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The infinite sea, p.16
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       The Infinite Sea, p.16

         Part #2 of The 5th Wave series by Rick Yancey
 
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25

  The door opens and Commander Alexander Vosch steps into the room. He carries a wooden box that he sets down on the table in front of me.

  “You’re looking well, Marika,” he says. “Much better than I expected.”

  “My name is Ringer.”

  He nods. He understands exactly what I mean. More than once I’ve wondered if the information gathered by Wonderland flows both ways. If you can download human experience, why couldn’t you upload it? It’s possible the person who is smiling at me now contains the memories of every single human being who’s been through the program. He may not be human—and I have my doubts about that—but he may also be the sum of all humans who have passed through Wonderland’s gates.

  “Yes. Marika is dead.” He sits down across from me. “And now here you are, rising phoenixlike from her ashes.”

  He knows what I’m going to say. I can tell by the twinkling in his baby-blue eyes. Why can’t he just tell me? Why do I have to ask?

  “Is Teacup alive?”

  “Which answer are you more likely to trust? Yes or no?”

  Think before you respond. Chess teaches that. “No.”

  “Why?”

  “Yes could be a lie to manipulate me.”

  He’s nodding appreciatively. “To give you false hope.”

  “To gain leverage.”

  He cocked his head and looked down his narrow nose at me. “Why would someone like me need leverage over someone like you?”

  “I don’t know. There must be something you want.”

  “Otherwise . . . ?”

  “Otherwise I’d be dead.”

  He doesn’t say anything for a long moment. His stare pierces down to my bones. He gestures at the wooden box.

  “I brought you something. Open it.”

  I look at the box. Look back at him. “I’m not going to do it.”

  “It’s just a box.”

  “Whatever you want me to do, I won’t. You’re wasting your time.”

  “And time is the only currency we have left, isn’t it? Time—and promises.” Tapping the lid of the box. “I spent a great deal of that first precious commodity to find one of these.” He nudges the box toward me. “Open it.”

  I open it. He goes on. “Ben wouldn’t play with you. Or little Allison—I mean Teacup; Allison is dead, too. You haven’t played a game of chess since your father died.”

  I shake my head. Not in answer to his question. I shake my head because I don’t get it. The chief architect of the genocide wants to play chess with me?

  I’m shivering in the paper-thin jumpsuit. The room is very cold. Smiling, Vosch is watching me. No. Not just watching. This isn’t like Wonderland. It isn’t just your memories he knows. He knows what you’re thinking, too. Wonderland is a device. It records, but Vosch reads.

  “They’re gone,” I blurt out. “They’re not at the hotel. And you don’t know where they are.” That has to be it. I can think of no other reason why he hasn’t killed me.

  A crappy reason, though. In this weather and with his resources, how hard could it be to find them? I clamp my cold hands between my knees and force myself to breathe slowly and deeply.

  He opens the lid, removes the board, and takes out the white queen. “White? You prefer white.”

  Long, nimble fingers set up the board. The fingers of a musician, a sculptor, a painter. He rests his elbows on the table and laces those fingers to make a shelf for his chin, like my father did every time he played.

  “What do you want?” I ask.

  He raises an eyebrow. “I want to play a game of chess.”

  Staring at me silently. Five seconds becomes ten. Ten becomes twenty. After thirty seconds, an eternity has passed. I think I know what he’s doing: playing a game within a game. I just don’t understand why.

  I open with the Ruy Lopez. Not the most original opening in the history of the game; I’m a little stressed. As we play, he hums softly, tunelessly, and now I know he’s deliberately mocking my father. My stomach rolls with revulsion. To survive I built walls, an emotional fortress that protected me and kept me sane in a world gone dangerously insane, but even the most open person has a private, sacred place where no one else may go.

  I understand the game within the game now: There is nothing private, nothing sacred. There is no part of me hidden from him. My stomach churns with revulsion. He’s violated more than my memories. He’s molesting my soul.

