Running on the treadmill in my little white cell is the best I get these days. I haven’t seen the outside world or the outside of this cell in three days. That’s right, three freaking days. Or three sleeps, at least. How can I know when I’m not allowed to see outside? I may have been at this place even longer than that though, because when I woke strapped to that dreaded bed, they said I had been out for “days,” whatever that means.
Even still, no one has come for me; no one raised any alarms or blew the place up to get me out of here. It solidifies how stuck I am. At least until I figure out how to escape by myself. With the current situation, there’s no way I’ll ever get out of here. The Elites watch me, their henchmen checking on me throughout the day.
I don’t know what they’re waiting for. They haven’t started beating me into submission or starving me. I still get three healthy meals a day. You heard right, healthy meals. Back to the Scarlet ways, I guess. I hate it. I need a burger, pronto. Maybe I should be thankful they’re still feeding me? I don’t know. I don’t want to be thankful for any of their shit. For all I know, they’re slowly poisoning me or filling my body with chemicals to make me more submissive.
That first day I was awake, that horrid, awful day, was the worst day of my life. The man who was there when I woke introduced himself later as Mr. Helquest. Perfect name for a pompous ass. While I was strapped to that bed, he only said they were going to keep an eye on me, watch me, and I would soon know my purpose. Whatever the hell that means.
That was after they went through the excruciating process of removing the tracker Janet put in my ankle before sticking a brand new one in my forearm. They thought I was under at the time, but the anesthesia didn’t work. It usually doesn’t. I felt every aching moment of it. He later told me it was only a precaution, to keep track of my heart rate, my blood sugar levels, to make sure I was staying healthy. I haven’t seen him again, which actually isn’t the worst thing in the world.
They brought me to my white cube that day, and I’ve been running on this stupid treadmill every day since, until I simply can’t move anymore. It’s my only form of recreation and sanity. Running, running, running. My feet beating on the belt, my breaths coming out in short rasps, sweat dripping from every pore. If I ever get out of here, I’ll be able to run ten miles without it fazing me.
At least I’m getting stronger. I can feel it. I could probably kill someone using my legs alone. The idea of trying it out on Helquest keeps my mind occupied at least two hours a day.
I wouldn’t consider the other things occupying my mind as a good thing. With no way out of this room except the hidden door in the wall, and no access to the outside world, it’s not like I’m coming up with some grand escape plan. No, all I have to think about are the people I love. I think about Reiley, Cadmar, and Kay, wondering what they’re doing. If they heard the news about me taking off with my mom. What they made of it, if they did.
They’re probably disappointed or hate me. I can’t know, but it doesn’t mean I don’t think about it. I wonder if they got to do whatever it was Cadmar was planning. If they’re safe. They have to be safe. It’s the only thing I can hold onto, the only thing giving me any hope—them being on some faraway island, living the lives they deserve. That could happen in three days, right? I never did get to find out what happened with Scarlet, if everyone was okay, if Reiley was okay seeing that awful woman again. I have to believe she’s all right.
The other person I think about… well, I try not to. His face coated in disappointment and heartbreak will forever be burned in my mind. I let him down. I miss him, but at least I saved him. At least Janet wasn’t able to get her slimy fingers on him. He should be safe now, with Cadmar, wherever they are. He’ll never know what happened to me, where I ended up. He’ll always think I chose Janet over him.
With my every stride on the treadmill, I try to push Conner from my thoughts, as if I’m running from the memories of him, because they’re eating me alive. Not thoughts of what they plan to do to me here, or what horrors await me. No. Thoughts of Conner hating me for the rest of his life will haunt me until I die.
I don’t know how long I’ve run, but I’m drenched in sweat when the hidden door slides open. Thinking it’s lunchtime, I stop the treadmill and wipe my sweaty arm across my forehead, only adding more sweat there, but whatever. I suck in a sharp breath at the sight of Helquest striding in, wearing a dark gray, fitted suit, not a strand of sandy-blond hair out of place.
“Ah, Payton,” he says in a silky voice—which makes me want to puke—with a huge smile in place.
The sound of another person’s voice is something I haven’t heard since that first day, but I wish it were anyone else’s. It might actually be nice to talk to someone I don’t loathe, because the voices in my head are starting to irritate me. He moves farther into the room, getting closer to me, making my claustrophobia in this tiny space a thousand times worse. My heart pounds, but I’m not sure if it’s from the run or his close proximity. The vibe he puts off makes me itchy all over.
