The 5th Wave
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Our new uniforms were waiting for us when we returned from morning chow, pressed and starched and neatly folded on our bunks. And an extra special bonus surprise: headbands equipped with the latest in alien detection technology, a clear, quarter-size disk that slips over your left eye. Infested humans will light up through the lens. Or so we’re told. Later that day, when I asked the tech exactly how it worked, his answer was simple: Unclean glows green. When I politely asked for a brief demo, he laughed. “You’ll get your demo in the field, soldier.”
For the first time since coming to Camp Haven—and probably for the last time in our lives—we are kids again. Whooping it up and jumping from bunk to bunk, throwing high fives. Ringer’s the only one who ducks into the latrine to change. The rest of us strip where we stand, throwing the hated blue jumpsuits into a pile in the middle of the floor. Teacup has the bright idea to set them on fire and would have if Dumbo didn’t snatch the lit match from her hand at the last second.
The only one without a uniform is sitting on his bunk in his white jumpsuit, legs swinging back and forth, arms folded over his chest, bottom lip stuck out a mile. I’m not oblivious. I get it. After I’m dressed, I sit beside him and slap him on the leg.
“You’ll get your turn, Private. Hang in there.”
“Two years, Zombie.”
“So? Think what a hardass you’ll be in two years. Put all of us to shame.”
Nugget’s being assigned to another training squad after we deploy. I promised him he could bunk with me whenever I’m on base, though I have no idea when—or if—I’m ever coming back. Our mission is still top secret, known only to Central Command. I’m not sure even Reznik knows where we’re going. I don’t really care, as long as Reznik stays here.
“Come on, soldier. You’re supposed to be happy for me,” I tease him.
“You’re not coming back.” He says it with so much angry conviction that I don’t know what to say. “I’ll never see you again.”
“Of course you’re going to see me again, Nugget. I promise.”
He hits me as hard as he can. Again and again, right over my heart. I grab his wrist, and he lays into me with his other hand. I grab that one and order him to stand down.
“Don’t promise, don’t promise, don’t promise! Don’t promise anything ever, ever, ever!” His little face screwed up with rage.
“Hey, Nugget, hey.” I fold his arms over his chest and bend down to look him in the eye. “Some things you don’t have to promise. You just do.”
I reach into my pocket and pull out Sissy’s locket. Undo the clasp. I haven’t done that since I fixed it at Tent City. Circle broken. I draw it around his neck and hook the ends together. Circle complete.
“No matter what happens out there, I’ll come back for you,” I promise him.
Over his shoulder, I see Ringer come out of the bathroom, tucking her hair beneath her new cap. I stand at attention and snap off a salute.
“Private Zombie reporting for duty, squad leader!”
“My one day of glory,” she says, returning the salute. “Everybody knows who’s making sergeant.”
I shrug modestly. “I don’t listen to rumors.”
“You made a promise you knew you couldn’t keep,” she says matter-of-factly—which is pretty much the way she says everything. The unfortunate thing is she says it right in front of Nugget. “Sure you don’t want to take up chess, Zombie? You’d be very good at it.”
Since laughing seems like the least dangerous thing to do at that moment, I laugh.
The door flies open, and Dumbo shouts, “Sir! Good morning, sir!”
We rush to the ends of our bunks and stand at attention as Reznik moves down the line for what will be our final inspection. He’s subdued, for Reznik. He doesn’t call us maggots or scumbags. He’s nitpicky as ever, though. Flintstone’s shirt is untucked on one side. Oompa’s hat is crooked. He brushes off a speck of lint that only he can see from Teacup’s collar. He lingers over Teacup for a long moment, staring down into her face, almost comical in its seriousness.
“Well, Private. Are you ready to die?”
“Sir, yes, sir!” Teacup shouts in her loudest warrior voice.
Reznik turns to the rest of us. “How about you? Are you ready?”
Our voices thunder as one: “Sir! Yes, sir!”
Before he leaves, Reznik orders me front and center. “Come with me, Private.” A final salute to the troops, then: “See you at the party, children.”
On my way out, Ringer gives me a knowing look, as if to say, Told you so.
I follow two paces behind the drill sergeant as he marches across the yard. Blue-suited recruits are putting the finishing touches on the speaker’s platform, hanging bunting, setting up chairs for the high brass, unrolling a red carpet. A huge banner has been hung across the barracks on the far side: WE ARE HUMANITY. And on the opposite side: WE ARE ONE.
Into a nondescript one-story building on the western side of the compound, passing through a security door marked AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. Through a metal detector manned by heavily armed, stone-faced soldiers. Into an elevator that carries us four stories beneath the earth. Reznik doesn’t talk. He doesn’t even look at me. I have a pretty good idea where we’re going, but no idea why. I nervously pick at the front of my new uniform.
