Seven o’clock in the evening, and her bottom hurt from sitting in this damn chair for so long. Her ears could pick up on her blood pumping through her skull and her stomach working to digest her measly lunch because the silence filled this room so completely. It may have been comforting, if she hadn’t known that the illusion would be immediately shattered the second she opened that door.
But she had to grin and bear it, no matter what. Maybe more grin than bear. Whatever it took to get herself— and everyone else— through these tough times, she would do. She had an obligation to. She’d known this from the start. Ever since she’d planned her take to power, she had known. And she would see that oath to the end, no matter what.
There was a knock on the door. She flustered, pushing her glasses all the way back up her face and smoothing out her hair before she turned around. “Who— who is it?” she said, clearing the stutter out her throat a second too late.
“It’s me. Jaime.”
Her chest fluttered. She took her glasses off again, rubbed her eyes again, put them on again. “Yeah,” she replied, allowing the sudden tension in her shoulders to melt away. “You can come in.”
The door opened, and Jaime stepped inside. He shut the door behind him as soon as he was all the way in, sealing the outside away from them. He stood there for a while, hands pressed against the door’s wooden surface like he could barricade the world away with his flesh, and stared at her. She stared back.
Then he brought a fist to his mouth and coughed, lightly. With their silent staring contest brought to an unceremonious end, he whispered, “What’s the matter? Why are you all holed up in here on your own?”
Callahan rubbed her entire face, hairline to chin, and sighed deeply. “Jaime….”
“Okay. Stupid question. I… should have known better.” He pushed himself from the door and walked toward her. “Do you think that would help you feel better?”
“No. I don’t want to talk about it. I want to solve it, not talk about it.”
“Well— you aren’t wrong. I just thought that maybe you’d feel better.” Jaime paused. Even through her downcast gaze and half-shut eyelids, she could still see him bite the corner of his bottom lip nervously. “I’m sorry, Callahan.”
“Don’t apologize. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Well— I know that. But… still. I still can’t help but feel bad.” Another pause stretched in between them, making the silence even more ponderous than it had been before. “Is there anything that I can do to help? Besides what we’re meant to do already, of course.”
“All I want is for you not to blame yourself. Nothing that’s happened so far has been anywhere near your fault, Jaime, It’s everyones’ fault but yours, really. Kegan, Riley… me. It’s our fault. Not yours.”
“It isn’t your fault, either. You didn’t do… this. You didn’t ask for that to happen.” He paused. “Are you ever going to punish Kegan and Riley?”
Callahan winced. She reached up, and rubbed the ring of still-tender skin wrapped around her throat. It stung. “I will,” she lied. “Eventually. But punishments aren’t supposed to be the top priority right now. Punishments aren’t going to fix the situation that we got ourselves into. They can wait for as long as they need to. Right now, what I want to focus on is how we’re going to help those girls. The City’s in more of a dire state than it’s been in years. I can’t forgive myself for allowing other people to pull even more people into the mess. I won’t forgive myself for it.”
“I know you probably don’t believe me. But you’re doing everything that you can to set things right and more. Sure, people have caused you slip-ups, but… it isn’t anything that you should beat yourself up over. It isn’t anything that you should feel bad over. Don’t feel like you need to forgive yourself for anything.” He shuffled an inch closer. Two inches closer. “You’re doing the best that you can.”
“I appreciate your optimism, Jaime. But this is going to be a part of my personal journey to fixing things. Realizing personally that I’ve done wrong.” Out of the corner of her eye, she could see him start to open his mouth. She held up a hand, and he slowly slid it shut. She continued. “If I don’t realize what I’ve done— or what I’ve allowed to happen, or however you would like to put it— is, and was, wrong, then I’ll become complacent. I won’t see it as a top priority to set things right again. If my guilt is what drives the need for all of us to improve, then so be it.”
Jaime still had uncertainty written all over his face, but he nodded. Callahan tapped her fingers on the desk. “Is that why you came in here? Just to comfort me?”
“Ah— no. I wanted to tell you that you best come into the lab, soon.”
“Is something happening there?”
“Well— yeah. Kind of.” He nodded, reaching up for another time to rub the nape of his neck. “It’s a… little bit chaotic. I think we could really use a calming voice over there right now. If you know what I mean.”
She knew exactly what he meant. She sighed, pushing up from her desk. “Okay,” she breathed. “Alright.”
“Don’t be sorry. It’s alright.” This is what I’m supposed to do, Jaime.”
“Alright. If you say so.”
“I’m serious. Don’t worry so much about me. Then I’ll have to worry about you doing that. It’ll just be a vicious cycle of stress all the way down.”
“But I can’t not worry.” Jaime moved closer to her, putting his hands on her shoulders. Callahan could feel his warmth spreading over her already clammy back. Behind her, he sighed. “But… if you want me to stop talking about it, then I will. For your sake.”
She took in a slow, silent breath. Then she pulled away from him, walking to the door. “Thank you, Jaime.”
Her fingers were slick with sweat, the doorknob smooth. It took a bit of effort to get a proper grip on it and open the door.
For a second she stood in silence, straining her ears for signs of noise. At first, there was nothing— and then, carrying itself through the hallway like a ribbon in the breeze, the murmured suggestions of a din a while away. Voices. Many voices. Some of them loud, others louder. She couldn’t tell who was who, what words were being said and why, even as she walked into the hallway. “Jaime?”
“What were they arguing about before you came to fetch me?”
Jaime visibly clenched his jaw, even as they began their slow amble through the hallway. “It was mostly just— general chaotic things. Worried things, you know? Stuff about what we’re going to do with those girls, especially. That was definitely the biggest complaint out of all of them.”
“What do you plan on doing about it?”
She fumbled for a moment, trying to think of something proper she could say. “I’m… not quite sure about that, yet. What I do know for sure is that I’m going to help. I’m not going to let this ordeal drag on for any longer than it absolutely has to.”