“How are you doing this fine day?” He holds his arms out, encouraging me to say something, but that’s not happening. I would rather drink acid.
When I don’t say anything, he looks me over, appraising my sweaty figure, then glances at the treadmill. Walking over to it, he places a hand on the screen, and I shift to the other side of the room, putting the most distance possible between us, which doesn’t go unnoticed. His eyes slit but he recovers, replacing his ridiculous smile.
“I can see you’ve been taking advantage of the equipment.” He pats the machine, and I give him a bored look.
I know they’ve been watching me. I’m sure he knows I’ve used the stupid thing for basically the entire day, every day I’ve been here. If he’s going to act like I am stupid, he’s going to piss me off real quick. He tilts his head, waiting for another response, but I don’t comply. I cross my arms over my chest and lift my chin. He sighs, shaking his head.
“Now Payton, if we can’t be civil with one another, things are going to become… difficult for you here.” He comes toward me, giving me one of those looks a parent would give a naughty child. I barely resist slapping it off his face. “I was going to show you around the place. Give you a little tour. Let you stretch your legs outside this room.”
It’s so tempting, and the gleam in his eyes tells me he knows as much. We have a long stare-down where I try to keep the bored look in place. I don’t even want to glare, because he isn’t worth a good glare. I save those for people who matter.
But the only way I’m going to escape this place is if I know what I’m up against. And the only way that’s going to happen is if I can figure out what’s outside this room.
I finally shrug in pure boredom, making that awful smile slide back over his face.
“All right, then.” He clasps his hands together and then appraises me again, pursing his lips at my sweaty appearance. “Hmm. How about I have them bring you a fresh change of clothes? Then we’ll be on our way.”
Without waiting for my response, he leaves the room, the door sliding shut behind him. I let out a heavy breath I didn’t realize I was holding, then rub my hands over my face. Okay, so great, I get to leave the room and figure out where the hell I am. On the downside, I have to do it with Helquest, but I’ll survive. I can survive this.
Only a few seconds later, the door slides back open and my regular hencher comes in with a pile of clothes. He’s huge, a lot like the agents who attacked us in Texas, and grabbed me in Seattle, but he doesn’t seem as intimidating as they were. The look of distaste he gives me while handing over my clothes is the same one I receive every time he enters my cube. His face may be stuck that way.
He leaves the room without any words, and I hurry to the far corner of the room to change. I have no privacy in here because of the cameras, which freaks me out a bit, so I always cram myself in the corner, trying to change as discreetly as possible. I have yet to use the shower in the corner of the room, even though there’s a wall around it. I pull off my sweaty clothes and replace them with the clean yellow tank and black yoga pants he brought me. Luckily, they haven’t been making me wear some jumpsuit or anything. That would be awful. Instead, they’ve been bringing me clothes I would usually wear for training at home.
Shortly after I’ve changed, the door slides open, and Helquest stands there with a satisfied smile. “We all set, then?” he asks. I only nod. “Great. Let’s get started.”
He holds an arm out, motioning for me to go out the door. My pulse quickens and my stomach churns. I haven’t been out of the room yet. I have no clue what might be out there. What if they’re torturing people or doing experiments on them or something? The thought has bile rising up my throat, but I clench it down. When in the world did I start looking at my little room as a safe haven? If I’m ever going to get out of this place, I have to leave this room. Taking a deep breath, I step out the sliding door, expecting so much, but am brought up short.
It’s a long white hallway in both directions. That’s it. Totally unexciting.
I look back at Helquest, who presses his palm to a digital pad next to my door, closing it again. Exactly as it does on the inside, the door blends right in to the wall, making me wonder how many of these hidden doors run along the hallway.
What if there are people in every single one of them?Oh my word, I need to get my imagination under control before I go insane.
You’re already there, Payton.
He turns to me, still wearing that smile. “This way.” He gestures to the right and starts walking without making sure I follow.
Looking down the opposite direction, I imagine running before realizing I’d be caught instantly. I can’t tell where any of the doors are, so there’s no way I’d be able to tell where some agents might come out and stop me. Yeah, bad idea. I may as well follow the prick and find out what this place is all about. I rush forward to make up the few yards he gained on me.
After what feels like fifteen minutes of walking, he stops at a blank spot on the wall, presses his palm on a nonspecific area where the piece slides to the side and another digital pad appears, like the one by my door. He presses a series of keys, and then the wall slides open. My breath catches in my lungs at the sight beyond the door.
