“If you’re not careful, it’ll be the last,” she warned.

My gaze flickered to the gun holstered to her hip. One bullet. That was all it would take, and this would be over. “Why don’t I give you a free shot this time?” I said. “I won’t even fight you. You’ll get to tell all your friends you killed Lila Hart.”

“Tempting.” She offered me a strip of bacon. “Eat.”

Reluctantly I took it from her and nibbled. In another life, I would have fought a dozen Shields for a chance to taste something this good. Today, it might as well have been made of chalk.

Still, it seemed to placate her, and she pulled a thermometer out of her medical kit and ran it across my forehead. It beeped, and she set it aside, seemingly satisfied. “Now, are you going to tell me how you feel, or am I going to have to resort to drastic measures?” she said. I shrugged.

“Headache. Sore throat. Dry mouth.” Empty hole where my heart used to be. “Who are you?”

The corners of her mouth twitched with annoyance, as if she expected me to know exactly who she was. “Hannah Mercer. Head of Section X.”

“Section X of what?”

Her thin eyebrow rose, and she looked at me as if I’d asked what one plus one was. “Section X of Elsewhere.”

Elsewhere.

Elsewhere.

For a fraction of a second, the grief inside me gave way to a new emotion: pure, unadulterated panic. Daxton was going to hunt me down, just like he’d hunted Nina. I would die screaming and terrified in the woods like a wild animal, without dignity or any hope of escape.

But I would be with Benjy again. That single fact alone made the tightness in my chest ease, and I managed a strangled exhale. There was no dignity in death, only in life. Benjy had lived with dignity. I would, too.

Before I could ask how long it would be before I was dumped in the woods, the metal door opened again, this time revealing a tall man who looked eerily familiar. I blinked, my mind racing to place him. He was dressed in a white uniform nearly identical to Hannah’s, though he wore a hat with his, the military style similar to the one that was part of the Shields’ uniform. His dark hair was cropped short, and his face was long, with a strong jaw that reminded me of the IIs who sat on their stoops in the hot D.C. summers, chewing jerky and grumbling about their work on the docks.

One look at this man, though, and it was obvious he’d never done a day of hard labor in his life. I was sure I’d seen him before, but my mind was too muddled with shock to place him. Until—

Our eyes met, and a chill shot down my spine.

The picture in Daxton’s file. He was the man on the left, the one who’d looked familiar then, too.

Mercer. The name rattled around my head until an image of an airstrip in the middle of the woods appeared in my mind. He was the official who had met Daxton and me the day I’d visited Elsewhere.

What the hell was he doing in my cell?

“Miss Hart,” he said, his voice laced with admiration I didn’t expect. “It’s a pleasure to see you again, though I do wish it were under different circumstances. I don’t believe we’ve ever been formally introduced—I’m Captain Jonathan Mercer. I’m the one in charge here.”

He paused, as if he was waiting for me to say something, but I stayed silent. I had nothing to say to him. I wasn’t going to beg and plead for my life—I wasn’t going to ask for his mercy. Neither would work, and with Benjy dead, I didn’t want them to, either. Growing up in the Heights, the roughest part of D.C., had taught me how to survive, but seeing the deadened eyes of the IIs who were days away from working themselves to death and the smiles on the faces of the corpses who already had—that had only proven to me that sometimes, death was a relief.

I would be another smiling corpse. Whether that day would be today, tomorrow, a week from now—I didn’t care, as long as it was soon.

Once it became clear I wasn’t going to say anything, Mercer cleared his throat. “Right, then. Before we begin, I wanted to extend an invitation for you to stay with us at Mercer Manor once you’re moved from the holding cell. I think you’ll find it a far sight better than your other accommodations would be.”

“I’m not staying here?” I said before I could stop myself.

Mercer looked down his blunted nose at me, and the corner of his lips twitched upward, as if he were pleased he’d made me talk. “No, no, this is just a holding and prep area. You’ll be released once we’re through.”

“Through with what?” I said, but as I spoke, I noticed Hannah digging through the medical supplies bag she’d brought. “I’m fine,” I added hastily. “I don’t need anything.”

“This isn’t for your benefit,” she said coolly, and when she straightened, she held a syringe and a strange tool that looked like the tip of a knife attached to a pen. “Stay still.”

Her gloved hand ran over the back of my neck, and I jumped to my feet, scrambling into the corner of my cell. “Don’t touch me,” I said in a strangled voice, but it was already too late. Her blue eyes had widened a fraction of an inch, and though she quickly wiped her expression of any trace of surprise, I knew she’d felt the three ridges on the back of my neck, unlike the VII Lila should have had.

She knew I was Masked. She knew I wasn’t a real Hart. I braced myself for her to blurt it out to her husband, but instead, as if nothing had happened, she rose smoothly and crossed the cell to join me.


Tags: Aimee Carter The Blackcoat Rebellion Science Fiction
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