  The mouse and keyboard to my right are wireless. But the monitor beside him isn’t. A lunge across the table, a wallop upside his head, and a wrap of the cord around his neck. Executed in four seconds, over in four minutes. Unless we’re being watched, and we probably are. Vosch will live, Teacup and I will die. And even if I manage to take him out first, the victory will be Pyrrhic, assuming Evan Walker’s claim is true. At the hotel, I pointed this out to Sullivan when she said Evan had sacrificed himself to blow up the base: If they can download themselves into human bodies, they can also make copies of themselves. The set of “Evans” and “Voschs” would be infinite. Evan could kill himself. I could kill Vosch. Wouldn’t matter. By definition, the entities inside them are immortal.

  You need to pay close attention to what I’m telling you, Sullivan said with exaggerated patience. There’s a human Evan who merged with the alien consciousness. He’s not one or the other; he’s both. So he can die.

  Not the important part.

  Right, she snapped. Just the insignificant human part.

  Vosch is leaning over the board. His breath smells like apples. I press my hands into my lap. He raises an eyebrow. Problem?

  “I’m going to lose,” I tell him.

  He feigns surprise. “What makes you think so?”

  “You know my moves before I make them.”

  “You’re referring to the Wonderland program. But you’re forgetting that we are more than the sum of our experiences. Human beings can be marvelously unpredictable. Your rescue of Ben Parish during the fall of Camp Haven, for example, defied logic and ignored the first prerogative of all living things: to continue living. Or your decision yesterday to give yourself up when you realized capture was the little girl’s only chance to survive.”

  “Did she?”

  “You already know the answer to that question.” Impatiently, like a harsh teacher to a promising student. He gestures at the board: Play.

  I wrap a hand around my fist and squeeze as hard as I can. Imagining my fist is his neck. Four minutes to choke the life out of him. Just four minutes.

  “Teacup’s alive,” I tell him. “You know the threat to fry my brain won’t make me do what you want me to do. But you know I’ll do it for her.”

  “You belong to each other now, yes? Connected as if by a silver cord?” Smiling. “Anyway, besides the serious injuries from which she may not recover, you’ve given her the priceless gift of time. There is a saying in Latin. Vincit qui patitur. Do you know what it means?”

  I’m beyond cold. I’ve reached absolute zero. “You know I don’t.”

  “‘He conquers who endures.’ Remember poor Teacup’s rats. What can they teach us? I told you when you first came to me; it isn’t so much about crushing your capacity to fight as it is your will to fight.”

  The rats again. “A hopeless rat is a dead rat.”

  “Rats do not know hope. Or faith. Or love. You were right about those things, Private Ringer. They will not deliver humanity through the storm. You were wrong, however, about rage. Rage isn’t the answer, either.”

  “What’s the answer?” I don’t want to ask, don’t want to give him the satisfaction, but I can’t help it.

  “You’re close to it,” he says. “I think you might be surprised how close you are.”

  “Close to what?” My voice sounds as small as a rat’s.

  He shakes his head, impatient aga
in. “Play.”

  “It’s pointless.”

  “A world in which chess does not matter is not a world in which I wish to live.”

  “Stop doing that. Stop mocking my father.”

  “Your father was a good man in thrall to a terrible disease. You shouldn’t judge him harshly. Nor yourself for abandoning him.”

  Please don’t go. Don’t leave me, Marika.

  Long, nimble fingers clawing at my shirt, the fingers of an artist. Face sculpted by the merciless knife of hunger, the infuriated artist with the helpless clay, and red eyes rimmed in black.

  I’ll come back. I promise. You’re going to die without it. I promise. I’ll come back.

  Vosch is smiling soullessly, a shark’s smile or a skull’s sneer, and if rage is not the answer, what is? I’m squeezing my fist hard enough to force my nails into my palm. Here’s how Evan described it, Sullivan said, wrapping her fist in her hand. This is Evan. This is the being inside. My hand is the rage, but what is my fist? What is the thing wrapped up in rage?

  “One move from mate,” Vosch says softly. “Why won’t you make it?”

