I was on my tenth mile.
I would not slow down. I loved to finish strong.
But Collin had distracted me.
“What would you do… if you were in Allerio’s Cafe and someone said, “Vis ponere mecum?”
“I would punch him,” I said, under my breath.
“That’s an option. Let’s pretend you want to keep your cover and keep breathing.”
I glared, only I remembered he couldn’t see me. I wanted to run faster, to not think about anything else.
“You have heard the rule that quadrants matter, right?” I snapped back, adjusting my earpiece.
“Yeah, thanks for that reminder. Avery only tells me five times a day. I might forget,” he said, his voice was distant. “You were in the field. Were you ever running fully focused on just one quadrant?”
I answered quickly. “If someone said, ‘Vis ponere mecum,’ I would answer back with a quick retort about being flattered and then either agree to dance or say I was here with someone else, sneak out the back, and try to find a Sub-Terra who needed help.”
“Perfect. That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
I was feeling every muscle burn and having to lose oxygen on one more answer made me frustrated.
“I bet it’s harder than what you’re doing.”
“Oh, you mean assigning all your codes for all your missions and memorizing them just in case George doesn’t remember. Yeah, that’s easy.”
I would have felt bad for Collin if he hadn’t asked the next question.
“Coffee or tea? Sub-Terra on 11th.”
“Tea,” I answered quickly.
“Taxi greeting in Elite language.”
The quizzes continued until the last 400 meters.
“Finish strong. Stretch. Back in your Circle in twenty.”
He paused, as if he wanted to say something, but then cut off.
It was good, because if he gave me one more positive comment, I would hit him.
I focused again, looking at my clock. I was still under an hour, but barely.
I heard something in the distance. Someone else was running over ISO week.
At the same pace as me.
I spun to see Tessa, who was going faster than me, but had slowed down slightly.
“You on mile four?” I asked.
“Good guess,” she said. “Mile five and I only have to do five today. You doing seven?”
“Ten. And I want to be done in less than a minute,” I said. I didn’t miss her reaction.
“Dang,” she said. “I could never do that.”
“Yeah, well, not if I’m talking.”
“Then don’t talk,” she said. She sped up a little, but then hit a rhythm a little faster than mine.
She was pacing me.
And I needed it.
I followed her, matching her stride and rhythm. She kept looking back to make sure I was still there and then would speed up just enough to make me want to follow her.
Last stretch, by the garden. My muscles burned.
Finally, I heard my watch and my timer.
Tessa turned, “What was it?”
I looked down at the watch. “59.32.”
I collapsed on the wall for a moment, then getting back up again for a cool down lap.
“Are you finished with your five yet?”
“No, but it’s not timed today,” she said. “I did my ten yesterday, so this was my recovery day.”
“What was your time?” I asked.
“I thought we weren’t supposed to do that,” she said. “Competition after the Academy isn’t helpful and all that.”
“No,” I said, “You’re probably right.”
She smiled. “It was an hour and five minutes. I was so mad at myself,” she said, not facing me. “And I think Avery had to scrape me off the ground. I couldn’t even stretch for five minutes.”
“You’ll get there,” I said. “It seems like you have Hannah’s attention, anyway, so that means you’re doing well. The question is… why did you get Hannah’s attention?”
She took a sip of her water bottle. “How did you know… did she ask you?”
I smiled at her reaction. “Yes, she did, but that’s not why I asked you.” I was persistent. I would not let her strange fan-reaction to me block my desire to know her motivations.
She looked down at the brick, her demeanor changing.
“I said that I was committed to giving this more than one year of my life. She said that commitment is rare. She said you were rare, and I might as well learn what I can from someone who was on the same level, who was truly better because they’d do anything.”
I nodded, wanting to honor her choice while wondering if she was too naïve to try to keep that promise. She didn’t know what lied ahead of her.
But then that would be my fault, for not showing her.
“Fine,” I said, so quickly I think I shocked her. “I’ll do it. But on one condition.
She actively tried to slow her movements, as if to hide excitement.
“What is it?”
“You just learned it. I ran 10 miles, you didn’t. That’s okay. It’s not a race. It’s not a competition. Deal?”
She nodded, but I didn’t think she believed me, which made her next sentence sound slightly fake.
“Deal. Besides, I wouldn’t want to win against you.”
Only I had the uneasy feeling, even though she was smiling, that she was lying.
I thought I’d imagined it, because it was only for a moment before she thanked me again and ran back to her Circle. My MCU beeped. I sighed seeing Collin’s message to report to the tech room.
I ran back, falling into long strides so my muscles didn’t tense up later.
I came to the room with both tech boards out.
“Collin, I just ran ten miles.”
“And then we’re going to pretend you need to hack 3 things before you can be safe with an Unnecessary. You said you wanted a challenge. This is it. Transition faster.”
I sighed, closing my eyes for a moment, but sank into the chair. At least my legs could rest.
