess?”
“No,” Flint calls back. “But if she’s in the mood for some strip poker—”
It happens before I can get two inches off the mattress: Flint on the ground, holding his throat, kicking his legs like a stomped-on bug, Ringer standing over him.
“Also, no demeaning, sexist, pseudo-macho remarks.”
“You’re cool!” Teacup blurts out, and she means it. Maybe she needs to rethink this whole Ringer thing. Might not be such a bad arrangement having another girl around.
“That’s ten days half rations for what you just did,” I tell her. Maybe Flint had it coming, but I’m still the boss when Reznik’s not around, and Ringer needs to know it.
“Are you writing me up?” No fear in her voice. No anger. No anything.
“I’m giving you a warning.”
She nods, steps away from Flint, brushes past me on the way to fetch her toiletry kit. She smells—well, she smells like a girl, and for a second I’m a little light-headed.
“I’ll remember you going easy on me,” she says with a flip of her bangs, “when they make me Fifty-three’s new squad leader.”
A WEEK AFTER Ringer arrived, Squad 53 moved up from tenth to seventh place. By week three, we had edged past Squad 19 to take fifth. Then, with only two weeks to go, we hit a wall, falling sixteen points back from fourth place, a nearly insurmountable deficit.
Poundcake, who isn’t much for words but is a boss with numbers, breaks down the spread. In every category except one, there’s very little room for improvement: We’re second in obstacle course, third in air raid and the run, and first in “other duties as assigned,” a catchall that includes points for morning inspection and “conduct befitting a unit of the armed forces.” Our downfall is marksmanship, where we rank sixteenth, despite kickass shooters like Ringer and Poundcake. Unless we can pull up that score in the next two weeks, we’re doomed.
Of course, you don’t have to be a boss with numbers to know why our score is so low. The squad leader sucks at shooting. So the sucky-shooting squad leader goes to the senior drill instructor and requests extra practice time, but his scores don’t budge. My technique isn’t bad; I do all the right things in the right order; still, if I score one head shot out of a thirty-round clip, I’m lucky. Ringer agrees it’s just dumb luck. She says even Nugget could score one out of thirty. She tries hard not to show it, but my ineptitude with a gun pisses her off. Her former squad ranks second. If she hadn’t been reassigned, she’d be guaranteed to graduate with the first class and be first in line for a pair of sergeant stripes.
“I’ve got a proposition for you,” she says one morning as we hit the yard for the morning run. She’s wearing a headband to hold back her silky bangs. Not that I notice their silkiness. “I’ll help you, on one condition.”
“Does it have anything to do with chess?”
“Resign as squad leader.”
I glance at her. The cold has painted her ivory cheeks a bright red. Ringer is a quiet person—not Poundcake quiet, but quiet in an intense, unnerving way, with eyes that seem to dissect you with the sharpness of one of Dumbo’s surgical knives.
“You didn’t ask for it, you don’t care about it, why not let me have it?” she asks, keeping her eyes on the path.
“Why do you want it so bad?”
“Giving the orders is my best chance to stay alive.”
I laugh. I want to tell her what I’ve learned. Vosch said it; I knew it to the bottom of my soul: You’re going to die. This wasn’t about survival. It was about payback.
Following the path that snakes out of the yard and across the hospital parking lot to the airfield access road. In front of us now the power plant barfing its black and gray smoke.
“How ’bout this,” I suggest. “You help me, we win, I step down.”
It’s a meaningless offer. We’re recruits. It isn’t our call who’s squad leader; it’s Reznik’s. And I know this really isn’t about who’s squad leader anyway. It’s about who makes sergeant when we’re activated for field duty. Being squad leader doesn’t guarantee a promotion, but it can’t hurt.
A Black Hawk thunders overhead, returning from night patrol.
“Ever wonder how they did it?” she asks, watching the chopper swing off to our right toward the landing zone. “Got everything running again after the EMP strike?”
“No,” I answer honestly. “What do you think?”
Her breaths tiny white explosions in the frigid air. “Underground bunkers, it has to be. That or…”
She shakes her head, puffing out her cold-pinched cheeks, and her black hair swings back and forth as she runs, kissed by the bright morning sun.
“Too crazy, Zombie,” she says finally. “Come on, let’s see what you’ve got, football star.”
I’m four inches taller than she is. For every one stride I take, she has to take two. So I beat her.
That afternoon we hit the range, bringing Oompa along to operate the targets. Ringer watches me fire off a few rounds, then offers her expert opinion: “You’re horrible.”
