Desert Rain

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Chapter 20

They bring us breakfast at some point and allow us to eat with the lights on—thank God—before they haul me off to the lab. At the end of the day, they take me back to my quarters rather than the holding cell, which is a slight perk and probably my reward for getting far more poisons completed. I fall back into the routine of having my meals in my quarters, going to the lab all day, and then running until I pass out into oblivion.

The next week and a half is a blur of this routine. I try pretending I’m working in the lab with Cadmar, learning from him, enjoying the science, but at the end of the day, when they take me back to my cell for my last meal, it isn’t a game. It isn’t pretend. I’m here preparing enough poison to kill hundreds. Every day I eat less. Every day I get less sleep.

I don’t see anyone besides the agents working with me, and Helquest who constantly checks my progress and reminds me whose lives are on the line. Every time he shows up, he appears more frantic. He has to have something in the game; if I don’t pull through for this monster, maybe the Elites will have him killed.

On my side, it’s Jaxson—who I don’t ever get to see—my sisters, or seventy-five strangers. These lives are all on the line. No matter which way it goes, I’ll have more blood on my hands.

Jaxson was right. Sometimes we have limited choices and no matter what we choose, someone will be hurt.

By the fourteenth of April, I have seventy-five perfectly brewed poisons and seventy-five expertly fashioned pins. When Helquest comes into the lab to look over the results with an enormous grin, I just want to die. Why can’t I be the one to die? It would be a mercy if he terminated me after this mission.

The way he stands there, smug, full of power, with the fate of so many lives in his hands, I want to hurt him in the most painful ways Cadmar trained me to hurt a man.

“Well this, I think, deserves a celebration,” he exclaims, clapping his hands together. Vomit claws at my throat. Celebrate. Exactly like Scarlet wanted to celebrate my hundredth assignment. This will be my hundredth assignment. Oh God, what have I done. “Tonight, you can dine with the others. Tomorrow is a big day!”

Dine with the others. The other teens who will be forced to take a life, using the poison I created. He leaves the lab and Kenly escorts me to the dining hall, where talking and laughter fill the air. Do they know what’s coming? Do they know it’s real? That they’ll be killing someone tomorrow? This could very well be the first time for a lot of these kids. They’ll have someone’s death on their conscience. They’ll have to learn to live with it.

I go straight for my table and am brought a meal, but not any healthy ordinary meal. The juicy burger and greasy fries, accompanied by a can of Dr. Pepper, stare at me. Did they know these were some of my favorite things? Staring at the other plates filled with all kinds of junk food and different sodas, I realize they somehow did know. It’s like a last meal in prison before they take your life. Fitting, as they’re officially overtaking all our lives, all our choices.

I’ll never look at a burger and fries the same again. If I ever get out of here, I will never be able to stomach a can of Dr. Pepper. The sight of them, the scent of them now, makes my stomach roll.

While I stare at my food, Jaxson takes up his seat across from me, setting down his tray that has a steak, baked potato, and a can of Dr. Pepper sitting on it. I can’t not meet his gaze. This is the first time I’ve seen him in a week and a half, since that morning we had breakfast together. His eyes are hollow, surrounded by dark purple.

His gaze is glued to my tray of food for a long moment before he glances at me. “Pretty sick joke, huh?” He smirks, but it doesn’t meet his eyes. My heart continues to strain and break and rip apart for every teen in this facility.

Helquest was right about my compassion. It isn’t something I actually know how to turn off. The exercise Cadmar taught me was a joke. I can’t compartmentalize, can’t pretend. I shake my head and his smirk falls.

“Are you going to make it through tomorrow?” The real question slammed on the table. As if he couldn’t care less what they hear now that we’ve thoroughly lost.

And the question… that question is what keeps me up at night. Will I make it through tomorrow? Will I be able to live with myself? But he may be asking because his life is also on the line. Because he needs to know if he’ll survive tomorrow. But I can’t say. I can’t say whether I’ll actually be able to force myself to go through with it. That’s seventy-five. Seventy. Five. Lives. Added to the hundred I’ve already taken, and I can’t bring any of them back.

“If you can’t,” Jaxson says, clearing his throat. I must have been silent for a while. I meet his gaze that’s full of sincerity. “If you can’t go through with it, I would understand. I wouldn’t blame you.”

I swallow three times. “But I can’t stop the other seventy-four people from doing what they’re told to do.” With a pause, I glance around the hall, studying every face before meeting Jaxson’s gaze again. “Do you have any idea what we should expect tomorrow? How they plan to maneuver all of us?”

“I really don’t.” He shakes his head. “I won’t…. They aren’t having me go out. I’ll be here taking care of technical stuff.”

My gut clenches and I have to keep myself from glaring. Of course, he doesn’t have to do the hard part. He gets to sit back here and watch us destroy a part of our souls.

“It isn’t going to be easy, sitting here, knowing what you have to go out and do.”

He’s most likely right, but I still envy him. Really, I envy every teenager in the world who wasn’t handed this life, who had a stable home, a normal life. I will never have that. And now I get to spend my eighteenth birthday murdering an innocent person.

I can only nod before staring at my food for a while.

“Payton,” he addresses me and I glance up, but he’s staring over my shoulder. “Just remember what you told me. You do have a choice,” he whispers, just as I sense a presence behind me.

“Ms. Morros,” Kenly says, and I notice multiple other agents summoning other people from their seats. It dawns on me that some of us will be leaving now so the mission can be carried out at the right time. Kenly places a hand on my shoulder and I glance up at him. “It’s time to go.”

