MY HEART POUNDED in my ears. The low humming sound, muffled by the wall, was just loud enough to hear over my shallow, panicked breaths. I sat up on my loft bed and paused to listen before carefully easing myself down the ladder. The pads of my bare feet landed on the cold floor. There was barely enough space to stand up and I had to squeeze between the treadmill that pulled down from the wall and the shower and toilet at the foot of my bed.
I moved silently. Only two people at the lab knew I hid right behind their walls, and today couldn’t be the day the rest of them found out. My life depended on it. The Resistance had been careful enough to erase the tiny alcove from the schematics. Officially, the room, just like me, didn’t exist.
I paused with my ear inches from the wall. In the three months I’d spent hidden in this confined space, I had come to know every sound. Learning them was a matter of habit almost as much as it was a matter of survival. I paused, focusing intently on the rhythmic click-click-click.
I leaned my forehead against the wall, letting out the breath I held. It was just an ordinary sound, a normal shift in the perfectly regulated air system. I should have known. This lab was one of the few places with the kind of heavy air-filtration system I needed to survive. It worked like clockwork, and, without it, almost any surface allergen would kill me quickly.
I closed my eyes and my heart rate slowed. It was remarkable how quickly I could move from alarm to complete relaxation and back again. Another matter of habit.
I climbed slowly back up to my bed. This alcove might be my safe haven, but sometimes it felt more like a prison. The bed was too short to stretch out and the ceiling too low to sit up completely. The confinement was strangling. Sometimes I’d look at the walls and they seemed nearer than before, like the room was closing in on me, inch by inch.
I slept during the day, for as many hours as I could, but time still stretched out endlessly. Lately I’d begun parsing the days into manageable thirty-minute pieces to make the long and painful monotony less overwhelming: drawing, jogging on the treadmill, unfolding and then refolding my clothes, pacing back and forth across the narrow floor, counting the objects in my room, studying the history texts the Resistance gave me—the real histories, not the lies we learned in the Community. And training, endless training.
In the early mornings I’d spend countless more half hours staring at the cool slab of ceiling above me, watching as the thin string hanging from the air duct blew back and forth in the allergen-free air. It was maddening to sit here knowing Adrien and the rest of the Resistance were fighting the Chancellor and the Community while I was stuck caged in this tiny room. I was tired of being the helpless prisoner. I wanted to be out there with them.
I closed my eyes and swallowed.
Most of all, I wanted to feel like I had some control again. When we escaped from the Community, I had reached into people’s bodies and crumpled the miniscule hardware in their brains with my telekinetic power. I had ripped heavy lockdown doors off their tracks. But now …
Now, no matter how much I trained—or at least tried to—it was no use. I’d stare at my tablet for thirty minutes straight, willing it to move just an inch. It never budged. Not because the power wasn’t there. Exactly the opposite—there was too much of it. I could feel it expanding inside me even now, pressing against the backs of my eyes and making my hands twitch. But I could never direct it the way I meant to. And then sometimes, when it had built up for too long, it would erupt like a boiling geyser.
I shook my twitching hand and then made a fist. I didn’t want to think about it anymore. I propped myself up on my elbow and looked at the drawings papering the wall by my bed instead. Mom, Dad, my younger brother, Markan. The people I’d left behind. And the people I’d lost. Max.
I reached out and touched the picture of Max’s face. I’d tried to capture how he looked when I first knew him, when everything had been simpler and we’d been friends. We’d been drones together, subjects in the Community where we were tightly controlled by emotion-suppressing hardware. It was a dangerous place for anyone who managed to break free, but somehow we’d found each other. We’d protected each other as we explored the new incredible powers that developed as a side effect of the hardware glitches. I’d trusted him, before I even fully understood what that word meant.
But that was all a long time ago now. That was before I’d learned that someone you think you know can look you in the face and tell you lies.
I thought about the last time I’d seen Max, right after I found out he’d been working for the Chancellor as a Monitor the whole time. He was an informant, reporting on people who were glitchers like us, getting them captured and “repaired,” or worse, deactivated. And he hadn’t felt remorse for any of it.
“I was going to protect you from it all,” he’d said. “We were going to live a life beyond your best dreams, you and me together forever. It would have been perfect.” His voice had turned bitter. “You were supposed to be mine.”
My face burned hot at the memory, and I shook my head. I remembered the disgust on his face when I told him to escape with us.
“And do what? Join your little band of Resistance fighters? Spend every day watching someone else live the life I always wanted with you? Don’t think so.”
It was a wound I opened and salted over and over again. It tortured me to remember, and the anger felt fresh and hot every time I repeated his words. But the truth was, I needed the anger and the pain. I dug it deep into my chest like an anchor holding me in place. It reminded me that I was alive even if this alcove sometimes felt like a tomb, that I was free, and that one day soon I’d be able to join the others to fight against the many injustices that had enslaved us.
