The Twelve #2(5)


    “Sara? Can you hear me?”
    A voice was floating toward her. A voice and also a face, one she knew but couldn’t place. A face in a dream, which was what she was certain she was having: an unsettling dream in which she was running and all around her were bodies and parts of bodies, and everything on fire.
    “She’s still completely out of it,” the voice said. It seemed to reach her across an impossible distance. A continent. An ocean. It seemed to come from the stars. “How much did you use?”
    “Three drops. Well, maybe four.”
    “Four? Were you trying to kill her?”
    “It was rushed, okay? You told me you wanted her out. So, she’s out.”
    A heavy sigh. “Get me a bucket.”
    A bucket, thought Sara, what did the voices want with a bucket? What did a bucket have to do with anything? But no sooner had she thought this than a force of cold wetness crashed into her face, blasting her into consciousness. She was choking, drowning, waving her arms in panic, her nose and throat filling with the icy water.
    “Easy now, Sara.”
    She sat upright, too fast; her brain sloshed in its casing, swirling her vision.
    “Ooo,” she moaned. “Ooo.”
    “The headache’s bad, but it won’t last. Just breathe.”
    She blinked the water from her eyes. Eustace?
    It was. His top front teeth were gone, shorn at the root; his right eye was clouded with blindness. With a gnarled hand, he was holding out a metal cup.
    “It’s good to see you again, Sara. You’ve already met Nina, here. Say hello, Nina.”
    Standing behind him was the woman from the pipe. A rifle was slung across her chest, her arms folded casually over it. “Hello, Sara.”
    “Don’t worry,” Eustace said. “I know you have a lot of questions, and we’ll get to them. Just drink.”
    Sara took the cup and gulped the water down. It was astonishingly cold and tasted vaguely metallic, as if she were licking a bar of iron.
    “I thought you were—”
    “Dead?” Eustace grinned, showing his ruined mouth. “In point of fact, everybody here is dead. Nina, remind me, how exactly did you die?”
    “I believe it was pneumonia, sir. That or something very heavy fell on me. I can never remember how we did the paperwork.”
    The explosion, the dash through the pipe; it was all coming back now. Sara drained the cup and took a moment to inspect her surroundings. She appeared to be in some kind of bunker, although there were no windows; she sensed they were someplace underground. The room’s only illumination came from a stand of flickering torches.
    “Where are we?”
    “Someplace the redeyes can’t find us.” He had a way of looking at her, angling his face to aim his good eye, that somehow added to the penetrating seriousness of his gaze. “Beyond that, I can’t tell you. The important thing is you’re safe here.”
    “Are you … Sergio?”
    Another broken-toothed smile. “I’m flattered you would think so. But no. There is no Sergio. Not in the way you mean.”
    “But I thought—”
    “And you’re supposed to. The name is short for ‘insurgency.’ Nina, if I’m not mistaken, that was your idea, wasn’t it?”
    “I believe it was.”
    “People need a name. Something to focus on, a face to attach to the idea. That’s our face. Sergio.”
    She looked at the woman, who was regarding her coolly, then back to Eustace.
    “The explosion. That was you, wasn’t it?”
    Eustace nodded. “Our early reports indicate seventeen cols dead, including your friend Whistler, and two members of the staff who were visiting for an inspection. Not a bad day’s work, I’d say. But that’s not the real prize.”
    “It’s not?”
    “No. The real prize is you, Sara.”
    Eustace was looking at her intently now. Both of them were. Sara shivered in the cold. A shift had occurred, an inversion of the conversation’s energies; he was trying to draw her out. Could they trust her? More to the point, could she trust them?
    “This is the part where you ask me why.”
    Not wanting to concede too much, Sara nodded.
    “As of this morning, there is no Sara Fisher. Sara Fisher, flatlander number 94801, was killed in a suicide bombing that took the lives of nineteen loyal security officers of the Beloved Homeland. The only recognizable part of Sara Fisher that remains intact is, conveniently, an arm with your tag on it. This was procured from a female col who, not twenty-four hours ago, was employing it to beat women and children in the dairy barns. We thought that under the circumstances it had better uses, though she seemed not to agree. Put up rather a struggle, Nina, did she not?”
    “The woman was a fighter. I’ll give her that.”
    He regarded Sara again. “I see in your expression that our methods come as a shock. They shouldn’t.”
    It was all going by her too fast. “You kill people. Not just the cols. Innocent bystanders.”
    Eustace nodded evenly. His face was unreadable, almost emotionless. “That’s true. Fewer than our glorious director would have you believe, but these things never come without cost.”
    She was appalled by his casual tone. “That doesn’t justify it.”
