The night is cold and dark. We’re packed tighter than a rush-hour subway car. My face is pressed into someone’s back parka, and I’m pretty sure there’s somebody resting against my ankles. I wake up at least five times when someone near me needs to go out for one reason or another. I wonder if they’re going to the bathroom, then I wonder how that even works with the power out, then I wonder about … nothing in particular. Just a wave of disconnected thoughts. And in the middle of them:
You need to sleep, Chad.
What if I never wake up?
But each time, exhaustion wins out, and I drop back into an uneasy sleep.
The last time I wake up, it’s to shouting. “Get your hands off me, fucking asshole!”
I just have time to wake myself before Big Bear bangs in the door. “Hey,” he says. “Square? You just getting up now?”
“Mm.” I’m still a bit foggy.
“New roommate.” He pushes a black—I should say African-American—kid into the room. “Get him settled.”
“You see anyone else in here?” Big Bear asks. Sure enough, the whole room’s empty. Guess everyone else is up already. “I’ve got work to do. Get him situated.”
The door slams behind him. There’s a moment or two of awkward silence as I try to figure out how to approach this. New Black Kid—seriously, Chad, African-American—is powerfully built, with his hair braided in corn rows.
Finally, the silence just gets too awkward. “Hey, I’m Square.”
“Yeah?” he says. “Sorta figured that just looking at you, white boy.”
There’s a chuckle behind him. “Sounds a bit racist,” Ball Buster says, coming in, glancing at New Bla—New Kid. Dolphin follows behind him.
“Damn, it’s all the white people up in here,” New Kid says, looking at them. “What kind of prissy white-ass prison they send me to?”
“That definitely sounds racist,” Ball Buster says, but he’s grinning.
“Camp Solanas,” I say with a smile. “You’re new? How’d they drop you in? I thought the flights still weren’t running.”
“Drop? Flights? You trippin’, man? I just got kicked out of some hospital.”
“You mean the clinic?” Ball Buster asks.
Something connects in my memory. “You’re the kid who landed in the water,” I say. I look at Ball Buster. “When they dropped us, remember they were talking about Lotus or someone getting pulled out of the water and that they’d be in the clinic for a while?”
Ball Buster shrugs. “If you say so.” He turns to Corn Rows. “What’s your name?”
New Kid gives a dark look, eyes glancing at each one of us in turn. And then he says it. “Sue.”
There’s no translation. Just the pure, unvarnished name, and it hangs in the frozen air for a solid moment. My brain’s still trying to process what I just heard.
Ball Buster laughs.
Sue (really?) holds up a finger in his direction. “That’s one. You get to laugh about that once, white boy.”
“C’mon, man. You gotta admit it’s a funny name,” Ball Buster says.
“Which is why you get to laugh about it once,” Sue says.
Ball Buster keeps chuckling. “You ever heard that Johnny Cash song about—”
“Yes, yes, fuck you, yes. And so did my daddy, who thought it was oh-so-hilarious when he left me with that name. But fuck him, and fuck you, and fuck all of this.” He rubs his arm and looks around. “Now, y’all got any breakfast in this crib?”
“Black people seriously say ‘crib’?” Ball Buster asks.
Sue punches him.
Sue, we learn, is from Baltimore. He isn’t interested in a nickname, though Ball Buster nearly earns himself another punch by suggesting “Chocolate Thunder.” But Sue won’t take anything. “Fuck that,” he says. “If I wanted a better name, I could’ve gotten that shit changed years ago. Naw, man. My daddy named me Sue, and I intend to own that crap-ass name. By the time I’m dead, ‘Sue’ is gonna be shorthand for ‘motherfucking badass.’”
“You should meet Mouse,” I say, as we leave the cafeteria. The weather is remarkably clear. Over by House Mantis, I see Doc, passing boards to some workers on the roof—repairing the hole that collapsed last night. “Where is Mouse, anyway?”
“Guy wouldn’t stop shivering,” Dolphin says. “They pulled him out to the clinic. That place still has power, at least.”
“You’re lucky not to be in there yourself,” says Ball Buster. “After that roof caved in on you. You’re still covered in dust.”
There’s something in my hair, and I pull out some sort of thin cable. I stuff it in my coat.
“Well, the rec room’s closed. And the gymnasium,” Dolphin says to Sue. “You chose a shitty time to wake up, honestly.”
“There a weight room?” Sue asks.
Dolphin shrugs. “Probably. But everything’s shut down.”
“And the supply planes still haven’t come,’ says Ball Buster, ‘so the food sucks too. Still. Snow day.”
The guards and camp admin are mostly focused on getting the power back on, so they’ve largely left us to ourselves. All sorts of games are being played across the camp.
We end up joining the big snowball fight. It’s pretty epic. Guys have massive forts erected and are ducking in and out of drift, doing ninja-style dives, hurling little white balls at each other like they’re Buddy the Elf. Ball Buster and I jump on a team and set up some covering fire for a team of guys that’s charging for the enemy’s fort. Jackhammer, in the lead, does a ground-pound style attack, jumping high into the air and smashing down with his elbow on the fort, blowing it all to pieces.
Of course, the other team pelts him with snowballs straight afterwards, but it’s still awesome.
Someone has the clever idea that we ought to make a snow cave instead of a snow fort. So we start digging into the side of the snowbank. Once the others get what we’re doing, the snowball fight starts to peter off, as people bring in buckets and cafeteria trays to help shovel out the inside. It’s pretty great. With seven feet of snow, we can legit make a space big enough for most of us to stand up in.