They turned a corner. Now in the wing where the lab’s entrance was located, Callahan felt a twinge of apprehension prick at her chest. She stopped for the briefest of seconds, before she brushed it off as she should have seconds ago, and continued walking. “It’ll be alright,” she said, unsure if she was talking to herself or to Jaime. “Let’s just hear what everyone has to say, and use it as a launching pad from there.”
Though the doors were sealed shut, voices still managed to seep through the cracks. Though it wasn’t quite the cacophony Callahan wasn’t expecting, the majority of what she was hearing didn’t sound pleasant. It was time for that to change.
Callahan shoved the door open. It was like walking straight into the middle of a thunderstorm. Voices were tossed around like ice pellets, stinging the skin and the eye. The tension could be cut through with a blade. And— it didn’t seem like anyone was noticing her arrival. Jaime’s, either. Not that that was uncommon, really; it was quite common in fact.
She stepped further into the room, immersing herself in the din. She couldn’t easily be heard, but when she was seen, the effects were just about instantaneous. The voices ebbed away for a second, a split second, and then they were swelling even more powerfully than they had before.
Kegan was upon Callahan in a second. She instinctively shrank back, her hand flying to her collarbone as a useless shield. But Kegan didn’t go for it. He instead jabbed a finger straight into her face, nearly grazing the tip of her nose with one sharp, overgrown fingernail. “You,” he said, his voice acid in Callahan’s ears, “fix this.”
Callahan took a step back, a bitterness of her own growing in the bottom of her chest. She had to fix this? She hadn’t been the one to take the Seeker birds into the Outskirts. She hadn’t been the one who’d ordered them to pluck a pair women from the forest. She had been forced to comply with all of that, literally choked into submission— and she had to fix it all on her own?
The twist of fury shot up her throat— but Jaime was between her and Kegan before it had the opportunity to go anywhere. He held his hands out placatingly, like it would be able to stop Kegan if bad came to worse. “Let’s… let’s not get too upset with each other, now,” he said, the undertones of a nervous stammer jumping up the his tone. “Let Callahan speak. She knows what she’s doing. She knows what we’re going to do. Alright? Let’s all just stay calm.”
Kegan’s glare would have reduced Jaime to dust had it been any more intense. But to his credit, he nodded— once, curtly— and backed away. “Let her speak, for herself then. Don’t throw yourself between us for her.”
Jaime lowered his arms, backing away so he was just in front of Callahan. “I just want to make sure that nothing bad is going to happen to her. That’s all.”
Callahan rubbed her collarbone with her knuckle, swallowing down the nervousness swelling in her throat. “Thank you, Jaime. But that won’t be necessary. We can all solve this, diplomatically and cooperatively. I do not need you speaking for me, right now.”
Jaime hesitated, and then nodded. Thank goodness, he nodded. Backing away so that Callahan could face Kegan. once again, he gestured to her cordially. “Listen to her,” he said.
Callahan sighed through her nose, struggling to maintain her composure. “Tell me,” she said, “what is it that I have caused? What is it I have to fix, Kegan?”
“What do you mean, what it is you have to help us fix? I’m sure you know. I’m sure you know quite well what it is.”
“I do. But I do not see how it is my fault alone, Kegan. I am not the one who insisted on dragging us all into this situation.”
“You did that when you decided it was a good idea to throw Director Ellis out, you—”
Shelby pushed forward, and raised her hand before Kegan could finish his sentence. “Director Callahan… you see— we tried… we tried to get through to our… our… the people from the Outskirts.” She wrung her braid. “We tried talking to them. But it didn’t work at all. They… they were pretty unresponsive. If you could even call it that, I mean.”
“What do you mean by unresponsive?”
She shrugged, starting to play with her hair again. “They— they just refused to talk. That, or they just couldn’t. I don’t know. But I couldn’t even get their names out of them.” She paused. Her voice grew quieter, more hesitant to leave her. “If they even had names. You know?”
Callahan took in a deep breath. “What is it that you told them, Shelby?” she asked, struggling to keep her fading composure completely in her tone. “Did you talk to both of them? Aren’t they located in separate containment rooms? Or— did somebody help you? You have a lot of friends here. Did they talk to one while you talked to the other?”
Shelby continued fiddling with her hair. She nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, kind of.”
She nodded another time, her mouth opening and closing the way a fish’s would. “Yeah. Sort of. We… took turns, trying to talk to all of them. We thought it may have been a bit stressful, all three of us ganging up on a single one of them all at once, you know? So we took turns. I tried, then Parker tried, and then Riley. But none of us really had any luck. They weren’t cooperating at all with us.”
Callahan narrowed her eyes— ignoring the way Shelby shrank back at her look. “How exactly did they act? What makes you think they were unwilling to cooperate?”
“They… cowered. You know what I mean? They weren’t violent, or anything, if that’s what you’re thinking. Just— scared. They didn’t even want to be around us.”
She brought her hand to her lip, feeling a deep crease carve itself into the space between her eyebrows. “I see,” she said. “That’s…” it wasn’t good. But it was a bit more information. A bit more that they could work with, and figure out what to do. Her lips and eyelids felt a little less heavy. So did her heart. Then she snuck a glance at Kegan’s surly face and it all gradually came rolling back to her. She sighed and rubbed her face. “Perhaps I will go and see for myself what exactly what is going on.”
A ripple shot through the collection of subordinates at that. Kegan’s face screwed up into a patronizing little sneer, but he surprisingly remained silent. It was Dana, one of her trusted subordinates, who normally remained quiet and passive amidst the worst of the disorder, who stepped forward. “Are you sure that’s a good idea? You heard what Shelby and Riley had to say about them. There’s a chance that you may not be any different.”
She set her jaw stiff and made her gaze hard. “Yes, Dana. What you say is true. I may not be able to get through to them any more than Riley, Parker, or Shelby have. But, do tell me— what else do you think we should do, that wouldn’t compromise their safety or integrity? I would genuinely like to know— so your suggestions may be taken into consideration, and acted on appropriately.”
Dana turned his gaze downward. He was thinking, ruminating over his thoughts before he decided to say anything. If only Kegan could do the same thing. “We could always find someone who is… more equipped to handle these things, Callahan,” he said. “Perhaps someone adept in the practice of communicating with children? People who are more able to focus on… emotionally compromised individuals?”