    “Oh, I think it does. Let me ask you something. What do you think the redeyes will do after today’s attack?”
    Sara said nothing.
    “All right, I’ll tell you. Reprisals. They’ll crack down hard. It won’t be pretty.”
    Sara looked at Eustace, then Nina, then Eustace again. “But why would you want that?”
    Eustace took a long breath. “I’ll put it as simply as I know how. This is a war, Sara. Nothing more or less. And in this war, we’re badly outnumbered. We’ve managed to infiltrate nearly every level of their operation, but the numbers are still on their side. We could never defeat them if we engaged them directly. Our theater of operations is psychological. Rattle the leadership. Draw them out. Every person who’s hauled into detention is somebody’s father, somebody’s wife, somebody’s son or daughter. For each one the redeyes send to the feedlot, two more will join us. It may seem brutal. But there it is.” He paused, allowing his words to sink in. “Maybe this doesn’t make sense to you. Soon enough it will, if my hunch about you is correct. In any event, the upshot of the afternoon’s attack is that you no longer exist. And that makes you extremely valuable to us.”
    “Are you telling me you planned this?”
    He shrugged in a manner that suggested the question was more complex than she’d intended. “There’s planning and there’s planning. A lot of what we do is a matter of timing and luck. But in your case, a great deal of thought went into your extraction. We’ve been watching you for some time, waiting for the right moment. It was Jackie who put the pieces together and gave the go-ahead. The episode at the biodiesel plant was staged, as was her sudden disappearance from the lodge last night. She knew you would come looking for her at the hospital. Frankly, I found the whole thing a little elaborate, and I had my doubts, but her confidence in you won the day. And I’m pleased to say she was right.”
    Sara’s mind was swimming with disbelief. No, drowning. “Jackie is … one of you?”
    Eustace nodded. “The woman was with us from the beginning, a senior operative. I can’t tell you how many attacks she engineered. Her final mission was to bring you in.”
    Sara groped for words but found none. She simply couldn’t square the woman Eustace was describing with the one she knew. Jackie? A member of the insurgency? For more than a year, the woman had barely been out of Sara’s sight. They’d slept three feet from each other, worked side by side, eaten every meal in each other’s company. They’d told each other everything. It made no sense; it wasn’t possible. Then:
    “What do you mean by ‘final’?”
    Something changed in the air. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Jackie’s dead.”
    His words were like a slap. “She can’t be!”
    “I’m afraid it’s true. I know she meant a lot to you.”
    “They don’t move people from the hospital until dark! I’ve seen the van! We have to get her!”
    “Listen to me—”
    “There’s still time! We have to do something!” She darted her eyes to Nina, still standing impassively with her arms folded over her rifle, then back at Eustace. “Why aren’t you doing anything?”
    “Because it’s too late, Sara.” His expression softened. “Jackie was never in the hospital. That’s what I’m telling you. Jackie was the driver of the car.”
    The sensation was of something breaking. That was how it felt. Something broke inside her. A final severing, the last thread binding her to the life she knew cut away. She was floating, floating away.
    “She knew how sick she was. At most she would have lasted a few more months before they sent her to the feedlot.” Eustace leaned closer. “It was how she wanted it. The crowning moment of a glorious career. She wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
    “She’s dead,” Sara said, to no one.
    “She did what she had to do. Jackie was a hero of the insurgency. And here you are, ready to pick up where she left off.”
    She couldn’t seem to make herself cry. She wondered why this was, and then she knew: the last tears of her life had fallen; there were no more left inside her. How strange, not to be able to cry. To love someone the way she’d loved Jackie and find no mourning in her heart.
    “Why me?”
    “Because you hate them, Sara. You hate them and you’re not afraid of them. I saw it in you that day in the truck. Do you remember?”
    Sara nodded.
    “There are two kinds of hatred. One gives you strength, the other takes it away. Yours is the first kind. I’ve always known that about you. Jackie knew it, too.”
    It was true; she hated them. She hated them for their leering eyes, their easy, laughing cruelty. She hated them for their watery gruel and icy showers; she hated the lies they made her shout; she hated their battering batons and the smiles on their smug faces. She hated them with her bones and blood, each cell of her body; her nerves fired with hatred, her lungs breathed hatred in and out, her heart pumped an elixir of pure hatred through her veins. She was alive because she hated them, and she hated them, most of all, for taking her daughter away.
    She became aware that Eustace and Nina were waiting for her to speak. She understood that all they’d done and said had been arranged for this one purpose. Step by careful step, they had led her to the edge of an abyss. Once she stepped off, she’d be herself no more.
    “What do you want me to do?”

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