I swallow, then take a deep breath and rise to my feet, but am stopped by a warm hand grabbing mine. I can’t bring myself to look at him. “It’s your choice,” he says again before I shake his hand off and leave with Kenly.

Bryn and Eva are being led away in front of me. Bryn glances back at me and nods. I nod back. This is happening. I can’t stop it, can’t change it, and really have no right choice here.

Kenly takes me to an elevator I’ve never seen before and multiple others accompany us. The air is filled with anticipation, maybe even excitement.

Can they sense my disgust? My reluctance?

The doors open to an underground garage filled with black SUVs and big white vans. We’re each taken to a different SUV and put in the back. The backseat is separated from the front by thick black glass I can’t see through. A form of anticipation fills my veins when I put my seatbelt on and Kenly gets behind the wheel, starting the engine. This will be the firsts time in about two months that I’ve been outside the facility, been able to see life and the sky and take in the view of wherever we are.

When the enormous metal gates slide apart, the setting sun lights the garage. A few SUVs pull out ahead of us before Kenly expertly navigates us out of the garage and onto a deserted road surrounded by tall, run-down buildings. I look up, then keep looking up and up at the wall surrounding the facility. How would I ever get through those?

I switch my focus to the sunset, filled with oranges, purples, yellows; it’s one of the most beautiful things I think I’ve ever seen. It’s all I can focus on while Kenly maneuvers onto a more crowded road and drives us through the city—which I realize after a short while is LA—until finally stopping at a private airport. The idea of being on a plane that neither Cadmar nor I am operating is unsettling, but I have to get over it, have to adjust.

This is the way things are now.

The jet is already running when Kenly parks us in the hangar. He accompanies me onto the small private jet, sitting in the seat right next to me. I’m convinced he’ll remain silent the whole flight, until we’re in the air and he shifts around in his seat, pulling a sealed manila envelope from his coat. With a clear of his throat, he holds it out to me. So much is familiar about this—getting on the plane, going over my assignment. The last time I did this, on the way to Chile, I got in the first big argument I’d ever been in with Cadmar.

Before opening the envelope, I glance up at Kenly, meeting his dark, dead gaze. “Where will we be going?”

“It’s all in the file,” he grunts.

With a roll of my eyes, I open the envelope and remove the two sheets of folded paper and a photo. Without looking at it, I set the photo aside and glance over the pages, the first of which has a piece of tape with the words “taxus baccata” scrawled across it, holding down what I’m sure is an already poison-loaded pin.

We’re headed to Tokyo, one of the few places I’ve never been. The woman’s name is Margaret Steel, and Helquest has my entire trip and mission planned out, down to the very minute I’m supposed to take the target out. I get no choices, but I also don’t have to do any of the groundwork.

“I’ll accompany you to the location and shadow you the entire time, so I can notify him when it’s done. You’ll also see that I’ll be assisting with a small part of the mission,” Kenly tells me. He clears his throat and shifts in his seat. “And happy birthday, Ms. Morros.”

“Dear God, please don’t remind me!” I actually beg, getting a silent nod in response. I want to curl up and die.

Everything, absolutely everything about this is so similar to my last assignment. I wish Cadmar were here. I could tell him I don’t want to go through with it and he would listen. After studying my itinerary, I fall in and out of sleep, with more unease than I’d like to admit.

Five large men accompany the blonde woman to and from each of her appointments. I watch from a distance, blending in easily with the tourists due to the jeans and blue T-shirt Kenly supplied me with when we landed. He got me some breakfast before driving me to the first location I was to shadow Margaret.

I follow her from place to place, wishing all the while that Japanese was one of the languages I was fluent in, if only to tell the people surrounding me to stop shoving. The streets are crowded, everyone shoulder to shoulder, moving from one skyscraper to the next. It’s very much like I remember New York being, but I can’t understand what anyone is saying. Somehow, Margaret’s squad of guards is able to push through the throngs of people to get her from one place to the next. I almost long for Kenly to be doing the same for me, but the crowd does make for great camouflage.

After her luncheon with some big Japanese hotshot, I follow her on her way to some fancy place she’s supposed to go shopping. This is where I’m supposed to do my job, before she makes it to the shopping center. It’s come much too soon.

This is also the moment where I could run. The crowd could conceal me easily. I could find a side road and do whatever I need to in order to get their device out of my arm. I could disappear.

But Bryn and Eva and Jaxson. All of them would be dead because of me. No matter how badly I want to get out of this, Helquest knew what he was doing by preying on my compassion. I could never run and leave them all behind.

Kenly appears in my periphery, approaching Margaret’s guard. He’s to post as a threat, which will distract the five men so I can get close enough to her. The shouting from one of her guards announces my opening. Enough of the crowd on the sidewalk is distracted that I’m able to shove through.

My heart races, my palms coated in sweat when I reach for the pin in my pocket. It will only take one second and I’ll be done. Done with this so I can get back to the facility to make sure everyone’s okay.

I’m jostled from every side. Kenly is making a big scene with the guards who haven’t had the chance to move and alert Margaret, and the movement gets me closer and closer until I’m able to grab her arm from behind, as if steadying myself.

Her gaze snaps to me, long blonde hair swinging over her shoulder. Brown eyes becoming thin slits, she opens her mouth to say something.

“I’m sorry,” I tell her, meaning it with every fiber of my being.

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