Yes… that was true. “I can see your point, Dana,” she said. “But we do not want to attract any more attention to this than we already have, regardless of whatever consequences there may be.” Out of the corner of her eye she saw Kegan opening his mouth to speak, and raised her hand to stop him. Surprisingly, it worked. “I would like to see what it is we’re dealing with before I go off making any sort of brash decisions,” she continued. “Assessing the situation in person to take in all the nuances and details would be the best way to go about that. We must show the other committees—and the parties beyond the committees, in fact— that we are at least attempting to resolve this issue on our own.”
Dana still looked concerned, bothered. But he nodded, regardless of his clear indecision. “If that’s what you think we should do, Director,” he said. “And as long as most of the rest of us agree.”
Callahan’s chest fluttered. She turned a bit, examining the faces of those around her. Kegan had clear irritation carved into his features— expected, but still a bit disheartening— and Shelby, Riley and Parker seemed a bit uncomfortable, but no protests or complaints were sounded. “Thank you all for your cooperation and understanding,” she said. “We’re going to try and set things right. Everything.”
She didn’t get much of a response. Not the most heartening of signs, but… what else could she do? It was best to be grateful that they weren’t casting her out, like they had done of Ellis. All she did was nod and smile, and hope that that would be enough to placate them. It must have, because no words were spoken between any of them.
Callahan turned away. “You all are dismissed,” she said, disregarding the surprise that went through them all. “Yes. You are free to leave. Clean yourselves and this place up, and try to get some rest.”
Behind her, the committee— her subordinates— whispered and shuffled. Then there was the clack of shoes on tile, moving away from her. One pair, then two, then too many to count.
Callahan smoothed out her coat and brushed a few strands of hair out of her face. Then she started for the doors. The hinges glided effortlessly as she swung the doors open, but she still found herself going tense, as if someone would be alerted and pursue after her. Nobody did. She stepped out into the hallway, and her footsteps echoed.
She wasn’t more than ten paces away before the click of the door opening again lifted her— ungratefully— out of her thoughts. She stopped in her tracks and turned around, just in time to see a figure slipping through the open crack between the doors. She felt herself frown. “Jaime?”
He jogged up to her, almost sounding out of breath. “S-sorry,” he mumbled. “Are you alright?”
She turned back around. “I’m fine,” she replied. “Just tired.”
“Oh.” Jaime didn’t say anything more— but when Callahan began walking away again, he flustered and followed after her, his heels clicking fast on the floor. “Do you want to— talk about it, or anything?”
“Talk about what, Jaime?”
Another falter. “You… you just seemed to be a little upset. That’s all.”
“Oh. Well. I assure you that I’m fine. I just need to get some rest. You understand that, don’t you?”
“I… I do.” He searched her face out of the corner of her eye, his lips twitching like he had more to say. But he only said two more words, quiet and low: “I’m sorry.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry for. Like I said, I’m just tired. I need rest.” She rubbed her eye with the back of her hand. “And you do, too. Don’t stay awake worrying about me. Okay? I dismissed you all for a reason.”
“I know. I know I shouldn’t worry about you so much.” He shuffled himself closer to her, the back of his hand grazing over hers, lightly, hesitantly. “I just can’t help it.”
Callahan swallowed the thickness in the back of her mouth, pulled away from Jaime, and began walking at full gait again. “Work on it,” she said.
She could basically feel the hurt jaunt off him, like a sharpened blade. Pins and needles ran down her arms, coalescing into ice at her fingertips, but she ignored it. Keeping her chin raised, her gaze forward, she began to walk away, leaving Jaime behind.
She felt bad about it. Of course she felt bad about it. But for all of Jaime’s intelligence, charm, and spirit, the one thing that remained for him to learn was the importance of boundaries. It wasn’t her place to teach him that. At least not now.
She continued walking. The farther she got away from the laboratory, the more the pressure in the sides and back of her head grew, threatening a terrible headache. She had been doing a decent job at hiding her stress, but how much longer would she be capable of keeping the act up? How much longer would it take before she cracked under the weight of those two girls, the committee, the entire City resting on her shoulders? It could be hours from now. It could be years. There would be no way of knowing when it would happen until it actually did.
She dreaded the time that that day would arrive. Her hands shook as she entered the elevator, fingers sweaty as she pressed the button to the upper floor. She almost couldn’t believe that she was thinking it, but… she almost wished that Ellis was still here, so he could help her fix this mess.
No. No. She didn’t need Ellis. They had never needed him. And even if they had— even if they did need him, right at this very moment, it was clear that he was gone. Kegan had sent out those Seeker birds specifically to find Ellis. All they had come back with were a frightened pair of young women who had no idea what this place was or what was happening to them. Why would they have come back only with them, if not for the fact that they were the only people in the Outskirts to be found?
She rushed out the door as soon as they were open enough for her. She couldn’t worry about Ellis, right now. What had to be worried about was sleep. Sleep would do a lot of help for her. Her feet working on autopilot, she drifted over to her room and opened the door.
She slipped off her coat and let it drop to the carpet— thought better of it, and hung it up on the hook. Then she took off her shoes, ambled to her bed, and threw herself upon it. She would deal with clothing, teeth brushing, and everything else in the morning. Right now, sleep was the most important thing. She shut her eyes again., forcing her entire body to relax, for her mind to slow— and just like that, she was gone.
~ * ~
“And you really think this is the best thing to do?”
“Of course it is.”
Jaime only pursed his lips. Callahan took a deep breath, let it out, wiping her palms off on the knees of her pants. Here they were staring at the sealed doors like they were lined with poison. Callahan adjusted her glasses, forcing a smile upon her face. “Everything will be alright. Even if things don’t end up working out in our favor, progress is still progress and should be treated as such. There are always other plans and ways to approach this— other things that can be done in order to set things right. This is just step one of the processes. You understand, don’t you?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I do.” He nodded. But he still looked nervous, sweat beading on his temples. Callahan couldn’t blame him. She observed the heavy metal doors before them. Two were occupied, she had been told; naturally, that meant that they held the two people she was looking to speak to. Had separating them played a part in their uncooperative behavior with Shelby, Riley, and Parker? So many questions, and there was no way of knowing if she would get any answers at all. Callahan fumbled with the key held in her hand, running her thumb along the metal teeth. Well. There was really only one way to find out, then.