  My lips barely move. “I don’t like to lose.”

  He pulls a silver device the size of a cell phone from his breast pocket. I’ve seen one before. I know what it does. The skin around the tiny patch of adhesive sealing the insertion point on my neck begins to itch.

  “We’re a little beyond that stage,” he says.

  Blood inside the fist that’s within the hand clenching the fist. “Push the button. I don’t give a shit.”

  He nods approvingly. “Now you’re very close to the answer. But it is not your implant linked to this transmitter. Do you still want me to push it?”

  Teacup. I look down at the board. One move from mate. The match was over before it began. When the game is fixed, how do you avoid losing?

  A seven-year-old knew the answer to that question. I slide my hand beneath the board and hurl it toward his head. I guess that’s checkmate, bitch!

  He sees it coming and ducks easily out of the way. Pieces clatter on the table, roll lazily on the tabletop before falling off the edge. He shouldn’t have told me that the device is linked to Teacup: If he pushes the button, he loses his leverage over me.

  Vosch pushes the button.

  51

  MY REACTION IS months in the making. And instantaneous.

  I leap across the table, drive my knee hard into his chest, and knock him straight back onto the floor. I land on top of him and smash the heel of my bloody hand into his aristocratic nose, rotating my shoulders into the blow to maximize the impact, textbook perfect, just like my trainers at Camp Haven taught me. Drill after drill after drill until there’s no need to think: Muscles retain memory, too. His nose breaks with a satisfying crunch. This is the point, the instructors told me, when a wise soldier withdraws. Hand-to-hand is unpredictable and every second you remain engaged increases the risk. Getting off the X was the expression. Vincit qui patitur.

  But there’s no getting off this particular X. The clock’s down to the final tick; I’m out of time. The door flies open and soldiers pour into the room. I’m taken down quick and hard, yanked off Vosch and thrown face-first onto the floor, a shin pressed against my neck. I smell blood. Not mine, his.

  “You disappoint me,” he whispers in my ear. “I told you rage wasn’t the answer.”

  They pull me to my feet. The lower half of Vosch’s face is covered in blood. It smears his cheeks like war paint. His eyes are already swelling, giving him a weird, piglike appearance.

  He turns to the squad leader standing beside him, a slender, fair-skinned recruit with blond hair and soulful dark eyes.

  “Prep her.”

  52

  HALLWAY: LOW CEILINGS, flickering fluorescents, cinder-block walls. The press of bodies around me, one in front, one behind, two on either side holding my arms. The squeak of rubber-soled shoes against the gray concrete floor and the faint odor of sweat and the bittersweet smell of recycled air. Stairwell: metal rails painted gray like the floors, cobwebs fluttering in corners, dusty yellow lightbulbs in wire cages, descending into warmer, mustier air. Another hall: unmarked doors and large red stripes running down each gray wall and signs that read NO ACCESS and AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. Room: small, windowless. Cabinets on one wall, a hospital bed in the middle, vital signs monitor beside it, screen dark. On either side of the bed, two people wearing white coats. A middle-aged man, a younger woman, forcing smiles.

  The door clangs shut. I’m alone with the White Coats, except for the blond recruit standing at the door behind me.

  “Easy or hard,” the man in the white coat says. “Your choice.”

  “Hard,” I say. I whip around and drop the recruit with a punch to the throat. His sidearm clatters onto the tile. I scoop it up and turn back to the White Coats.

  “There’s no escape,” the man says calmly. “You know that.”

  I do know that. But escaping isn’t the reason I need the gun. Not escaping in the sense he means it. I’m not taking hostages and I’m not killing anyone. Killing human beings is the enemy’s goal. Behind me, the kid writhes on the floor, making hiccupping, gurgling sounds. I may have fractured his larynx.

  I glance up at the camera mounted in the far corner of the room. Is he watching? Thanks to Wonderland, he knows me better than anyone on Earth. He must know why I took the gun:

  I’m mated. And it’s too late to resign the game.

  I press the cold muzzle against my temple. The woman’s mouth comes open. She takes a step toward me.