I turned my eyes away from Max to the other face that was featured most often in my drawings. Adrien, with that smile he saved for me when no one else was looking. I sighed. His was the only face on my wall that didn’t fill me with regret.
The last time I’d seen him had been ages ago, while he was passing through on his way to the Foundation. It was going to be a school for glitchers, and, best of all, it would have an air-filtration system equal to the research lab here. I’d be able to join him there without fear of the air I breathed or worrying that any sound I made might get me caught and killed.
As I reached up to trace Adrien’s face, a tremor ran through my hand. The gentle quaking had been plaguing me all night, first in my thighs, now my hand. A flash of fear washed over me.
Not again. It shouldn’t be happening again so soon.
I flexed my hand, then made a fist, and the shaking stopped. I swallowed hard, trying to quiet my rising alarm. I hadn’t gotten my telekinesis to function properly in weeks, and the power raged like a wild beast clawing underneath my skin. Adrien always called our glitcher powers Gifts, but I was beginning to suspect that he was wrong.
I clicked the light off and settled into my pillow. Our minds may have evolved to develop superhuman abilities, but what if our bodies hadn’t? Maybe we were too fragile to contain that kind of power. Maybe our Gifts were actually a curse.
* * *
I’d only been asleep for a few minutes when I woke to my knuckles banging repeatedly into my cheek.
“Shunt,” I murmured, suddenly fully awake. My arm kept at it, but now the shaking had moved up to my shoulder. The normal telltale buzz of my power grew louder in my ears until it was a high-pitched screech.
“No, no, no,” I whispered, clicking on my light and climbing awkwardly down from the bed. I glanced at the clock on the wall above my head. It was an hour into the workday. Somehow I had to stop myself from going into full eruption mode, or else I’d be caught for sure.
The first time my power had gotten uncontrollable like this I’d been lucky; it was nighttime, when no one was around. Milton, one of the two people at the research lab who knew I was hiding here, had been slack-jawed when he finally pushed his way into my trashed room the morning after. The metal frame of the bed had been twisted in on itself like a figure eight, and the toilet had come loose and made a dent in the concrete of the opposite wall. All my drawings and clothes had been shredded, and I’d sat huddled in the far corner with my arms over my head, bruised and bleeding.
But Milton had been kind. He said I reminded him a little of his sister, a drone he had to leave behind in the Community’s control. He told me stories about her while he helped me clean up. He said maybe the outburst had happened because I was boxed in here and not able to use my power often. But he didn’t understand, not really. It was more than that. My power was changing, and I was changing with it. I couldn’t control it anymore. I didn’t know how I ever had. Sometimes I imagined it consuming me from the inside like a slowly fattening parasite.
I reached up and managed to grab my pillow and blanket right before my legs buckled and I landed on the ground. There was barely enough space to lay flat, but the floor was safer than the bed. With what little muscle control I had left, I wedged myself between the shelf and the toilet to keep myself as secure as possible. I squeezed my eyes shut. I knew what was coming next, and it was going to hurt. I clenched my teeth in the darkness, willing my body to stay still and quiet. Above all, I had to stay quiet.
Both my arms shook uncontrollably now. I flipped myself onto my side to get the pillow under my head and put part of the twisted-up blanket between my teeth. The tremors moved to my torso and down to my legs. My elbows, shoulder blades, and heels jerked up and down, slamming painfully into the cold floor. I wanted to scream into the blanket, but I was afraid that if I opened my mouth even the tiniest bit, all my power might accidentally burst out.
The screech inside my head became a long howl. The beast wanted release. I ground my teeth further into the blanket and tried to brace myself for each time my body smacked into the ground. Again and again and again. I winced with each hit, aching from the impact on bruises that had never fully healed.
I just had to get through this and then I could rest.
The shaking became wilder, and as it reached an apex my foot banged against the wall, making a loud tap, tap, tap noise every time it hit. I focused all my energy on my legs, trying to hold them still, but my body was out of my control. A whimper of fear escaped my lips. If the wrong person heard me, it was over.
I thought I was going to pass out from the pain and panic. I prepared for the worst, knowing I couldn’t hold on much longer. The power built up like expanding gas in an enclosed space, begging for release.
I couldn’t keep it in. It was going to explode. I clamped my mouth shut tighter, but it felt like I was ripping apart from the inside. I clenched my teeth and felt sweat dripping down my face from the effort.
Right when I felt like I was about to burst wide open, the seizing began to quiet down. The shakes slowed to trembles, then to just a shiver, and then I lay still. Sweat dripped down my temple and slid into my eyes with a salty sting. I wanted to wipe it away, but I was so tired, my arm felt leaden. I rolled over onto my side and breathed slowly as I gathered my strength. Then I eased my way to my knees, pausing with each movement, and eventually rose to my feet.