He added in, “You have water on your left. You’ve got this.”
The first problem was simple. The screen blinked green, and then I just needed to find the source code to hack into security to see where their cameras were. I ran through lines, scrolling, and then sent him the answer.
“You’re worried,” Collin said, not even looking down to type. The next code to decipher popped up on the screen.
“No,” I said, trying to think about Tessa or anything other than George.
“You can tell me,” Collin said. “You’d think I would have earned your respect a little by now.”
I shifted my shoulders slightly. I was tired. He was counting on that. I was more vulnerable.
“I don’t know why Hannah assigned me to talk to Tessa…” I trailed off, focusing on the computer for a moment. My fingers hovered over the keys, certain that the code was correct. I entered it and finished my sentence. “I just wanted to do my thing. I don’t know what I’m supposed to tell her. She seems so eager to be around me, but honestly…it’s just weird to have a…”
I hit the enter button and swiped left on the screen.
Collin looked at the answer to my algorithm and said, “A fan?”
I shook my head, nodding for him to send me the third code. I was tired, had a headache, and needed a shower.
“Do you think it’s because you repeated this year?” Collin asked, sending me another code.
“Maybe. I’m not sure,” I said, wondering how much I needed to focus on the problem so I could stop talking to him. But I found the source code, remembered the security protocol. I began typing, like a reflex. “It sounds like Tessa’s already going to sign up for a second year, the way she is talking. But it just doesn’t sound like she has a good reason, other than she just wants to succeed at the next thing. Which I get. I mean—” I paused, entering in the last numbers.
“I always want to succeed at the next thing, too,” I said, swiping my screen again.
I heard an exasperated sigh from Collin. He whispered, “Passed, test 435, in less than two minutes after a ten-mile run,” into his phone and then stood up.
“Did you tell her your reason for serving another year?”
“Did she ask?”
“No,” I said, turning around finally in a more defiant stance. “But you’re probably going to.”
“George won’t tell me,” Collin said. “And you’d have to tell your trainer normally, but you haven’t. And I haven’t known you long Brie, but you carry this around like a weight, like a duty. And dang…” he paused, and in a genuine posture, he said looking at the tech screen again, “You are good at it. Very good. But that’s not a reason to keep risking your life for this. There’s too much pressure, you might break, the more you are there, the more you need find new covers, and after two years—”
“I’m not going to be done after two years,” I finally cut him off. He was infuriating me, but he was also true. He was essentially my trainer now, and George was sidelined.
“What do you mean?” Collin said, his voice lowering.
“How many lives did I save last year?”
“Twenty-nine. One more and Eva would have gotten you a cake.”
I pushed aside the joke to keep his focus.
“And you think anything I could do outside of this Circle would be any better than that?” I paused, knowing if I said too much, there would be five people in Central who knew I was defective. “Go, live a boring life just like everyone else, be a boring teacher at the Academy. Don’t you understand? This is the most important thing I could ever do, that anyone could ever do! Why, if I have the chance to be a Protector, would I choose anything else?”
He was finally quiet, his jaw shaking before he clenched it. “So, when are you going to stop?”
“Never,” I said, revealing the only secret I could show him today. “I couldn’t. If I chose anything else, I’d regret it. Every day. I’d hate the boring hours a normal life and the tedious days spent alone…” I stopped again. He couldn’t know how alone I’d be.
I took a breath, to say the last sentence as strong as I could.
“There will never be a day when I want to do anything else other than be a Protector. Not even the day I die doing it.”
I expected him to fight back. To say something annoyingly positive, like George or Eva sometimes did.
But he didn’t.
He looked injured, as if I had thrown a knife in his gut.
“Of course,” he said, as if he had the wind knocked out of him and was still trying to speak. “Why would you? You’re right. You would always choose this.”
He shut his CU station laptop and pivoted on his heel, leaving the room.
Instead of feeling like I had won a battle or made a point, I stood still, confused. I was about to chase after him, but I figured there was no point.
I was still exhausted, which was his fault, and I needed a shower and dinner and to kick something.
But two hours later, when I got back, he still wasn’t there.
“Oi,” George called out from medical, “Have you seen Collin? I haven’t seen anything from him since he filed your score for your tech test after your run, which was super impressive, by the way.”
I turned to George, and at first said, “No, I haven’t,” in my best spy-mode. I moved around the room, placing a few things back as he continued to look at his MCU. George called Sam briefly, on speaker. I could hear Sam say, “I already checked his rooms. I’ll check again.”
Finally, I turned to face George again. He was about to ask a question, but then his shoulders dropped.
“You lied. What happened?” George said, his voice short.
“We had a… well, it wasn’t exactly a disagreement,” I said. George looked wary now, instead of angry, and then I continued, a little more defensive. “You should be happy. I thought you’d be happy, anyway. I was finally honest with him, that I’m doing this for over one year.”
“What did he say?”
