The thick liquid pours into the small vial like slow-moving slime. I adjust my safety goggles before putting the ricin label on the vial. Fifteen poisons down, only sixty more to go. Helquest notified me on my fourth day of laboring away that he only needed seventy-five poisons and darts complete by the stated date. Fifteen done in four days is just a small dent, but I did have to spend the first couple days showing the other agents how to extract venom, concentrate the poisonous plants, and fashion the darts.
“How’s this one, Ms. Morros?” The agent currently working with me—who happens to be my hencher—holds a small pin out for me to inspect.
The biggest problem with agents helping me is that they aren’t scientists. Most of them don’t even have the knack for it, like Agent Kenly here. I finally learned his real name when he started working with me. “It’s still too soft.” I pinch the pin between my fingers, shaking my head. “Your batch must be too thin. If the dart is too soft, the release effect won’t work correctly.”
With his hands on his hips, he sighs, tilting his head back to stare at the ceiling.
“I realize it’s tedious.” I hold back my smile. Moody, burly men are always a joy to work with. “But it has to be perfect or it won’t work the way we need it to.”
I’ve begun sounding more and more like Cadmar with every passing day. He was always so patient with me, taking the time to show me exactly how it should be done. I don’t have the time to hold these agents’ hands and walk through it. “Give it another try,” I instruct, holding the pin out to him.
He glares at my outstretched hand before taking the pin and going back to his station. If Helquest would get me actual scientists, this would go a lot quicker, but the one time I mentioned it he glared at me, saying it was impossible. Didn’t make sense to me. He should have all the resources in the world at his disposal, but I don’t question him. I don’t do anything to jeopardize Reiley.
We’ve worked for another two hours, me almost completing two more poisons and Kenly finally getting a couple good pins made, when he lets me know it’s time for dinner. He escorts me to the dining hall where I take my usual seat and am brought a well-rounded meal. Working my brain for hours every day is wearing me out more than the rigorous training every morning, to the point that I always eat every bite of my meals. It’s also helped keep my mind more occupied with things aside from my family, especially of what they might be doing to Reiley.
Jaxson sits in front of me with his tray of food but I don’t acknowledge him, just as I haven’t since I ran from the rec room four days ago. After that first morning when he asked why I ran and I ignored him, I thought he would leave me be, but he still comes to sit by me at every meal. At least he doesn’t try to engage in conversation anymore.
After eating, I head back to my quarters and run on the stupid machine until I can no longer move or think, and then I pass out on my slab of a bed. This has been my nightly routine for the last four days. Tomorrow will be the same and so will every day after that, until the fifteenth. The day that is too quickly approaching.
The next morning I’m woken at five and escorted by Kenly to the rec room. We start out with a five-mile run, then do some stretching before hand-to-hand combat. We’re all paired with someone and we set off to fight each other until the end of training. I haven’t paid any attention to who I’m paired with before now, because they’re just faces of people I can’t allow myself to care about. But today I pay attention, since they pair me with Bryn, of all people. Even Eva would be a better option, since she never knows what to say without Bryn right next to her.
Only two agents move around the springboard, so there will be plenty of chances for me to take out some pent-up anger on her. She does have it coming, after all. She bares her teeth as if having read my mind before charging.
It’s almost exactly like it was at home, but more brutal and angry. We stay even for a while, both getting in good cheap shots before she slows down and backs off a little when the agents are on the other end of the group. “You should watch your back with that Jaxson kid,” she states, making me hesitate long enough for her to get a rib shot in.
“What?” I grunt.
“Jaxson. I’m sure he’s given you his sob story about his mom taking off, his dad in prison?” I jerk back, earning a kick to the side of the knee that I barely block. She smirks. “Yeah. Thought so. It’s only to gain your trust. He’s done it with every new person here. I caught on, but Eva fell hard for it, thought he loved her… until you showed up and he had a new toy to play with.”
There’s nothing I can say. I’ve had my suspicions, but why would he do the same with everyone here? Why would he lie about some BS about me being the first one Helquest showed around? Who the heck is this kid?