She looked back to Jaime. Then she glanced behind her, as if somebody would be waiting for them at the end of the narrow hallway. Nobody was there, of course. The sooner she could get these thoughts off her nerves, the better it would be for her and for everyone. “Are you ready?” she asked.
Jaime nodded, pursing his lips for a moment. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m ready.”
“You don’t seem too ready.”
He ran his finger over the hem of his shirt. “I’m nervous,” he replied. “Aren’t you?”
“Of course I’m nervous. But I don’t think we have anything to worry about. As long as we keep our distance and pay attention to what’s going on.”
Jaime shook himself out, looking to his designated door. “Yeah. You’re right.”
“That makes me quite happy to hear.” Callahan fiddled with the key ring clutched between her fingers, until she was about to get the second key off. She handed it to Jaime without looking him in the eye. She didn’t wait to see what he was going to do. She walked up to her own door, stood in front of it for a moment, and felt a pensive frown twitch its way onto her face.
Her heart was a miniature drum in the side of her neck as she took the key, wielded it like a blade, and put it against its lock. It fit like a hand in a glove. Callahan swallowed. She turned the key, and the door opened.
The room looked… untouched. The bed’s sheets were still laid out perfectly, immaculately, as if a person had never once even looked at it before. All the books were still neatly stacked on the bed stand, their corners aligned with each other. Even the carpet seemed untouched. Was anybody even in here? Had they made a mistake, sending her to this room?
Callahan frowned. She opened the door completely, stepped inside— flinched as the door shut behind her with a final, resounding click. It was supposed to do that, she reminded herself. She could leave as long as she had the key on her. Considering how desperate this person was to hide, though… would she have to worry about an ambush?
She walked further into the room. Her chest jumped and fluttered; she was holding her breath in anticipation, she realized. Letting out a breath, she allowed more air to rush into her lungs— and nearly gagged. The sour, fetid stench of spoiled food was so intense, it had to be a miracle that her eyes hadn’t started to sting the second the door had opened. Someone had to be in here.
Callahan cupped her free hand to her mouth, taking short, jumping breaths in a futile attempt to mask the offensive scent wrapped around her. She walked further into the room. “Hello?”
No response. She should have figured. She shook her head, dropping her arm back to her side. Her disgust and curiosity was quickly yielding to irritation, now. She would check the room, see if anyone was in here— and if she didn’t find anybody after a quick look through, she would leave. Hopefully Jaime was having more luck than she was.
She approached the bathroom first. Twisted the doorknob with confidence; there were no locks anywhere in this vicinity other than the locks on the door and the window. True to her expectations, the flimsy bathroom door opened easily. And she was met with nothing. No water dripping from the faucet or dribbled in the basin of the sink, no lingering humidity to suggest that a shower had been taken recently. It smelled relatively normal, too; the rancidity was most certainly concentrated to the main bedroom.
Slowly, she backed out of the room, shutting the door once again. Then she turned around so her back was pressed to it, searching the room from a wide vantage point. Nothing, nothing at all… wait. What was that, squeezed underneath the bed?
She pushed herself off the door, taking a few steps away from it. Heart racing, she knelt down, peering into the narrow gap between the bed and the floor. There was definitely a dark lump underneath there, almost as big as Callahan was— but it wasn’t moving. Could this be what she was looking for?
She suffused as much gentleness into her tone as she possibly could. “Hey. Is anybody under there? Do you need help?”
No response was given, predictably. Callahan huffed the sour air out her nose, suddenly feeling quite silly. Maybe she was wrong, after all. That could easily have been a tangle of old clothes, or a spare set of bedding, stuffed and forgotten under the bed, or something. It didn’t have to be a person. Maybe there truly wasn’t anybody to encounter in here, after all. Callahan could leave, tell the secretary in front of the disgusting smell in one of their containment rooms, and be done with this for—
The mass shifted and Callahan jumped, almost falling back. It moved a little more, spread out like ink in a water glass— and then a pair of eyes stared out at her, white circles the size of saucers set into a dark stain.
It was only when darkness began to line the edge of her vision that Callahan realized she had forgotten to breathe. She pulled back even more, taking a deep breath. “Hey,” she whispered. “It’s alright. I’m not going to hurt you. I’m here to help.”
It— she— only continued staring. Callahan bit the corner of her lip. “What’s your name?” she tried, knowing full well that her chances of getting an answer were slim to none.
Those saucer eyes blinked once at her, then twice, never once moving away or relaxing. Then— to her surprise— a voice drifted from underneath the bed. “I don’t really have… a name.”
She could speak. And yet, she didn’t have a name? Callahan struggled to keep her expression mild. “You don’t? You don’t have anything that you’re called? Anything that you’d like to be called?”
Another bout of silence, made even more uncomfortable by the fact that she could speak. “Well… I… I’m called Sixteen.”
Sixteen? Sixteen was her name? No, that wasn’t a name at all: it was a number. If the pit of discomfort in Callahan’s stomach had been shifting before, it was at a boil now. “That’s an… interesting name,” she said.
The girl— would it really be right to call her by a number?— didn’t say anything in response to that. All she did was hunch up her shoulders, and what little Callahan could see of her face screwed up into a sorry little cross between a frown and a wince. Pity churned in Callahan’s chest. “I’m not going to hurt you. If that’s what you’re worried about— don’t be.”
She just looked up, then down again. Her eyes squinted, blinked, opened up to their full saucer-sized glory again. She didn’t say anything. Callahan bit her lower lip. “My name is Callahan,” she said. “Why don’t you come out of there so we can speak to each other more easily? Like I said— I don’t want to hurt you. I just want to help.”