“That’s the problem. My horribleness.” I give her my best smile. Before the alien Armageddon happened, I was known for my smile. Not bragging too much, but I had to be careful never to smile while I drove: It had the capacity to blind oncoming traffic. But it has absolutely no effect on Ringer. She doesn’t squint in its overwhelming luminescence. She doesn’t even blink.
“Your technique is good. What’s going on when you shoot?”
“Generally speaking, I miss.”
She shakes her head. Speaking of smiles, I’ve yet to see so much as a thin-lipped grin from her. I decide to make it my mission to coax one out of her. More a Ben thought than a Zombie one, but old habits die hard.
“I mean between you and the target,” she says.
Huh? “Well, when it pops up—”
“No. I’m talking about what happens between here,” fingertips on my right hand, “and there,” pointing at the target twenty yards away.
“You’ve lost me, Ringer.”
“You have to think of your weapon as a part of you. Not the M16 firing; you firing. It’s like blowing on a dandelion. You breathe the bullet out.”
She swings her rifle off her shoulder and nods to Oompa. She doesn’t know where it’ll pop up, but the head of the target explodes in a shower of splinters before it even gets upright.
“It’s like there’s no space, nothing that isn’t you. The rifle is you. The bullet is you. The target is you. There’s nothing that’s not you.”
“So basically what you’re saying is I’m blowing my own head off.”
I almost got a smile with that one. The left corner of her mouth twitches.
“That’s very Zenlike,” I try again.
Her eyebrows come together. Strike three. “It’s more like quantum mechanics.”
I nod seriously. “Oh, sure. That’s what I meant to say. Quantum mechanics.”
She turns her head away. To hide a smile? So I don’t see an exasperated eye roll? When she turns back, all I get is that intense, stomach-tightening stare.
“Do you want to graduate?”
“I want to get the hell away from Reznik.”
“That isn’t enough.” She points across the field at one of the cutouts. The wind plays with her bangs. “What do you see when you sight a target?”
“I see a plywood cutout of a person.”
“Okay, but who do you see?”
“I know what you meant. Sometimes I picture Reznik’s face.”
“Does it help?”
“You tell me.”
“It’s about connection,” she says. She motions for me to sit down. She sits in front of me, takes my hands. Hers are freezing, cold as the bodies in P&D. “Close your eyes. Oh, come on, Zombie. How’s your way been working for you? Good. Okay, remember, it’s not you and the target. It’s not what’s between you, but what connects you. Think about the lion and the gazelle. What connects them?”
“That’s the lion. I’m asking what they share.”
This is heavy stuff. Maybe it was a bad idea, accepting her offer. Not only do I have her thoroughly convinced I’m a lousy soldier, now there’s a real possibility that I’m also a moron.
“Fear,” she whispers in my ear, as if she’s sharing a secret. “For the gazelle, fear of being eaten. For the lion, fear of starvation. Fear is the chain that binds them together.”
The chain. I carry one in my pocket attached to a silver locket. The night my sister died was a thousand years ago; that night was last night. It’s over. It’s never over. It isn’t a line from that night to this day; it’s a circle. My fingers tighten around hers.
“I don’t know what your chain is,” she goes on, warm breath in my ear. “It’s different for everyone. They know. Wonderland tells them. It’s the thing that made them put a gun in your hand, and it’s the same thing that chains you to the target.” Then, as if she’s read my mind: “It isn’t a line, Zombie. It’s a circle.”
I open my eyes. The setting sun creates a halo of golden light around her. “There is no distance.”
She nods and urges me to my feet. “It’s almost dark.”
I bring up my rifle and tuck the butt against my shoulder. You don’t know where the target will rise—you only know that it will. Ringer signals Oompa, and the tall, dead grass rustles to my right a millisecond before the target pops, but that’s more than enough time; it’s an eternity.
There is no distance. Nothing between me and the not-me.
The target’s head disintegrates with a satisfying crack! Oompa gives a shout and pumps his fist in the air. I forget myself and grab Ringer around the waist, swinging her off the ground and twirling her around. I’m one very dangerous second away from kissing her. When I set her down, she takes a couple of steps back and tucks her hair carefully behind her ears.
“That was out of line,” I say. I don’t know who’s more embarrassed. We’re both trying to catch our breaths. Maybe for different reasons.
“Do it again,” she says.
“Shoot or twirl, which one?”
Her mouth twitches. Oh, I’m so close.
“The one that means something.”