I draw back, giving her a hard look to let me talk without attacking me. “Why are you telling me this?” I search her gaze for some hidden agenda.
“Not everyone wants to be here,” she tells me. “Scarlet, she let them drag us here. That bitch let them take us like we meant shit to her. She thought it was some big honor, but we’re just in a more secure place doing the same shit we were, the same dirty work for the same damn people, but with even less freedom than we had before. Who the hell wants to live a life like that?”
We advance on each other when an agent walks past. After kicking her knees out from under her, making her slam to her back, I stand over her. “Eva feels the same way?” I demand.
With a chuckle, she sits up on her elbows and nods. “No one wants to be here, unless they’re completely void of a soul.”
The whistle is blown, signaling our time is up. She accepts my offered hand and I pull her to her feet. Before releasing her, I pull her close enough to whisper, “You watch your back, too. They’re holding Reiley in a different facility, torturing her to keep me compliant. I don’t know what happened to the others, but it can’t be good. Just keep your head down.”
Her gaze is stricken when she pulls back. “That’s what I’ve been doing since day one.” She drops her hand and we go our separate ways.
It’s easy to ignore Jaxson during the meals between my work in the lab, even when he keeps clearing his throat, trying to get my attention. Something might be going on with him, but I don’t have the extra brain space to waste on it. Even when the awkward silence is almost unbearable, I can’t think of anything nonaccusatory to say.
I’m able to complete four poisons before the end of the day, and the agent helping me has the pins down to an art. Helquest stops by to check our progress, seeming pleased with the results. I almost demand to see Reiley again, almost, but I keep my mouth shut. No point poking the beast when he’s complacent.
At the end of the day I do my same nightly routine, but no amount of running can get my mind off what Bryn said. Being able to forgive her for what she did to Reiley might be impossible, but I can’t justify that she and Eva deserve to be miserable here. If I were ever able to break out, I would find a way to take them with me.
My sleep is fitful and filled with dreams of poisonous spiders and snakes crawling and slithering all over me, while Helquest’s laugh fills the room. I’m shaken awake sometime in the night. Having finally found solid sleep, I groan and roll over. Reiley can come wake me later when the sun is up at least. I’m shaken again.
This isn’t the castle.
This certainly isn’t my comfy bed.
Who the hell would be shaking me awake in this godforsaken facility?
A hand slams over my mouth to muffle my gasp. The room is bathed in a dim light let in by the hallway that’s visible through the open door. I stare into Jaxson’s intense gaze floating above me. Literally the last person I want to see right now has somehow found a way to get in my cell. He holds a finger up to his mouth. I glare at him before using all my might to shove him away.
He stumbles backward, his hand leaving my mouth. I stand in one fluid motion, getting in his face when he rights himself. “What the hell are you doing in here?” I whisper before glancing at the open door. The door—it’s open! “How did you get in here?”
“There’s no time. Come with me.” He goes out the door without any explanation.
The gall of this boy! Why the hell would I go with him? He’s obviously one of them if he’s able to open the door. The only place he’d be leading me would be into a trap.
His head pops back in my doorway, making me jump. “Hurry! I want to help you,” he whispers before disappearing again.
I chew my bottom lip for a few seconds before following after him. This is probably a horrible idea; I shouldn’t be risking it because of Reiley, but I haven’t been shocked or anything yet, so maybe there’s a little hope.
He’s halfway down the hall to the left when I finally take a step from the room down the dimly lit hallway. I just stand there for a second, waiting for the horrible shock to come, but it doesn’t. He glances over a shoulder and gestures for me to follow. And I do follow him, risking everything, risking my sister for the slight possibility of some answers and maybe some help. With every step, my shoulders tense, my heart races.
We don’t go far, only to the end of the hall, then to the right before he stops. My mind reels when he places his hand on the wall and the little panel moves, showing a keypad that he then types some number on… and the door slides open.
He beckons me to follow and I just stare wide-eyed, shaking my head before taking multiple steps backward. I need to get back to my cell. He’s one of them, just like I thought.