Sixteen’s throat clicked with a loud, painful-sounding swallow. “I think… I think I want to stay in here.”
Callahan would have been lying if she tried to say she wasn’t disappointed with that answer. But from what she had been told before, all the tales of uncooperation and reticence— she was already doing much more than the others had. Progress, actual progress, was being made. She forced a smile over her face. “That’s alright,” she replied. “Hey— have you eaten or drunk anything since you’ve gotten here? Your voice… sounds dry.”
Sixteen wavered at that, her eyes darting back and forth. Slowly, she shook her head.
Had she eaten since being taken out of the Outskirts at all? Had the officials given her anything? She could have been on the brink of collapse, right now. What help would any of Callahan’s actions be, then? “Well. Do you want something to drink, then? Some water? Or maybe something to eat?”
“W-well… I got… something.”
“Something? Something stopping you from eating or drinking?”
“No. Something… something under here.”
Callahan blinked. Ah. She had dragged the food under the bed, then. No wonder that rancid stench had permeated everything so thoroughly. No wonder Callahan couldn’t find the source of it easily. Unless that was the scent of the girl, after she hadn’t bathed for so long? Nausea churned in her. “I see. And you didn’t eat it? Is that what that smell is coming from?”
Sixteen averted her gaze yet another time. That was more than enough of an answer. “Why didn’t you eat it?” Callahan asked. “Is it not up to your tastes, Sixteen? Or were you just not hungry?”
Her eyes stayed low as she shrugged, a low, crackly moan rumbling in the base of her chest. Callahan sighed. She looked over Sixteen’s sorry, dark figure, the gears in her mind churning. “Would you just like some water, then?” she finally decided to ask. “Just a glass of cold water, straight from the faucet. Nothing else added to it— it’ll be completely safe for you to drink.”
She didn’t look up at Callahan, but her tongue did dart out to swipe at her lip. That low, rumbly note in her throat again. Eventually, she nodded— slowly, as if it pained her to do so. And maybe it did.
Callahan didn’t want to think about it. She pushed herself away from that putrid underbelly of the bed, standing up straight. “I’ll be right back.”
Sixteen didn’t give her a response. Well, she gained some, she lost some. She was already making much better progress than the others. How was Jaime doing, in the room with the other captive? She could only assume that he was having this same streak of luck that she was. Maybe they had decided to have a change of heart, and that was why they were cooperating so nicely. Well, cooperating so nicely compared to the debacle that the others had experienced, at least.
Callahan shook her head, making her way toward the bathroom. She opened the door, welcomed the draft of mostly fresh air that greeted her with open arms and a slow, deep inhale. Then she walked inside, closing the door behind her. Placed neatly upon the sink was a plastic cup, probably for someone to use to rinse after brushing their teeth. Callahan plucked it up and ran it under the faucet, filling it with as cold water as the sink could manage. Then she thought better of it, turning the temperature to warm partway through. Anything too cold or too hot would cause a shock to the system. Lukewarm would be fine— then they could see about more solid, hotter things later on.
With just a bit of reluctance niggling at her, Callahan left the bathroom. That dark mass was still under the bed, much to her relief. She walked over and crouched back down, holding the cup out to her. “There you go. I don’t know how well you’ll be able to drink it, squished up under there, but…”
Stillness for a moment— and then a pale hand came crawling out of the darkness. It regarded the cup with an almost endearing sort of hesitation. Then it reached out and took it, pulled it back into the abyss it had come from. Callahan could hear gulping. Very loud gulping. Of course she had been thirsty. She’d been dragged through the forest for what could have been days, against her will— her body had to be devastated. And her mind, too.
Callahan watched with a grim fascination as she finished the entire glass in all but five seconds. Feebly, she took it away from her lips. “Thank you,” she said, reedily. “Thank you. I feel better now.”
“You’re quite welcome.” She paused, watching the way Sixteen closed her eyes and sighed. “If it’s alright with you, Sixteen… can I ask you a few questions?”
Sixteen immediately went stiff. Callahan was already prepared for the worst, already rushing words out. “If you don’t want me to, then I won’t. But I think it could be beneficial to—”
“W-what would you like to know?”
She was caught mouth open. She hadn’t expected it to be that easy. “Well,” she started, then paused. “You see— I wanted to know… why are you called Sixteen? You must have a real name as well, yes?”
“I… I used to. But I don’t anymore.”
Everything she said only added another layer of intrigue onto everything. Callahan pushed down her eagerness and her desire to just ask everything that came to mind. Restraint was what was needed. Restraint, and respect. “That’s quite interesting to hear, Sixteen.” She paused. “Say— would you like to have an actual name again?”
At that, she looked up. “A… an actual name again?”
“Only if you would like to. I would never force you to do something that you wouldn’t want to do.” She could taste the irony on the words leaving her lips. “But, if you would like one… I’m sure that something could be arranged. It would be nice, I think, now that you’re in the City and everything.”
Sixteen parted her lips. Callahan could smell the sour rot along her breath, and it took everything she had not to gag. Thankfully, Sixteen shut her mouth soon after. Then she nodded. “I… I think I would like that,” she whispered. “Thank… thank you.”
A genuine smile spread over Callahan’s face. “You’re quite welcome.”
“I… I don’t know what kind of name I should have, though. Do you?”
“It will be quite easy,” Callahan hurried to say. “There’s an automated list every year, for the new children— but we can just pull one off the list for you. I’m sure you could even choose for yourself, if you’d like.”
A pause. Her voice became quieter. “Oh.”
Callahan frowned. “Is there something the matter? You seem downcast, all of a sudden.”
“N-no. Nothing is wrong.” She trailed off. “It is only that— well, it’s that…”
“It’s what, Sixteen?” Callahan leant forward. “I won’t judge.”
“Well. Um.” She shifted, her tattered clothes rustling loudly against each other— she hadn’t changed into the new pair of pyjamas offered to her, either; maybe that was also contributing to the smell. “My… friend. M-my— my friend. One of them. I think she… she’s here. She’s here with me. With us. And… she— she had a name chosen for her.”