There’s about ten of us in the cave, sitting around, warming our hands, when I find the bit of wire I stuffed in my coat pocket. I take it out just to see what it’s like.
“Hullo,” Dolphin says, looking at what I have. “Fiber-optic cable? Where’d you get that?”
“Must’ve been in the ceiling that collapsed on me.” I hand it over to him. “Is it like electrical wiring?”
“No,” he says, studying it. “You use this to transmit data. Used for internet connections, mostly, but also …” he says, looking sharply at me and Bally, “video and audio data.”
None of us say anything. The guys on the other side of the cave are laughing and whooping, and we’re looking at this cable and thinking they’re watching us.
I mean, we sort of knew, but to see evidence …
“Moleman, give it a rest!” one of the guys calls.
Stinky (or I guess Moleman now?) is burrowing at the back of the cave. “Nah, man. We need a tunnel! C’mon. Help out!”
I join in, just to take my mind off the cable. Ball Buster joins in too, probably for the same reason. As the tunnel starts to stretch longer, Sidewinder—normally one of Jackhammer’s band, but hey—joins in to lend a hand too.
We’ve been at it for an hour (maybe two; hard to tell), when Moleman pulls up short. “That’s weird.”
He’s looking at something. We’re tunneling close enough to the surface that light is sort of blending through the snow. The tunnel’s not really big enough for more than one person at a time, but I manage to peer past his legs to see what he’s saying. “Huh,” I say.
“What?” asks Ball Buster, ducking under my arm. “Oh, weird.”
“What is it?” Sidewinder calls from the back.
“Someone else’s tunnel, I think.” Moleman is examining the three-foot hole in the side of his handiwork. “Pretty good…. Dang! It looks like they poured water along the inside to make it freeze hard. That’s an ace idea. We oughta do that.”
“Where’s it go?” Ball Buster asks.
Moleman leans down to look. “Wow. I can’t even tell. Goes on for a way. It’s dark.”
“Let’s check and see,” I suggest.
“Nah, I’m gonna keep on,” Mole says, turning back to his work. “You guys check it out if you want.”
“Holy shit. How far does this go?” I ask. I can’t tell if we’ve been down there for fifteen minutes or forty-five.
“There’s no way someone dug all this today,” Ball Buster says, from somewhere behind me. “Wonder how long it’s been down here.” There’s a cough. “Hey, do you—”
“Hold up!” We’re rounding a sort of curve in the tunnel, and I see a light … an opening, leading back to the air.
And then I hear something, too.
“Damn, look at the little monsters. Pretty good with snowballs, eh?” It’s the voice of someone outside. Probably standing right beside the opening.
“I’ll bet that kid with the mohawk could nail you in the head with a rock at fifty yards, Sarge.” The voice sounds female, amused.
Sarge. Ball Buster and I freeze. The speakers are guards.
“Shut up, Johnson.” I recognize this voice. Grim Goatee. “You want Wolfe to hear about your little smoke breaks?”
“C’mon. She’s gotta know. All the hospital staff takes ‘em. What’s with you? In a bad mood?”
“Fucking right I am,” Grim Goatee snaps. “Barely had breakfast this morning. And the coffee’s all gone.” There’s a stamp-stamp sound. “Kids—”
A third voice comes in, dry and bitter. “We sure those kids that ran off aren’t plotting an escape or something?”
A chuckle from Grim Goatee. “Relax. They’ve still got their trackers on them.”
Trackers? Like GPS? I look at Ball Buster.
“Didn’t stop that neff from breaking into the clinic,” Third Voice says.
“C’mon, man,” says Johnson. “That was like last year. Might not have even been a neff, for all we ever found. Security’s improved a lot since then.”
“No shit,” Grim Goatee says. “That was a colossal fuck-up. You’re lucky they didn’t get into the basement. The fury that would rain down from that discovery would make this rations situation look like a cakewalk.”
“Rations situation would be a lot better with a lot less of these morons eating up supplies,” Third Voice says. “A few bullets would solve the problem.”
“You know Wolfe’s policy,” Grim Goatee says. “Not before she says. Not unless you want to be filling out paperwork and be on Detention duty the rest of your days.”
“I heard last year she actually shot a guy herself for doing that,” says Johnson.
“Why’s she care?” Third Voice says. “They’re dying already anyway.”
It’s very quiet in the dark of the tunnel.
“Honestly, Church,” says Grim Goatee, “if you ask me, we ought to have shot them on the plane and pushed them into the Baltic. But Wolfe gives the orders. Never forget it.”
“Yessir.” I can almost hear the mocking salute. “Gotta babysit the fucking ticking nuclear warheads.”
“I thought Wolfe said they had a remedy,” Johnson ventures timidly. “Aren’t the implants supposed to fix the Rot?”
“Yeah, she says that. Ever hear any of the doctors say that, though?” asks Church.
“They’re always working on a ‘new remedy,’” Grim Goatee says. Another stamp-stamp sound, and a soft curse. “Never works.”
“It’s all that pent-up aggressive energy, you realize,” Church says. “All these kids lifting two-ton elephants and shit. That muscle’s like toxins in the brain. They’re so roided up they can’t help but want to punch everything in sight.” The sound of spitting. “And here’s us, having to watch the freaks.”
Grim Goatee laughs. “Cheer up, Church. There’s still Wolfe’s De-Escalation Protocol. If she ever ends up putting that into action, the little shits are going to wishthey died.”
We hear each person leave, hard snowshoes scrunching against the frozen snow.
It’s very quiet in the cold, dark tunnel. Ball Buster and I look at each other. But neither of us feel like saying a word.