Holding a hand out to me, he whispers, “You have to trust me. I’m trying to help.”
But how can I trust him?
“Please,” he adds, and everything in me cracks with defeat and exhaustion.
I’m so tired of constantly looking over my shoulder, trying to hold it together when I’m just a giant mess inside incessantly torturing myself with thoughts of the unknown. Just once, just this once, I want to lean on someone, even if I don’t really know him. Even if it goes against my better judgment.
If I had relied on Conner in Seattle rather than pushing him away, he would have helped me get away from Janet. If I had trusted Cadmar in the first place, we never would have even gone to Seattle. The past couple months have been filled with disasters caused by me trying to handle things on my own. For this one moment, I want to lean, to trust, even if it ends up biting me in the ass.
I nod before following him into the unknown.
The walls, ceiling, and floor are all black, the opposite of every other area of this facility that I’ve been in. The room is small compared to most I’ve seen here, with a large panel filled with buttons in the center and a wall covered by one huge monitor. My stomach turns to lead, the image of Reiley writhing on the ground fogging my mind. The sound of buttons clicking helps me shove the thought away. Jaxson is hunched over the control panel, whatever he’s doing causing the screen to light up.
“Where is everyone?” I wonder while he keeps typing.
“Something happened outside the facility,” he whispers, glancing over his shoulder while still typing. “They’re all preoccupied, but we don’t have long. Now I may not be able to help you escape, but I can at least help put your mind at ease. I’m sure he hasn’t let you see whoever it is he has. I can show them to you, so you can know they’re alive, okay.”
Hope blooms in my chest like an unstoppable pariah. I can’t afford to hope. “What if she isn’t okay?” I mutter.
“If they’re using her to motivate you—and you’ve been rather cooperative lately—I’m certain she’s okay.” He keeps typing and what looks like a regular desktop pops up on the screen.
“What are you doing?” I ask, moving closer to his side, my eyes never leaving the screen.
“I’m pulling up your file. They’ll have the live feed of wherever she’s being held in there.”
He keeps typing and clicking, causing a bunch of file folders to pop up. My heart races when he clicks on one and only one video thumbnail pops up. “That’s odd,” he mumbles, making my stomach clench.
“What is?” I demand.
He doesn’t answer, just clicks on the thumbnail. The screaming fills the small space, the image of Reiley writhing on the floor wrapped in Cadmar’s jacket next to a puddle of vomit taking up the whole screen.
This can’t be happening. This can’t be real. I’m still asleep. I’m just having a nightmare.
Hands slammed over my ears, I squeeze my eyes shut, praying I’ll wake up. Firm hands grasp my wrists and tug my hands away. The screaming is gone, so I let my eyes crack open to meet Jaxson’s wide-eyed gaze. His skin is pale as a sheet. Or is that just the lighting? “Who was that?” he croaks, his throat bobbing.
“That’s my sister,” I tell him, yanking my wrists from his grip. “Why did you play that? Is this some kind of joke to you? My misery makes you happy? How do you have access to any of this?” I fling my hand at the screen that is now a blank desktop.
Ignoring my question, he turns away, hunching over to rest his hands on the panel. I want to ask what’s wrong, or what the hell is going on, but something in me says I should leave it and get back to my quarters. I back toward the door and turn to leave.
“They don’t have your sister,” he whispers, stopping me in my tracks.
“What did you say?” I turn to find him staring at me, fists clenched at his sides.
“They. Don’t. Have. Your. Sister,” he enunciates each word.
“That was my sister.” I point at the screen, my heart throbbing in my chest. “I know beyond a doubt that was her.”
He shakes his head, coming to stand right in front of me. “They may have captured her at some point, but she got away, or someone saved her. They don’t have her. I promise you.”
These are all things I want to hear, but he has to know that. This has to be a sick test or something. “How would you know? How do you know?” I scream, uncaring of who hears me or what the repercussions might be.
“I was the one—” He takes a deep breath. “I was the one who edited that footage. Wherever that happened, it wasn’t here. And I know he doesn’t have her because he wouldn’t have needed me to edit it if he had her here.”