Every time Callahan figured her curiosity couldn’t grow any sharper. “Your friend?” she asked, slowly. “Is that the one who came to the City with you?”
“Yes. One of them.” Another nod. “She had… she had a… name like mine. But she got it changed. By our other— friend.” She paused. Her eyes squeezed shut. “I… I think I would like that for me.”
Callahan couldn’t do much more than stare. Something… big was churning in her stomach. Something heavy. It felt like dread— that blunted, unrelenting feeling that something was very wrong. “I see.”.
“Yes… yes.” Sixteen peered up at her through her hair. “Do you think that could be done for me?”
“I’m… I’m sure something could be arranged for you, Sixteen.” Callahan placed her hands on the carpet, the texture absorbing the beading sweat on her palms. “Do you… do you mind if I ask you some more questions?”
“Well— I guess if you want to, then you can.”
“Yes. Thank you.” Her fingers were shaking, she vaguely realized. “We’ll speak more about that later. Why don’t you tell me more about your friend? Your friends, I mean.”
Skepticism wrote itself over what was visible of Sixteen’s face. “Where… where are they? They’re here with me, right? They were taken to the City with me?”
“Yes, they were. You don’t need to worry about them. But… can you explain them to me? In more detail? What were they like, Sixteen?”
“Please. Please just answer me.” Sixteen’s voice grew louder, shriller. “Where are they?”
“Tell me! Please— just tell me if they’re here. Tell me if they’re alright. Where are they?”
“What are their names, Sixteen?”
Sixteen just curled herself up even tighter under the bed, sliding into the shadows. For the first time, a real jab of annoyance pierced at Callahan’s composure. “I need to know, Sixteen. What are their names?”
“Jaden, and… and Ellis.”
Callahan’s vision went dark. “Oh,” she said, in a breath because she had no strength to say it louder. “Oh.”
“Are they alright? Are they okay?”
Callahan felt dizzy. She squirmed away, putting a hand on her forehead. Her tongue moved slowly, reluctantly. “I… Jaden is alright. Jaden is here with us. Don’t worry about her.”
“And Ellis? What about Ellis?”
“You… you know about Ellis?”
“He’s here with you all, right?”
“No. No, we don’t. He isn’t… he’s not here. We don’t know where he is.”
It was silent for a long, long minute. The wail that came from under the bed afterward should have sent chills down Callahan’s spine, but she was already covered with ice. Sixteen blubbered violently, ripping Callahan from her thoughts. She cried something unintelligible. Callahan clambered away, knees shaking as she pushed herself to her feet. Sixteen’s shattered weeping cut through her skin no matter how many shields she put up. She felt guilty for leaving her behind— or course she did, but… she couldn’t think. She wouldn’t be able to get a single word in with that uncontrollable sobbing. She had to leave. For both their sakes.
The cries continued raking against her skin even as she walked to the exit. Her fingers were slick with sweat. Shaking, too. It took a while to get a proper grip on the key, and wield it properly enough to push it through the lock. Callahan slipped through the opening the second it was big enough for her, immediately gasping in a lungful of fresh, unpoisoned air. The door closed behind her with a subtle click— and just like that, the screaming and crying stopped. It was like it had never even been there.
~ * ~
Callahan tapped her fingers on the table, barely able to sit still. There was so much that had to be done. So many things that had to be looked over and supervised, and so little time. Not to mention all the things that had to be thought about. But here she was, sitting in the breakroom, unable to go out and face the others because she was so afraid of breaking underneath the things she now knew.
Ellis was alive. Of course, many things may have happened between the time his friends were taken from the Outskirts and now, but even so, even if he wasn’t now— he had very recently been alive. After everything that had happened, somehow he was still holding on. Callahan wanted to know so many things, the biggest one being how. She could only assume that Sixteen and the other of their captives— Jaden— had decided to take him in, seeing him all sorry and suffering in the middle of the forest. Why? Now, that— that was a total mystery.
There really wasn’t any way to find out. Callahan had blown all of her luck away, telling Sixteen that Ellis was not here in the City with them. Jaime hadn’t fared much better. He’d done just about as well as Shelby and the others had, actually, if what he had had to recall held any merit. Truly, the only information they had gathered from their attempts to reach these two people was that Ellis was alive, still kicking, and had known them well enough for them to call him their friend.
She hadn’t told anybody about Ellis yet, not even Jaime. Maybe she never would. There was no need to give anyone false hope— or any further incentive to turn against her. If the Seeker birds hadn’t found him, then he likely would never end up being found. Why did anyone have to know?
She shut her eyes, allowing the darkness and silence to envelop her. Then she opened her eyes, took her chin off her hand, and began examining her fingernails. When she was younger, she’d had a poor habit of chewing them down to the nub, especially when she was nervous. Perhaps it should have been considered a testament to her willpower that she hadn’t picked up the habit again.
What were they going to do after all of this was over? After who they had requested for help would do what they could, and Jaden and Sixteen were… given whatever treatment they ended up needing? They still hadn’t perfected the serum, even after it’d been so long since Shelby had discovered it deteriorative properties. It seemed like they never would. Plans had already been lightly drafted out for an entirely different, brand new serum. It was only a matter of time before they completely switched to that. Maybe that was for the best— it wasted less of their valuable time.
The door swung open. Callahan jerked to watch it, heart thrumming violently. Seeing who it was, she let out a slow, shuddery breath. “Shelby. You… you startled me.”
Shelby stepped into the room, folding her hands at her hips. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.” She paused, shifting her weight from foot to foot. She reached up and started toying with her hair. “Reese is here.”
“Yes. We just got the message. You… maybe you should come out so you’re ready for your arrival.”
“Oh. Oh, yes. Of course.” Callahan stood from her chair, its legs scraping against the floor. Any wisps of fatigue quickly whisked themselves away. “Thank you for telling me.”
But Callahan was rushing past her already, hurriedly smoothing her hair down. She should have braided it up, like Shelby had. She tied it into a clumsy ponytail instead, praying that it looked at least somewhat presentable as she entered the main lab. Turning to face Shelby again, she asked, “I presume she’ll be downstairs?”
