Max’s face was serene as he piled one rectangular box of food on top of the other. He ignored the looks of disbelief, the warning hiss of Cubby’s crew. He even managed to ignore Cubby herself, until she stepped over onto the crate and pinned his arm with her foot. “You got a death wish, Monk?”
Max calmly tried to remove his arm. Cubby leaned forward, putting her full weight onto it. She gave him a mocking smile, resting her arm against her leg as she watched Max struggle. The only sign of pain on Max’s face was the tightening of his lips as they pressed into a hard line.
Roman took a step forward, but Priyanka caught his wrist and held him in place.
Somehow, it played out exactly as I imagined it would.
Max refused to give the rations back. He turned his face away, just as Cubby released his arm, leaned down, and punched him in the side of the head.
It was like the gun at the start of a race. Her crew took off, jumping Max. He disappeared from view behind the crate, and for several horrifying seconds all I could see were the raised arms and fists of Cubby’s crew as they whaled on him. I jumped with each hit he took and had to force myself not to look away.
“Max, what are you doing?” Priyanka whispered. “Fight back. Fight. You know how….”
The soldiers, high up in their perch, hooted. Whistled. Clapped. Egging them on with every kick, every slap.
I saw my own cold fury reflected on Roman’s face.
Finally, Cubby waved them off Max. The rations he’d taken were redistributed to the kids who had helped take him down. The food supply dwindled quickly. The crowds of kids dispersed, some stone-faced and empty-handed. And, still, we didn’t move.
Neither did Max. We didn’t actually see him again until the elevators lowered back into the ground and the doors slammed shut. Then he was impossible to miss as he lay stretched out, facedown in the mud. Cubby leaned over, whispering something to him with a smirk on her face. When she and the last of the kids finally drifted back to the largest tent, Max pushed himself up onto his elbows.
Gingerly, he probed the skin of his temple and left ear. Blood ran down the side of his neck, where someone had come close to tearing off his earlobe.
His eyes landed first on Priyanka, then on Roman, before sliding shut again. Max sighed, and let his face fall back into the mud.
“I don’t know how he got you in here, but you need to get out of here. Now.”
“First of all, Maximo, it is lovely to see you again. I’m glad you took my drama lessons to heart,” Priyanka said. “I also like your, uh, hovel. Real nice.”
He hadn’t invited us to follow him, but we did anyway. His tent, if it could even be called that, had whole sections that were shredded, dangling into the cramped space. By the way other areas were knotted, I wondered if he hadn’t taken ruined scraps of other tents to try to repair it. He’d dug down into the earth, likely trying to cool off in the warmer months, and had carefully molded mud and other pieces of cloth into something resembling a bed. There was a single blanket and a few empty water bottles. Other than that, it was just the four of us crammed into a space the size of the backseat of a car.
The fabric of the tent flap brushed by my hair. I turned, only to be met with three smaller faces. Two girls, one smaller boy. It was impossible to tell where their freckles ended and the dusting of mud began.
Max’s face fell as he saw them. He shook his head.
“That’s okay,” the little girl said. “Don’t be sad, Max. You tried.”
“I still have these,” he said, reaching under the folded blanket for a slim package of prewrapped crackers. “Try mashing them with some water to see if she can get them down. Is her fever gone?”
I looked back at the kids in growing horror. The boy took the crackers with a look of such acute guilt that I felt it drive through me like a knife.
The taller of the two girls shook her head, revealing a long scar where her hair hadn’t grown back. “But she was talking to us and asking for water.”
“That’s good,” he told them. “I’ll come check on Elise in a minute, all right?”
The older girl narrowed her eyes at us. “These are the rooks Cubby said not to help. She’s going to hate you more than she already does.”
“She only hates me because I don’t entertain her by fighting back,” Max explained. “Go on, guys.”
The kids dropped the tent flaps back into place, dimming the stark glow from the floodlights.
“Why is that?” Roman asked, finally. “You were trained to fight like the rest of us.”
“Because that’s not my life anymore,” Max said. “I don’t fight. I don’t kill. I made a promise to myself and the world I wasn’t going to add any more pain into it. I don’t get it—why would Mercer send you in to get me instead of coming himself? When did he figure out I was here?”
Priyanka made a sound of frustration, throwing up her hands. “How are we supposed to know? When you got out, we had to follow. We couldn’t go back to Mercer without you.”
Max looked momentarily stunned, as if he’d never considered that.
“Is that why you surrendered?” Roman asked, gently guiding him back into the conversation. “You felt like you deserved to be punished?”
Max looked up from where he’d been smoothing the fabric of his uniform over his legs. “Don’t I? Don’t we all?”
“I don’t understand you,” Priyanka said. “What were you thinking, letting them take you here?”
“I was thinking about the lives we destroyed!” Max said, finally breaking. “I was thinking about all the men and women and children that we’d be asked to kill just to satisfy a man who is never satisfied. I’m not like you—I can’t just forget it and move on!”
In the silence that followed, I heard the sound of the kids in the nearby tents, talking quietly amongst themselves. Someone’s labored breathing as they fought their way through the thick mud.
“I’ve never forgotten it,” Roman said quietly. “How could I? I was the one pulling the trigger.”
“I…I know that,” Max said. The shame in the words tore at me. “It’s not my life anymore. I won’t go back to it, and I won’t let Mercer take me next time he comes.”
I was the first one to process this. “What did you just say?”
“Mercer comes here?” Roman said.
Now Max looked confused. “You’re not here on his behalf, and you’re not here to confront him…?”
“We’re here for you,” Priyanka said.
“Max,” Roman said sharply, drawing the other boy’s attention back to him. “Are you sure you’ve seen Mercer here?”
“You think I can’t spot that monster from a mile away?” Max rubbed at his face. “It’s a whole system. They set aside the Prodigies that come in for him, and, once a month, he comes with an armed guard and selects the ones he wants. I saw him myself. Twice. He was here two days ago.”
Roman swore, his hands curling against his knees. Priyanka’s mouth opened and closed wordlessly.
“Lana wasn’t with him,” Max said. “At least, I didn’t see her.”
“No,” Roman said. “She was tracking us.”
“Mercer must want you back bad,” Max said. He let out a humorless laugh. “You know the sickest part? The kids here think he’s some hero. They call him the Angel of the Pit.”
“Holy shit,” Priyanka said. “Moore has to know about this, right?”
“Mercer could have a direct arrangement with the security company Moore hired to oversee this place,” Roman said. “It would be easier to bribe an underling than a rich man like Moore.”
“No…” I said, my thoughts rapidly coming together. “No, this actually makes sense. Think about the types of companies that Moore buys out and collects. One of his biggest acquisitions in the last few years was a shipping company with both domestic ground service and overseas freight.”
Trucks. Cargo ships. Almost exclusive permission to cross through zone boundaries and enter seaports without much government oversight.
Roman’s lips parted, making the connection. I tried not to imagine him, or any of the other children who’d been stolen from their families and locked inside shipping containers. Here, in America, they’d only needed to find the kids who ran into trouble, or the ones who’d fallen through the cracks of our systems. The unclaimed. The unwanted.