My mind draws a blank. I can’t even…. He was the one who edited it? What does that even mean? He is one of them. He’s a monster just like the rest of them.
I shake my head again, backing away a few steps. “He said they were holding her in a different facility. And I know that was her. That was her screaming in agony.”
His brow crumples. “He doesn’t have access to another facility. This is his only one. And yes, that may have been her, but they did not capture her. She got away.”
It’s too good. Too good to be true. Too easy.
Before I can argue, the shock slams through me and I drop to the floor, shrieking. While I’m twitching on the floor, shouting ensues. Jaxson yells and yells, shoving Helquest backward before the two huge agents can stop him. Helquest stumbles back two steps and then rights himself. Jaxson struggles against the men twice his size, getting an arm free to punch the one still holding him in the jaw. It takes an eternity of pain ripping me apart, acid being dumped in my veins, for them to finally get him under control.
The pain subsides as Jaxson pants between the two agents, eyes full of an anger I never could have imagined taking over the sarcastic smirk glued to me. Being tortured like this has to be killing my brain cells; it’s certainly working on conditioning me to stay in line, to constantly be paranoid. I rise to my knees, meeting Helquest’s furious gaze.
“You now know the truth, thanks to my nephew, but that doesn’t matter. Do not think that lets you off the hook.” He smiles and my stomach churns. I want to be upset, want to be angry about anything, even at Jaxson, his nephew, but he basically just confirmed that Reiley is safe. At least away from his slimy grasp.
“I have others you care about. And based on how infatuated my nephew is with you, you must care about him, too. In fact, I’m sure I could threaten the lives of every teen in this facility and you would do what I want, even if you don’t know any of them. I’ve watched you try not to care and fail miserably. You lack the true ability to not care. Your compassion will be the death of you. You were never trained to your full potential, something I must have failed to do with Jaxson here.” He gestures to his seriously pissed nephew with a smirk. “He’ll be the first to go if you get any ideas of not pulling through on this mission for me.”
My stomach rolls, that anger vibrating through me. It’s so much to take in. They don’t have Reiley, but what does that mean? How did they get that footage to begin with? Who saved her? Does that mean they’re all okay now?
Even with her being safe, Helquest is right. I couldn’t consciously put anyone’s—stranger or not—life in jeopardy. And he does have Bryn and Eva here. I may not care for them at all, but if it came down to him torturing them in front of me, I wouldn’t hold up. I wouldn’t let it happen.
“That’s right.” His smile widens and I snarl before he turns to face the agents holding Jaxson. “Take them to the holding cell. They can have their breakfast and Payton will go to the lab from there. Make sure it’s done,” he tells them, then takes his leave.
One of the agents lets go of Jaxson and takes my arm. While they lead us to this holding cell, dread attempts to overtake me, but I don’t allow it. I almost can’t even fathom any amount of dread, or fury, or anything besides the euphoria I’m floating on. Reiley is safe. That’s all that matters. That’s all that ever mattered.
I’ll do what I have to in order to keep Bryn, Eva, and Jaxson safe. Besides, they’ve already gotten most of the formulas from me. They could easily figure it all out now, but I may as well remain useful and pass a good chunk of time doing something I actually enjoy.
They wind us through the maze of white before taking us down two flights of stairs I didn’t know existed. How much more of the building haven’t I seen? Apprehension clouds my senses. I don’t like down, don’t like the idea of us being shoved in a basement like the holding cell at the castle. But that’s exactly what it is. The small bit of light illuminating the room shows a dark cement cube that we’re shoved into before the door seals shut, closing us in darkness.
After feeling around for the nearest wall, I curl in a ball and pray for sleep to come. Jaxson’s breathing is jagged, uneven, while he shifts in the pitch-black to find his own spot. I wonder if I should be worried about being in this dark space alone with him. I literally know nothing about him aside from the fact that he’s a sadistic psycho’s nephew.
He finally stops moving, his breath evening out. Our breathing mingled together is the only sound filling the room, until he breaks the silence. “I’m sorry,” he croaks, then clears his throat. “I should’ve left you alone. This mess is my fault.”