A huge room, which looks a lot like our training arena at home, is filled with people—teens—exercising, fighting, swimming. The sight should make me excited to see others such as me here, but it makes me sick. They’re creating an army of teenage assassins.
There are so many of them.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” Helquest says. My gaze snaps to meet his, which is filled with amusement. Great, I’ve amused him. “Shall we?” He holds an arm out again before leading me into the room. “This is the rec room,” he explains while we pass a group of teens wrestling around on a springboard.
They’re pretty good, but their form is a little off and they’re fighting sloppy. Ugh, that needs to stop. I am not here to give them constructive pointers.
This doesn’t look anything like a rec room to me. I thought those had foosball tables and old video games. This is nothing like that.
A particular couple on the springboard catches my eye. Two blondes wrestle around, both trying to get the advantage. One of them has yellowish, blue bruises under her eyes. My heart stops beating as heat burns through me. I want to run over to them, demand to know what they’re doing here, but that would be a stupid move, especially since Helquest has amused eyes on me again.
I clench my jaw, keeping from saying something stupid. Continuing to walk through the middle, where there’s a designated path, I try to forget about seeing them. I have no idea why Bryn and Eva would be here, but it doesn’t seem like a good thing. If anything, it will make more trouble for me. Especially if I get close enough to get my hands on them. I might just break Bryn’s nose again.
As we continue through the rec room, they all go about their business, paying no attention. Except one guy. He stands on the side of the running track, which loops around the entire building, exactly like the arena. I’m wondering if they designed this place after seeing our arena. It wouldn’t surprise me. His arms are crossed over his chest, and he just stares, watching me with this unnerving look on his pale face. His dark eyebrows are drawn together, his dark hair buzzed short to his head. He holds my gaze, making it impossible to look away. I can’t tell if it’s an angry or concerned look, but I never get the chance to find out.
After exiting through the opposite end of the room, Helquest leads me through a cafeteria area, then shows me their enormous shooting range, which is equipped with more ammunition than could ever be needed, unless we’re starting World War III. He stays silent for the rest of our walk, not going into detail about the areas he shows me, only gauging my reactions, which I try to mask. This entire excursion has caused a painful cramp in my stomach, and my chest feels like I may have a heart attack. Not only do I not have a clue how to get out of here, but I also got to see what they’re using the place for and that knowledge alone kills me.
Back at my cell, he opens it, leading me inside. “Your lunch should be here shortly.” He smiles, leaning against the doorway. “If you’re willing, you could meet the others tomorrow. You could join the group, train with them, eat with them.” He pauses, looking around my small space with disdain. “It would be more… comfortable than your current arrangement.”
I can’t help the glare now. Or how much I despise him from showing through it. There is no way I will train with the other teenagers here; I will not condone this kind of operation. I would rather have them starve me in this hole.
I clench my jaw to keep from voicing any of this and shake my head stiffly. My claustrophobia rears it’s ugly head again when he pushes off the opening, moving into the room with me with an exasperated look in place.
“Now Payton, I think you really need to consider this.” His light mood has vanished, as if he’s never been refused something. He may be bipolar. “We have plans for you. You may as well get on board with them, rather than making things hard for yourself.”
“Plans?” I croak. It was supposed to come out hard, angry even, but I haven’t used my voice in days.
“Of course. We didn’t hunt you down, make deals with anyone we thought could help, just so you could become one of the others.” He rubs his hands together, giving me this enormous smile as if he’s psyched to tell me what their plans are. “We brought you in because we want you to train them.”
What?Train them? To do what? They’re already training, so what would they need me for?
I fist my hands at my sides, shaking my head. Even if that’s all they want from me, there’s no way I will agree to it. No way I would participate in taking away kids’ innocence. Because that’s what it is. I know now. Conner taught me what it means to be stripped of your childhood. I would never do so to another person.
“No.” I stand firm, unable to get my head to stop shaking.
The smile disappears and his eyes go cold. I get a glimpse of the real man, the emotionless man hidden beneath his awful smile. It’s unsettling, but I can handle it, and him. He doesn’t scare me. Little does anymore, especially since the people I love are far away from here. “That’s a shame.” He moves to the door, then looks over his shoulder. “I have the feeling you’ll choose differently soon enough.”
He exits the room, the door sliding shut behind him, leaving me all by my lonesome. I would sigh in relief because he’s gone, but there’s no relief. Whatever my fate brings tomorrow is bound to be less than comfortable. Rather than sitting and driving myself nuts with thoughts of the unknown, I get back on the treadmill and drive myself nuts there.