“Um— yes. I think so. I wasn’t the one who took the call. You’d be better off asking Kegan— because he did.”
Callahan was already turning away. “Thank you, Shelby. I’ll go and check right away.”
Shelby may have said something else— or maybe it had been one of the others— but she was out of the room before the words could register in her mind. She hurried to the elevator, fixed her hair up into something more presentable as she began to descend. She exited as soon as the doors opened, making a beeline for the exit.
Yes— a lone bus sat outside, its sleek black silhouette stark against the grays and silvers of everything else. Callahan approached it, her shoes grating against the asphalt. A gust of wind blew some strands of hair into her face. She brushed them away. “Here we go,” she mumbled to herself, and stopped near the bus’s closed door.
It didn’t stay closed for very long. With a hiss, the door opened. A lone set of footsteps sounded from within— and then a lone person emerged from the darkened interior. Donned in a twee sweater with her hair piled atop her head, she offered Callahan a tepid smile as she stepped onto the pavement. “Good morning! Miss Callahan, isn’t it?”
“It is.” Callahan took Reese’s outstretched hand, giving it a firm shake. “And you’re Reese Campbell, yes? Thank you so much for coming all the way out here from Silverhill. It’s really appreciated.”
“There isn’t any need to thank me.” Reese let go, that soft smile still on her face. “It is nice to have a bit of a change of scenery. I haven’t seen this place in years.”
“Oh— yes, I guess that all is true.” Callahan stepped back, looking over her shoulder. “Let’s get straight into this, then? I really don’t want to waste much time.”
Callahan hurried to keep pace with Reese as they approached the building, struggling for words. “We tried dealing with it all on our own, but each attempt failed spectacularly. I hope that you’ll be able to figure it out because if things continue on like this, then…”
She shook her head. “Nevermind. Just come with me. I’ll show you where they are.”
“That would be much appreciated. I’ll bring them up to you all.”
They entered the building, and Callahan could almost feel the tension bubbling from the hallway. Guilt stabbed at her chest; she’d gone and left Sixteen behind despite her obvious distress. Even now she stood back, watching silently as Reese spoke to the secretary, was given something small and shiny, and was directed to the hallway. Reese gave Callahan a short smile, and then she was gone.
Callahan stood there for a while, uncertain of what to do as the secretary gave her an odd look. Well, Reese hadn’t asked for help. There wasn’t a need to stay down here— she would be much more equipped to handle things in the lab, anyway. Callahan gave the secretary a nod, turned on her heel, and walked back out. She couldn’t worry. Reese was the best of the best. Everything would be fine.
The trip back up to the research center was largely uneventful. Callahan took her time going back to the lab; she debated simply staying in her office but decided against it. The reception she received entering was a lot… warmer, this time around. Riley and Shelby gravitated toward her immediately, almost nervously. “She did come, right?” asked Shelby.
“She did. And she’s doing her work. She’ll come and talk to us when everything is stable and ready.” Relatively stable and ready, at least. A pulsing thrummed in her temple as she made to walk around them. “For now, continue working. Alright?”
Callahan nodded even as she walked away. She didn’t break pace, didn’t crumple under the eyes digging into her, until she had reached Jaime, who was in the corner of the room. “She’s here,” she murmured. “She said she’ll be up in a… while.”
“How soon is a while?”
“I don’t know. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
“Well— I guess.”
Callahan tilted her head bsck and shut her eyes. She stayed like that for a moment, debating returning to her office or the breakroom.
There was a knock on the door before she could decide. Her breath caught in her throat and she turned around. That had been fast, quite fast. Kegan and Riley were already on it, approaching the still-sealed entrance. Kegan reached it first. He pushed the door open. His muscles froze for a split second, and then he relaxed. He said something too quietly for Callahan to hear, stepped aside— and then Reese walked in. Alone.
Callahan felt the forced smile on her face drop away. “Did it not work out the way we hoped?”
“Oh, no. It worked out just fine. I only talked to one of them so far, but with a little bit of help, it looks like she’ll be just fine. With your research or otherwise.”
Help? What sort of help? Callahan frowned. “You brought her up with you?”
“I did. Would you like to see her?”
That stony pit returned to Callahan’s stomach again. Somehow, she nodded. “Of… of course,” she said, with some effort. “Everyone, give her— them— some space.”
“I don’t believe that will be necessary.”
The others were already backing away, though, having listened to Callahan. She moved with them, watching Reese slowly open the door. “Jaden?” she crooned. “Jaden. It’s alright. You can come out now, sweetheart.”
Jaden. Callahan hadn’t spoken to her yet. Instinctively, she moved back a bit more, Jaime’s heat pressing against her back. Jaime didn’t seem to notice. Nor did the rest of the committee. Nor did Reese. “It’s alright,” she continued. “You can come inside. Everything’s perfectly safe.”
Silence— and then, slow as death, a pallid-white hand fumbled against the doorframe. Callahan swallowed, the stone in her stomach growing larger by the second. The hand crawled the rest of its way inside, and then the arm, and then—
She wasn’t fast enough to look away. She wasn’t supposed to look away. She was supposed to be indifferent to less pleasant-looking visuals, but that didn’t change the fact that her insides writhed at the already burnt-in memory of brown-stained bandages and tally marks of burgundy wrapped around ashen skin. The slow, shuffling movements made it clear that the girl was either exhausted deeply sedated. Probably both. The worst thing of all: she was so tiny. Probably not even Academy-age yet. She could have been in the middle of being taught by Reese herself, in a different, fairer life. No wonder Sixteen had hidden herself. What had they gone through because of them? What had they forced upon these people? What had they done?
“There you go. Good job.” Reese’s voice grew even softer. Callahan risked a glance over— the sight of rust-covered, matted hair was enough to make her look away again. Low, pitiful gagging sounded behind her. Riley? Or Shelby?
“You did such a good job. Poor thing. You’re still so dirty.”
Reese was met with silence, but she didn’t seem to mind. She fiddled with the filthy nest atop her head, still smiling pleasantly. “Do you know where you are, Jaden? Remember what I told you?”