“Yeah, it is,” I deadpan.
He chuckles without humor. “I just wanted you to trust me, and that was the only way I knew how to show you I actually care.”
“By showing me that you’re one of them? That you’re related to the scum who tortured my sister at some point? Forced me to fight for my life just for the amusement of it? There’s no way I could ever trust you, Jaxson.” Bitterness fills my bones, my veins.
“I’m not one of them,” he growls after a long silence, and I snort. “I did…. I have helped him with my nerd skills, but I never did it to hurt anyone. When he shared his plan with me, telling me I would be one of the first in this… this experiment, I realized very quickly that I needed to find something that only I could do so he would need me around, need me to have some form of authority.”
“Were your killing skills subpar, then?” Sarcasm leaks into my voice.
“Ha. No. But that’s the other reason I acquired the computer skills, so I wouldn’t have to kill whenever he pleased. He was satisfied with me helping design this facility’s security system and keeping it updated over the last couple years.”
I shouldn’t care about his story, about him at all, but I do understand finding outlets. Even still, I can’t trust him. “Bryn knew what she was talking about. If she was able to sniff out your lies, I should have been able to.”
“Bryn? The blonde? How do you know her? What did she say?”
“She’s my sister,” I supply, adjusting my legs to keep them from falling asleep. “She and Eva are my sisters. She told me how you tried to woo them both with your sob story about your parents.”
“Your sisters? But you don’t even act like you know them.”
“We’re adopted and I don’t really care for either of them.” That’s all he needs to know. “Anyway, it’s pretty lame that you go around spouting some fake story to get people to trust you.”
“It isn’t fake,” he snarls, and I wish he could see me roll my eyes. “And when he started bringing teens in, I was tasked with warming up to them, finding out if they would be compliant and finding out their weaknesses. I didn’t choose this life. I don’t enjoy doing what he tells me to, but I’ve done what I have to in order to survive.”
I get it, again, but Conner’s words back in Chile ring through my mind. “Someone once told me there’s a point in our lives when we need to make our own choices, when you become responsible for the direction your life is going. You can’t keep blaming others for the situation you’re in.”
He snorts, making me actually want to smack him, if only I could see. “Who told you that load of crap?”
“That load of crap?” I demand. “It’s sound logic. Once you’re old enough to make your own choices, no one is responsible for where you end up but yourself. Even if they’re hard decisions, and there are consequences, you make you. No one else does.” I pause, taking a few deep breaths. Talking about this, thinking about Conner and where my choices have brought us all, hurts my bones. “And the person who told me, he’s my…. He’s just…. He’s really important to me.”
“He’s your boyfriend,” he says as a fact, but the need to answer is still there.
“He was. Until I made some very poor choices that led me here. I am responsible for ruining my own life. No one else.”
We’re silent for a long time, me thinking he’s fallen asleep and wishing I could do the same, until he clears his throat. “It is logical. But sometimes… sometimes our choices are minimal and no matter what we choose will end up hurting someone or other. It’s easier to blame someone else than be responsible for hurting someone.”
“Just because you blame someone else doesn’t make it true. You can’t wish things into reality.”
With that, I shut my mouth. Everything I said rings true for myself. If only I could wish myself into a different reality. If only I could blame Cadmar for where I am, for the ones I’ve hurt, because he allowed me to do something so reckless. But the reality is he let me have that freedom I wished for and even told me I might not be happy with the consequences.
I wanted so badly to have a piece of myself, to feel like I belonged somewhere. The irony is I did belong somewhere. I had a family that I cared about, that I would give anything to be with now. The person I thought would make sense of my life, would make me feel like I had purpose, put me here, handed me to the monsters. And now I don’t even know what became of Janet, whether they killed her, where I left her, or whether they let her free like they promised they would if she handed me over.
This mess of my life, the position I’m in, is my doing. I can’t change it, can’t fix it. The hard choices will continue coming and I can only do so much to make sure as few people as possible are hurt. But people are going to get hurt, going to die because of the choices I make, and I have to live with that.