“Where do they go?”
I had wondered that myself once. Some sort of prison? I doubted it. “I don’t know.”
He frowned. “Do they tell anyone? The families?”
It figured the rich boy had no idea how this worked. I did one assignment in the rich area of town for every hundred I did in the slums.
“No. I don’t think so, anyway.”
“How’s the leg?” I interrupted.
He looked down, shaking it out. “Getting there.”
“Get your arms up, then. Let’s keep going.”
He met my eyes almost every time I swung at him. I wasn’t sure what to make of the way he looked at me, like he was intrigued by something. The little flutters it caused in my chest were distracting.
“Let’s stop for today,” I said after his jaw had healed from its second break of the day. Dinner was in ten minutes; everyone else was clearing out of the gym.
I held out my hand to help him off the mat and he took it. As he pulled himself to a standing position, he put his hand lightly on my arm and leaned so close to my ear his breath tickled my cheek.
My first instinct was to jump away. No one came that close to me. Even as a human, I didn’t remember anyone being so near I could feel the warmth of their skin. But he began speaking, so softly that I wouldn’t be able to hear him if I moved away.
“Do they listen to us all the time in here?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I whispered. “I know they do in the field. There are cameras everywhere in here, so probably.”
He straightened but didn’t step away. I think I meant to put a more appropriate distance between us, but I got distracted by the way he smiled down at me. I’d always lived in a world where I had to look up, but for the first time I wanted to rise up on my toes and bring my face closer to his.
I heard a throat clear and I quickly took a big step back. Whether or not they could hear us, they could most certainly see us. The guard in the corner, the cameras on the wall, the other Reboots passing by—they could see us just fine.
“Good night,” I said, turning to quickly walk away.
“YOU’RE JUST OBSERVING THIS TIME,” I SAID TO TWENTY-TWO the next night as we stood on the roof of HARC. “Remember that.”
He nodded. He kept rubbing his hands up and down his arms and bouncing on his heels. The newbies were always nervous, but I had thought he might stroll onto the roof with his usual smile. He hadn’t, and I almost missed it.
Ten Reboots stood on the roof of HARC in the dark, waiting for the shuttle. Five were newbies with their trainers. Lissy cast a scornful glance at Twenty-two as he bounced, then looked at her Forty-three smugly. Forty-three, with his tiny arms and odd facial twitch, didn’t seem like much to be smug about.
“Don’t speak unless spoken to,” I continued, ignoring Lissy. “Do everything the officers tell you to in the field. Otherwise, they will shoot you.”
He nodded again as the shuttle landed on the roof with a bang, the gust of wind it brought blowing up my ponytail. The side door slid open and Leb stood there, his black sleeves rolled up to his elbows even though it was a chilly night. He was a tall, well-built guy, and he often looked uncomfortable in the stiff HARC uniform.
He waved his hand, gesturing for us to get on. We stepped inside, the metal clanging underneath our boots. Since there were ten of us going out tonight we were in one of the midsize shuttles. The small black plastic seats lined the side of the shuttle, facing the one bigger chair for the officer. The door leading to the driver’s seat was still open, and I glimpsed the back of a human’s head. The drivers never left the shuttle under any circumstance, and didn’t interact with the Reboots in back.
Twenty-two stood next to me motionlessly, as I had instructed, and Leb grabbed his arm and turned it over to look at his bar code. He chuckled, the lines on his hard square face more pronounced when he smiled.
“I heard you picked Twenty-two,” he said. “Had to see for myself.”
I had no idea how to respond to that. I nodded slightly and he smiled, the only guard to smile at any Reboot, much less me. He was a weird human.
“Sit,” he said, slamming the driver’s door closed and plopping down in his seat. He hadn’t even taken his gun out of its holster. He was one of the few officers to leave it on his hip when Reboots entered the shuttle. Most of them stuck it in our faces, trying not to let it wobble.
I sat first and Twenty-two followed, pulling the straps down his chest and fumbling as he tried to snap them. He was shaking now. The newbies were always scared of the shuttle; in their human lives they had never been inside anything that moved so quickly or lifted off the ground. Most hid their fear. It was only Forty-three who let his terror show openly, his breathing heavy and unsteady. Lissy smacked his head.
I stared at Twenty-two as we rose into the air. He closed his eyes. He looked almost human with his black eyes shut. He hadn’t developed the speed or agility or predatorlike quality that defined a Reboot yet. He still had so many clumsy human traits. Yet as he stretched his legs out in front of him and ran his hands down his thighs I could see the Reboot in him—the slow, controlled movement, how he seemed to take up every inch of space in a room by the way he held his body. It was a subtle difference, the one between humans and Reboots, but it was unmistakable.
Leb caught me staring and raised his eyebrows. I quickly focused my gaze on my hands.
“You can speak freely,” he said.
Twenty-two remained silent as the other newbies whispered to their trainers, his fingers gripping the bottom of his seat every time we jerked.
“There’s no reason to be scared,” I said. “Even if we crash, chances are we’d be fine.”
“Unless we’re decapitated.”
“Well, yes. But that seems unlikely.”
“Or if the top comes down and crushes our heads in.” His eyes flew to the black metal above us.
“Trust me when I say a shuttle crash is the least of your worries tonight.”
“Thank you. I feel so much better.” He looked at Leb. “How long have you been doing this? Have you ever—”
“Twenty-two,” I said sharply. He looked at me and I shook my head. The shuttle had gone silent again.
“What? He said we could speak freely.”
“He didn’t mean to him.”
Twenty-two rolled his eyes and I felt a spark of anger in my chest.