A harsh silence stretched onward. Callahan realized she was holding her breath— because of the smell, or the tension? She slowly exhaled, and the blur at the edges of her vision dissipated.
Reese didn’t get a response. The girl stayed slumped on her chest, face hidden. Reese frowned. “Jaden. Remember what I told you? I’m your friend. I’m here to help you out. We’re all here to help you out.”
She shifted. Her voice came out like a used-up scream. “Y-you… are?”
Bumps curdled over Callahan’s arms, but she didn’t dare wipe them away. She watched as the girl lifted her head and looked up at Reese. She had strikingly green eyes, even puffy, part-delirious, and shot through with crimson. Her split, bloody lips parted.
“Jaden? Sweetie? We’re here to help you.”
Reese took Jaden’s bandaged wrist into her hand, squeezing it gently. Jaden pulled herself away, and—
The room tremored. Callahan stepped back, her breath hitching. It wasn’t the room that was shaking but Reese— she fell to her knees, hand clutched at her nose. Jaden staggered back and collapsed against the wall. Her mouth dragged open in a silent scream— was it silent? Somebody was screaming, their voice ringing in Callahan’s ears— she just couldn’t tell who. Her face felt heavy, heavy, her mind swelled and burst—
—and then everything went still. Callahan jerked as her breath returned to her in one painful gust. Her vision refocused, and her head stopped spinning.
Two— no, three people were sprawled on the ground before her— Kegan on top of Jaden, crushing her, his fist pressed deeply into her elbow. He pulled away and Callahan realized a needle shook in his fingers, slickened with blood. Reese wasn’t moving. Neither was the girl— but then she was, her hands clawing at her hair like she was trying to get something out of it.
Callahan seized Kegan’s arm before she knew what she was doing. “What is that? What did you give her?!”
Hands shoved against her chest and she fell back. Pain lanced up her spine. Kegan stood. The girl writhed on the ground, thick, pulpy liquid dripping from her left nostril. Then her right. The needle Kegan had— had it been filled with that botched medication? The one that caused cells to degenerate?
Somehow, she fought against her dizziness and pushed herself to her feet. Kegan’s voice rang in her skull. She ignored it— ignored the indignant cries as she shoved past the people behind her— ignored her sweaty palms and swimming vision as she plundered a countertop, and then the drawers beneath it. Her fingers closed around something cylindrical, icy in her hand. A syringe.
Nobody moved to intercept her as she rushed back, cold fury screaming in her ears. The girl was face-down, her hand curled into a painful fist at her nose. Callahan grabbed her by her matted hair and jerked it so that her claw-stung neck peered up like a white. She plunged the needle in and wrested it back out in the span of a second, and the girl shuddered and went limp.
“What did you do?”
The needle still felt cold in Callahan’s hand. She dropped it, shoving herself away before Kegan could grab her. “I— I saved her.”
She didn’t know if she was lying or not. She didn’t know what the botched medication would do— this was the first time the effects of the botched one had even been seen on a live subject. It’d worked so quickly. So cruelly. Callahan tasted acidic spit on the back of her tongue. “What did you do, Kegan? Why did you think that was a good idea, hurting an innocent girl?”
“Innocent? Look at what she did!”
Kegan swept out a hand and Callahan looked. Reese still languished over the tile, staining the white stark red. The others— the others who hadn’t taken the chance to run out the room while they’d had the chance— had crushed themselves against the far side of the room. Some of the others were slumped over, even completely prone. And the red was everywhere. Everywhere. It was— it—
“She did this! She did this!
Kegan pointed viciously at the crumpled shell of a girl whose chest barely moved. Callahan’s mouth was stuffed with cotton, sharp cotton; it cut at her lips and tongue as she started to speak. “That doesn’t give you an excuse to do something as dangerous as that, Kegan. We had no idea what that serum did. What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking of the fastest way to neutralize somebody who hurt our committee!”
“You shouldn’t have! You could have caused more damage than what’s already been done!”
“But I didn’t. She was dying. She wasn’t going to hurt people anymore. You had to go and ruin that.” Kegan loomed over her— over all of them?. “What are you going to do now, Director? Terminate her? Do what would have been done already, if you hadn’t intervened?”
The obstruction had spread to Callahan’s throat. She swallowed, staring at the girl’s sorry form. She looked almost pathetic. And yet, somehow, he had caused them all so much grief in such a little time.
Callahan breathed through the lump in her chest, digging her nails into the floor. “No.”
Callahan looked up at Kegan. “No,” she repeated. “Do you have any idea what this could do for us? What sort of advancements this could bring around? Do you know how many secrets about human development these people can be hiding? She… they can help us, Kegan. They can help us work on the City. They can help us save it.”
“And who’s to say that she won’t end up hurting others again?”
Callahan forced herself to stand. “Whatever you gave her will. I don’t know how long it will last— or how long the counterbalance of the medication will. But there’s nothing stopping us from reapplying either. And we still have more than enough time to explain to her these new conditions she finds herself in.”
Deep grooves carved themselves into Kegan’s face, but he didn’t say anything. Callahan stepped over Reese, pushed past Kegan, and stopped at the girl. She was on the edge of consciousness now, her breathing short and shallow. She rolled over and stared up at Callahan. Past her delirium, past the pain and exhaustion, something new flickered in her dull green eyes: fear.
Callahan crouched, took her wrist, and pulled her dead weight up. “Come, now. Let’s take you back.”
The girl didn’t respond. She didn’t move to help her out, either. Well, she was light enough and weak enough for one person to handle. Callahan turned to look at Kegan, who was still standing there, slack-jawed. “Deal with the others for me, please,” she said. “I’ll be back soon.”
Callahan ignored the silence she got in response. She opened the door, pulling the girl out with her. It slammed shut behind her, the harsh note punctuating the sun breaking through its thick, clouded prison. Everything would be alright. She’d make sure of it. She’d show the others that the City would be just fine— and, most importantly, that there was no need for Ellis to come back. This girl and her friend were going to help.