“Okay,” I said. “On one condition. Benjy doesn’t fight.”
“And neither do you,” he said, touching my temple gently. It was enough to feel like someone was hammering a nail into the side of my head.
“I know how to use a gun. You don’t.”
“You’ve used a gun once. That doesn’t count.”
“But none of them have used weapons before at all,” I said. “I can’t just send them to their deaths without fighting beside them.”
“If you’re with them, they’ll be too busy trying to protect you to do any good,” said Scotia. “No one injured is going to fight. Period. And that includes you, too, lover boy.”
I squeezed Benjy’s hand. “We do this together. You promised. I won’t do this unless I know you’re safe.”
He grumbled. “Okay. As long as you’re not fighting, either.”
“I’ll put you with the kids,” said Scotia. “Chances are the guards will go after them to get us to back down, but if we have a few plants—”
“Kids?” I said. “From where?”
“Section J. We’ve got them grouped together right now, but Rivers wants to break them up and scatter them so the guards won’t be able to get them all at once—”
“I know a way out.”
She stopped. “Excuse me?”
“It’s not very big, and it won’t fit many people,” I said. “I don’t know where it leads. But I do know it lets out somewhere that isn’t here. Except—”
I hesitated. “You said the Mercers are holed up in the manor?”
She nodded. “We’ve got them surrounded.”
“I need you to figure out a way to get them out of there,” I said. “The tunnel’s in the cellar.”
Someone knocked twice on the door, and Scotia swore. Loudly. “I’ll figure it out. But right now, I need you to get up there and get us as many fighters as you can. Deal?”
I nodded, and she tugged open the trapdoor again. This time, as she and Benjy hoisted me up, I shielded my eyes against the late morning sun. I could do this. I had to do this.
As promised, Scotia’s people had gathered everyone back in the square. Unlike that morning, when everyone had stared up at Benjy and me with emotionless expressions, this time several groups huddled together as if they could shield one another from a shower of bullets. Many were limping or had their arms in slings, and as I gazed out across the crowd, I spotted a row of bodies laid out in the shadows of a nearby building.
My stomach turned. That was why I was doing this—to prevent these people from ending up like them. They had to have a chance, and right now, I was the only one who could give it to them.
I cleared my throat and, with effort, I forced myself to my feet. My legs trembled and my vision was still fuzzy around the edges, but they had come here despite their fear. The least I could do was stand.
“My name’s Lila Hart,” I called. “For the past two days, I’ve been one of you. But before that, I was on the other side—I was a VII, and I saw firsthand the horror that happens here. You don’t need me to tell you what your lives are like. You don’t need me to say how hard they are or how much you put up with just to survive. I’ve been here for forty-eight hours, but many of you have been here your entire lives. You know this place better than I ever will. And you know what’s at stake if Jonathan Mercer and the guards retake this section.”
I glanced down, and through the trapdoor, Benjy smiled up at me encouragingly. I took a deep breath. I had no idea what to say, but as I opened my mouth again, words spilled out without any conscious thought.
“Isabel Scotia won the first round of fighting today, with her selfless and brave soldiers who picked up weapons knowing there was a very good chance they could lose—not just the fight, but their lives, too. They’ve chased the guards back, but they won’t stay there forever. The real battle is still coming, and as it stands right now, we’re going to lose.”
In the middle of the crowd, I spotted Rivers wearing an orange prisoner’s jumpsuit and what must have been hundreds of rounds of ammunition around his body. Two weapons were slung over his shoulders, and he held another at the ready. Our eyes met, and he nodded once.
“We need your help. I know you’re scared, and I know most of you have never held a gun in your lives. But you deserve better than this. There is so much more to this world than these damn gray walls and barbed-wire fences and the guards’ whims dictating whether you live or die. Out there, there’s hope. There’s opportunity. There’s love. There’s a place where you belong. And every single one of you deserves the chance to see it.”
Several men and women glanced at one another, and I pressed my lips together. I had to do this.
“I won’t stand here and make you promises I can’t keep,” I called, my heart thumping painfully, “but I will promise you one thing—you have a chance, right here and right now, to change your lives completely. And it is the only chance like this that you will ever get. So, please—fight with us. Not for me, not for Scotia, but for yourselves. For your lives. For your freedom, and for the opportunity to walk out of Elsewhere and start a real life. Because if we fail today, there will be nothing left of Section X. Jonathan Mercer will not distinguish between those who hid and those who fought. And the more fighters we have, the better chance we have at walking out of here alive. We’re in this together. We’re all equals today, and we will survive together, or we will die together. There is no in between.”