  “Marika.” Kind eyes. Soft voice. “She’s alive because you are. If you aren’t, she won’t be.”

  It clicks then. He told me rage isn’t the answer, and rage is the only explanation for him hitting the kill switch when I upended the board. That’s what I thought when it happened. It never occurred to me that he might be bluffing.

  And it should have. There’s no way he’d give up his leverage. Why didn’t I see that? I’m the one blinded by rage, not him.

  I’m dizzy; the room won’t stay still. Bluffs inside bluffs, feints within counterfeints. I’m in a game in which I don’t know the rules or even the object. Teacup is alive because I am. I’m alive because she is.

  “Take me to her,” I say to the woman. I want proof that that one fundamental assumption is true.

  “Not going to happen,” the man says. “So now what?”

  Good question. But the issue has to be pressed and pressed hard, as hard as I press the gun against my temple. “Take me to her or I swear to God I’ll do it.”

  “You can’t,” the young woman says. Soft voice. Kind eyes. Hand outstretched.

  She’s right. I can’t. It could be a lie; Teacup could be dead. But a chance remains that she’s alive, and if I’m gone, there’s no reason to keep her that way. The risk is unacceptable.

  This is the bind. This is the trap. This is where the road of impossible promises dead-ends. This is the only possible outcome of the antiquated belief that the insignificant life of a seven-year-old kid still matters.

  I’m sorry, Teacup. I should have finished this back in the woods.

  I lower the gun.

  53

  THE MONITOR FLICKERS on. Pulse, blood pressure, breathing, temperature. The kid I took down is back up, leaning against the door, one hand massaging his throat, the other holding the gun. He glowers at me lying on the bed.

  “Something to help you relax,” the woman with the soft voice and kind eyes murmurs. “A little stick.”

  The bite of the needle. The walls disappear into colorless nothing. A thousand years pass. I am ground to dust beneath the heel of time. Their voices lumber, their faces expand. The thin foam beneath me dissolves. I am floating on an unbounded ocean of white.

  A disembodied voice emerges from the fog. “And no
w let’s return to the problem of rats, shall we?”

  Vosch. I don’t see him. His voice has no source. It originates from everywhere and nowhere, as if he’s inside me.

  “You’ve lost your home. And the lovely one—the only one—that you’ve found to replace it is infested with vermin. What can you do? What are your choices? Resign yourself to live peaceably with the destructive pests or exterminate them before they can destroy your new home? Do you say to yourself, ‘Rats are disgusting creatures, but nevertheless they are living things with the same rights as me’? Or do you say, ‘We are incompatible, these rats and I. If I am to live here, these vermin must die’?”

  From a thousand miles away, I hear the monitor beeping, marking the beat of my heart. The sea undulates. I rise and fall with each roll of the surface.

  “But it isn’t really about the rats.” His voice pounds, dense, thick as thunder. “It never was. The necessity of exterminating them is a given. It’s the method that troubles you. The real issue, the fundamental problem, is rocks.”

  The white curtain peels away. I’m still floating, but now I’m far above the Earth in a black void awash with stars, and the sun kissing the horizon paints the planet’s surface beneath me a shimmering gold. The monitor beeps frantically, and a voice says, “Oh, crap,” and then Vosch’s: “Breathe, Marika. You’re perfectly safe.”

  Perfectly safe. So that’s why they sedated me. If they hadn’t, my heart probably would have stopped from shock. The effect is three-dimensional, indistinguishable from reality, except I would not be breathing in space. Or hearing Vosch’s voice in a place where sound does not exist.

  “This is the Earth as it was sixty-six million years ago. Beautiful, isn’t it? Edenic. Unspoiled. The atmosphere before you poisoned it. The water before you fouled it. The land lush with life before you, rodents that you are, shredded it to pieces to feed your voracious appetites and build your filthy nests. It may have remained pristine for another sixty-six million years, unsullied by your mammalian gluttony, if not for a chance encounter with an alien visitor one-quarter the size of Manhattan.”

 
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