The Patriots had tried in vain to recruit me. Cryptic notes scrawled on alley walls above where I slept. An escort on a street corner who slipped me a note. A small parcel of money with a proposition. After ignoring their offers for a while, I stopped hearing from them. “I’ve never worked with the Patriots,” I snap. “If I ever kill, I’ll do it on my own terms.”
“You may claim no affiliation with them, but perhaps some have crossed your path. And perhaps you’d like to help us find them.”
“Oh, sure. You killed my mother. You can imagine I’m dying to help you out.”
Thomas manages to ignore me again. He glances at the first photo projected on the wall. “Know this person?”
I shake my head. “Never seen him before.”
Thomas clicks the remote. Another photo pops up. “How about this one?”
Another photo. “How about this?”
Yet another stranger pops up on the wall. “Seen this girl before?”
“Never seen her in my life.”
More unfamiliar faces. Thomas goes through them without blinking an eye or questioning my responses. What a stupid puppet of the state. I watch him as we continue, wishing I weren’t chained so I could beat this man to the ground.
More photos. More strange faces. Thomas doesn’t question a single one of my terse responses. In fact, it seems like he can’t wait to get out of this room and far away from me.
Then a photo pops up of someone I do recognize. The blurry image shows a girl with long hair—longer than the bobbed cut I remember. No vine tattoo yet. Apparently Kaede is a Patriot.
I don’t dare let the recognition show on my face. “Look,” I say. “If I knew any of these people, do you really think I’d tell you?”
Thomas is trying so hard to hold his composure. “That will be all, Mr. Wing.”
“Oh, come on, that’s not all. I can tell you’d give anything to take a swing at me. So do it. I dare you.”
His eyes have taken on a furious glow, but he still holds back. “My orders were to ask you a series of questions,” he says tightly. “That’s it. We’re done here.”
“Why? You afraid of me or something? Only brave enough to shoot people’s mothers?”
Thomas narrows his eyes, then shrugs. “She’s just one less slum con to deal with.”
I clench my fist and spit right in his face.
This seems to break his resolve. His left fist hits me hard across the jaw, and my head snaps to the side. Spots explode before my eyes.
“Think you’re a star, don’t you?” he says. “Just because you pulled some pranks and played charity worker to some street scum? Well, let me tell you a secret. I’m from a poor sector too. But I followed the rules. I worked my way up, I earned my country’s respect. The rest of you people just sit around and complain and blame the state for your bad luck. Bunch of dirty, lazy cons.” He punches me again. My head rocks back, and I taste blood in my mouth. My body trembles from the pain. He grabs my collar and pulls me close. My shackles clank. “Ms. Iparis told me about what you did to her on the streets. How dare you force yourself onto someone of her rank.”
Ah. Here is what’s really bothering him—I guess he found out about the kiss. I can’t help grinning, even though my face screams in pain. “A www. Is that what’s got you down? I’ve seen the way you look at her. You want her bad, yeah? Is that something you’re also trying to earn your way up to, trot? Hate to burst your bubble, but I didn’t force her into anything.”
A deep scarlet rage flashes across his face. “She’s looking forward to your execution, Mr. Wing. I can guarantee you that.”
I laugh. “Sore loser, huh? Here, I’ll make you feel better. I’ll tell you all about what it was like. Hearing about it is the next best thing, isn’t it?”
Thomas grabs my neck. His hands are shaking. “I’d be careful if I were you, boy,” he spits. “Maybe you’ve forgotten that you still have two brothers. Both at the mercy of the Republic. Watch your tongue, unless you want to see their bodies lined up next to your mother’s.”
He hits me again, then one of his knees slams into my stomach. I gasp for air. I picture Eden and John and force myself to calm down, force away the pain. Stay strong. Don’t let him get to you.
He hits me two more times. He’s breathing hard now. With a great effort, he lowers his arms and exhales. “That will be all, Mr. Wing,” he says in a low voice. “I’ll see you on your execution day.”
I can’t speak through the pain, so I just try to keep my eyes focused on him. He has a strange expression, as if he’s angry or disappointed that I’ve forced him from his orderly state.
He turns and leaves the room without a word.
THAT NIGHT, THOMAS SPENDS HALF AN HOUR STANDING outside my door, trying out a dozen different kinds of apologies. He is really sorry. He didn’t want me to get hurt. He didn’t want me to resist Commander Jameson’s orders. He didn’t want me to get in trouble. He was trying to protect me.
I sit on my couch with Ollie, staring off into space. I can’t get the sound of those machine guns out of my head. Thomas has always been disciplined.
Today was not different. He didn’t hesitate—not for a second—to obey our commander. He’d carried out the extermination as if he were preparing for a routine plague sweep or for a night guarding an airfield. Is it worse that he followed the orders so faithfully or that he doesn’t even know that this is what I want him to apologize for?