Down a long corridor awash in fluorescent lighting. Passing through another security checkpoint. More stone-faced, heavily armed soldiers. Reznik stops at an unmarked door and swipes his key card through the lock. We step inside a small room. A man in a lieutenant’s uniform greets us at the door, and we follow him down another hallway and into a large private office. A man sits behind the desk, leafing through a stack of computer printouts.
He dismisses Reznik and the lieutenant, and we’re alone.
“At ease, Private.”
I spread my feet, put my hands behind my back, right hand loosely gripping my left wrist. Standing in front of the big desk, eyes forward, chest out. He is the supreme commander. I’m a private, a lowly recruit, not even a real soldier yet. My heart is threatening to pop the buttons on my brand-new shirt.
“So, Ben, how are you?”
He’s smiling warmly at me. I don’t even know how to begin to answer his question. Plus I’m thrown by his calling me Ben. It sounds strange to my own ears after being Zombie for so many months.
He’s expecting an answer, and for some stupid reason I blurt out the first thing that pops into my head. “Sir! The private is ready to die, sir!”
He nods, still smiling, and then he gets up, comes around the desk, and says, “Let’s speak freely, soldier to soldier. After all, that’s what you are now, Sergeant Parish.”
I see them then: the sergeant’s stripes in his hand. So Ringer was right. I snap back to attention while he pins them on my collar. He claps me on the shoulder, his blue eyes boring into mine.
Hard to look him in the eye. The way he looks at you makes you feel naked, totally exposed.
“You lost a man,” he says.
He leans back against the desk, crosses his arms. “His profile was excellent. Not as good as yours, but…The lesson here, Ben, is that we all have a breaking point. We’re all human, yes?”
He’s smiling. Why is he smiling? It’s cool in the underground bunker, but I’m beginning to sweat.
“You may ask,” he says with an inviting wave of his hand.
“The question you must be thinking. The one you’ve had since Tank showed up in processing and disposal.”
“How did he die?”
“Overdose, as you no doubt suspected. One day after being taken off suicide watch.” He motions to the chair beside me. “Have a seat, Ben. There’s something I want to discuss with you.”
I sink into the chair, sitting on its edge, back straight, chin up. If it’s possible to be at attention while seated, I’m doing it.
“We all have our breaking points,” he says, blue eyes bearing down on me. “I’ll tell you about mine. Two weeks after the 4th Wave, gathering survivors at a refugee camp about six kilometers from here. Well, not every survivor. Just the children. Although we hadn’t detected the infestations yet, we were fairly confident whatever was going on didn’t involve children. Since we couldn’t know who was the enemy and who wasn’t, it was command’s decision to terminate any and all personnel over the age of fifteen.”
His face goes dark. His eyes cut away. Leaning back on the desk, gripping its edge so hard, his knuckles turn white.
“I mean, my decision.” Deep breath. “We killed them, Ben. After we loaded up the children, we killed every single one of them. And after we were done, we incinerated their camp. Wiped it off the face of the Earth.”
He looks back at me. Incredibly, I see tears in his eyes. “That was my breaking point. Afterward I realized, to my horror, that I was falling into their trap. I was an instrument for the enemy. For every infested person I murdered, three innocent people died. I will have to live with that—because I have to live. Do you understand what I mean?”
I nod. He smiles sadly. “Of course you do. We both have the blood of innocents on our hands, don’t we?”
He pushes himself upright, all business now. The tears are gone.
“Sergeant Parish, today we will graduate the top four squads of your battalion. As commander of the winning squad, you have first pick of assignments. Two squads will be deployed as perimeter patrols to protect this base. The other two will be deployed into enemy territory.”
This takes me a couple minutes to absorb. He lets me have them. He picks up one of the computer printouts and holds it in front of me. There’s a lot of numbers and squiggly lines and strange symbols that mean absolutely nothing to me.
“I don’t expect you to be able to read it,” he says. “But would you like to guess what this is?”
“That’s all it would be, sir,” I answer. “A guess.”
“It’s the Wonderland analytics of an infested human being.”
I nod. Why the hell am I nodding? It’s not like I understand: Ah, yes, Commander, an analytic! Please, go on.
“We’ve been running them through Wonderland, of course, but we haven’t been able to untangle the infestation’s map from the victim’s—or clone or whatever it is. Until now.” He holds up the readout. “This, Sergeant Parish, is what an alien consciousness looks like.”
Again, I’m nodding. But this time because I’m starting to get it. “You know what they’re thinking.”
“Exactly!” Beaming at me, the star pupil. “The key to winning this war isn’t tactics or strategy or even imbalances in technology. The real key to winning this war, or any war, is understanding how your enemy thinks. And now we do.”