I felt like I’d been running on the treadmill for a day and a half. But at least I’d be able to sleep now. I climbed tiredly up the ladder to my bed. My arms shook again, this time not from excess power but from exhaustion.
But right when my body finally rested on the thin mattress, a scratching sounded from the wall, right at the hidden entrance to my room. I froze. Milton shouldn’t be bringing me food yet. Someone must have heard my foot banging into the wall and was coming to investigate. They could have easily followed the sound back to the wall panel that doubled as the secret entrance to the alcove.
Fat tears squeezed out of my eyes. I wasn’t strong enough to fight. I rolled my tired body over toward the wall. Whoever came in wouldn’t see me right away, but I knew it would only buy me a few moments. I was a muddle of fear and exhaustion. After so much effort, so much sacrifice and patience, I couldn’t lose it all like this, facing my enemies while weak and afraid—
The door opened and immediately I heard a whisper. “Zoe, it’s me.”
It was Adrien’s voice. All the tension flooded out of my body. I half climbed, half fell down the ladder and launched myself into his outstretched arms. He wasn’t supposed to be here until next week. Was he here to take me to the Foundation early? I parted my lips to ask but couldn’t find the strength to care about anything other than his warm arms around me.
My hair had come undone from its braid during the shaking episode, and Adrien curled his fingers into it. I sank against him, breathing him in. Even my exhaustion lightened in his embrace. It was always like that when I was with him. I tipped my head back and he kissed me. His lips were gentle, and for a moment I forgot all the loneliness and fear of the past few months. All I could think about was the soft texture of his lips and the way love for him bloomed inside me like a light cell blinking to life in a pitch-black room.
But all too soon he pulled away. His eyes were cloudy. “There’s not much time. We’ve gotta move. Now.”
He turned and let go of me, and my weakened legs gave out from under me.
“Zoe!” Adrien caught me around the waist, pulling me back up. “What’s going on, are you okay?” He set me down on the closed toilet lid, the only place to sit other than up on my bed.
“I’m fine,” I lied, blinking and trying to get a breath. “I just gotta get some rest. Can we leave in the morning?”
But when I looked back over at Adrien, he was already pulling out the biosuit box and opening it up.
“We gotta leave now Zoe, not tomorrow morning. Fit your feet into the rubber boots first, then we’ll pull the rest of the suit up.”
“Why now?” I asked, blinking and trying to make sense of everything that was happening. I stepped into the boots.
“I had a vision. They’re gonna raid this place soon.”
It took a few more moments for what he’d said to sink in. “Wait, you mean … they know I’m here?”
“Not yet,” Adrien said, managing to sound halfway calm. “Chancellor Bright was just named Underchancellor of Defense. Right off, she ordered inspections on any place with the kind of air-filtration system she knows you need to survive. I thought we’d have more time. I mean, there’s about fifty facilities like this in the Sector, and there’s no way she’d know this is the only one the Resistance has access to.” He shook his head. “But I saw it.”
“When will it happen?”
“I don’t know.” He ran a hand roughly through his hair. “It felt like a short-term vision, like it might happen in the next few days.” He looked back up at me.
I felt a fresh wave of panic. They were coming for me. The horrifying reality of the situation settled in, clearing away some of my remaining cloudiness and exhaustion.
“I was gonna send a com,” Adrien said, “but I was afraid any communications would get intercepted and decrypted. I didn’t wanna accidentally be the cause of the inspection.”
Another cold realization swept through me. “But wait. Where are we going?” I asked. “If the Foundation isn’t ready yet, this lab’s the only place we have access to with air I can breathe. What happens when my biosuit runs out of oxygen in twelve hours?”
“We’re going to a beta site nearby. They have a few spare oxy tanks there. It’ll buy us some time to figure out the rest.”
He held out an arm to help me stand and then pulled the heavy padded suit up to my waist. There were three separate layers to it, and it smelled strongly of plastic and stale air.
“It’s dangerous, I know,” he continued. “But we don’t have a choice. If we move fast enough, maybe we can get out of here safely. Maybe we can change the vision.” His jaw tensed for a moment. “Otherwise what’s the point of seeing the future?” I wasn’t sure if he was talking more to me or to himself.
“Have you ever done it? Changed something you’ve seen?”
He didn’t answer me, just lifted up the top half of the suit. “Here, fit your arms in.”
I shrugged my arms into the heavy sleeves of the suit and sat down again to rest while Adrien clipped one of the compressed oxygen packs onto the belt at my hip and hooked it up. He fit the thick helmet with a see-through face mask over my head, adjusting it so the edges were firmly aligned with the body of the suit. The whir of precious air circulating through the mask filled my ears. He reached for the suit’s forearm panel to run a quick diagnostic that would check for tears or leaks, and that’s when I saw it: the red alarm light began flashing silently in the corner.
I gasped and looked over at Adrien. We both knew what it meant.
The Inspector was already here.
Copyright © 2013 by Heather Anastasiu