The Infinite Sea (Page 53)

“That’s a good point.” Nodding seriously. “I’ll bring that up at the next planning meeting. Maybe we need to rethink this whole hostile-takeover thingy.” She motions toward the door. “March.”

“Where?”

“You’ll find out. Don’t worry.” Claire adds, “You’re going to enjoy it.”

We don’t go far. Two doors down. The room is spare. A sink and a cabinet, a toilet and a shower stall.

“How long has it been since you’ve had a decent shower?” she asks.

“Camp Haven. The night before I shot my drill sergeant in the heart.”

“Did you?” she asks casually, as if I’d told her I used to live in San Francisco. “Towel right there. Toothbrush, comb, deodorant in the cabinet. I’ll be right on the other side of the door. Knock if you need anything.”

Alone, I open the cabinet. Roll-on antiperspirant. A comb. A travel-sized tube of toothpaste. A toothbrush in a plastic wrapper. No floss. I’d hoped there’d be floss. I waste a couple of minutes wondering how long it would take to sharpen the end of the toothbrush into a proper cutting instrument. Then I slip out of the jumpsuit and step into the shower, and I think of Zombie, not because I’m na**d in a shower, but remembering him talking about Facebook and drive-thrus and tardy bells and the endless list of all things lost, like greasy fries and musty bookstores and hot showers. I turn the temperature as high as I can stand it and let the water rain over me until my fingertips pucker. Lavender soap. Fruity shampoo. The hard lump of the tiny transmitter rolls beneath my fingers. You belong to them now.

I hurl the shampoo bottle against the shower wall. Slam my fist into the tile again and again until the skin on my knuckles splits open. My anger is greater than the sum of all lost things.

• • •

Vosch is waiting for me back in the room two doors down. He says nothing as Claire bandages my hand, silent until we’re alone.

“What did you accomplish?” he asks.

“I needed to prove something to myself.”

“Pain being the only true proof of life?”

I shake my head. “I know I’m alive.”

He nods thoughtfully. “Would you like to see her?”

“Teacup is dead.”

“Why do you think that?”

“There’s no reason to let her live.”

“That’s correct, if we proceed from the assumption that the only reason to keep her alive is to manipulate you. Really, the narcissism of today’s youth!”

He presses a button on the wall. A screen lowers from the ceiling.

“You can’t force me to help you.” Fighting down a rising sense of panic, of losing control of something I never had control over.

Vosch holds out his hand. In his palm is a shiny green object the size and shape of a large gel capsule. A hair-thin wire protrudes from one end. “This is the message.”

The lights dim. The screen flickers to life. The camera soars over a winter-killed field of wheat. In the distance, a farmhouse and a couple of outbuildings, a rusty silo. A tiny figure stumbles from a stand of trees bordering the field and lurches through the dry and broken stalks toward the cluster of buildings.

“That is the messenger.”

From this height, I can’t tell if it’s a boy or girl, only that it’s a small child. Nugget’s age? Younger?

“Central Kansas,” Vosch goes on. “Yesterday at approximately thirteen hundred hours.”

Another figure comes into view on the porch steps. After a minute, someone else comes out. The child begins to run toward them.

“That isn’t Teacup,” I whisper.

“No.”

Crashing through the brittle chaff toward the adults who watch motionlessly, and one of them holds a gun, and there is no sound, which somehow makes it more terrible.

“It’s the ancient instinct: In times of great danger, be wary of strangers. Trust no one outside your circle.”

My body tenses. I know how this ends; I lived it. The man with the gun: me. The child crashing toward him: Teacup.

The child falls. Gets up. Runs. Falls again.

“But there’s another instinct, far older, as old as life itself, nearly impossible for the human mind to override: Protect the young at all costs. Preserve the future.”

The child breaks through the wheat into the yard and falls for the last time. The one with the gun doesn’t lower it, but his companion races to the fallen child and scoops it off the frozen ground. The gunman blocks their way back into the house. The tableau holds for several seconds.

“It’s all about risk,” Vosch observes. “You realized that long ago. So of course you know who will win the argument. After all, how much risk does a little child pose? Protect the young. Preserve the future.”

The person carrying the child sidesteps the one with the gun and rushes up the steps into the house. The gunman drops his head as if in prayer, then lifts his head as if in supplication. Then he turns and goes inside. The minutes spin out.

Beside me, Vosch murmurs, “The world is a clock.”

The farmhouse, the outbuildings, the silo, the brown fields, and the blur of numbers as the time display at the bottom of the screen ticks off the seconds by the hundredths. I know what’s coming but still I flinch when the silent flash whites out the scene. Then roiling dust and debris and billowing smoke: The wheat is burning, consumed in a matter of seconds, tender fodder for the fire, and where the buildings used to be, a crater, a black hole bored into the Earth. The feed goes black. The screen retracts. The lights stay dim.