“Nothing. He argued, and I cut him off. I said I would do this to the day I die and never regret it, and that there’s no point in a retiring to live some mundane life when I’d always regret not being able to risk my life to save theirs! And believe it or not, he didn’t argue or fight or even say—”
I was about to continue, but George dropped his clipboard. His one knee jolted, as if it almost fell out from under him.
He started breathing heavy, and only between breaths he said, “You didn’t tell him that. Tell me you didn’t say those words.”
“Yes, I did. What’s the—”
“What did he say?”
I shook my head, genuinely confused. “Nothing. I told you, he didn’t even argue,” I said. But then I asked, “George, what is going on?”
George’s eyes seemed to grow darker with worry as he hit his watch. “Joel, do you have eyes or ears on Collin?”
“No, I called his MCU about ten minutes ago to remind him of the meeting and I got a notification that it was out of service or turned off. Sam just got back and said his room is empty. Do you—”
“No, it’s fine. He is climbing- we found a note- but I was hoping he would stay in range. You have all of Brie’s stats?”
“No, Collin’s reports weren’t all in, but I’ll do the last one.”
Joel signed off. George didn’t hesitate. He started calling someone else.
“I need to find him,” George said, putting on his running shoe.
“George, you can’t run,” I said. “And you can’t climb!”
He looked at his shoes, as if he would have difficulty lacing them, not to mention climbing a tree. His eyes darted once, looking back to his watch, which was still calling someone.
A moment later, I heard Eva from his device.
“George, you are aware I have homework, right?”
“I need a favor, and you’re the only one that knows all the things and can do a hack,” he blurted out. “Brie messed up and doesn’t know it yet. I need to find Collin.”
“Okay. Have we tried the easy stuff first?”
“Yes,” George said. “He’s not picking up. Can you hack his MCU if it’s turned off? I’m sending you the registration number.”
“You’re asking me to hack a Trainer’s MCU without his permission and—”
“If you can’t do it or you don’t want to, just say it,” George said.
“No, I just can’t believe you’re asking me,” Eva asked. “It’s not even my birthday. I’m on it. I hope everything’s going to be—”
He cut the call short, trying to get on his other shoe.
“George,” I shouted, “I know I messed up, and I don’t know how, but you can’t fix it. You have to let me fix it.”
He looked up, but then looked past me, focused on nothing.
“You shared your reasons, Brie, but without your pain. And you made his pain burn.”
“George, this isn’t making any sense! Why would he get upset that I said I wanted to do this—”
“Until you die? Because everyone should be upset about that!” he said, his voice raising to a yell, but then to a whisper. “Everyone.”
I paused, his outburst making me defensive.
“George? You know I can’t have a family or—”
“But he doesn’t know, and did it ever occur to you that maybe someone tried to have a family and still be a Protector and it ended badly?”
He had yelled again, wincing in pain.
I was about to shoot back another question, but I stopped.
Few Protectors had ever had to make that choice.
I only remembered one.
Hannah had said her husband died trying to find answers when the Basement was on 23rd Street. And somewhere in the unimportant details of that story, she had said the retired Protector who had been sent on the mission to find the basement had died.
She had blonde hair and blue eyes.
She had skill with a knife.
She had a son.
I stopped. My breath cut short.
Eva called back. George pushed the button on his MCU, but I ripped it out of George’s hands.
“Eva, where is Collin?” I snapped.
“Maybe,” she said, not answering my question. “It comes at a price. What’s going on?”
I swallowed. “George promised not to tell me Collin’s secret, but I just figured it out. Two hours ago, I told Collin that no Protector would regret dying instead of living a normal life. Because that’s how I feel. But I told a Protector’s son that his mother would never miss him and never care about him if it meant she could finish one more mission. I told him he didn’t matter to her, or me.”
There was silence on the other end for a moment, then Eva choked out.
“He’s on the wall. He turned his MCU off, but he’s on the wall. The last ping was there.”
“Eva, I’m sorry. I’m going to fix this.”
“I know, Brie, but you’re not going to like what it costs,” she said. Her voice had been angry when it started, but then softened. “Please let me know when he is okay.”
“I will,” I said. I ended the call, pulled my sweater on, and tightened my laces. I shot off without looking at George.
“I have my MCU,” I called, sprinting out of the room.
It was nearly a mile, but I was there in less than five minutes. I didn’t stop, no matter how much my legs protested. I felt all the urgency from being in the middle of the Republic, tailed by a Sentry.
I got to the wall, scaling the first foothold, and jumped up to the second. I grabbed the hold that was five-feet off the ground and started scaling. I reached out and grabbed the one tether and placed a carabiner belt on.
“Collin?” I called, looking up but seeing no movement.
It was only then that I realized that the other belt was still there.
And the emergency rope was untethered.
He was on top of the wall with no way to repel down.
My fingers shook for a moment, but I forced them to move quickly, threading the rope in and attaching my hook in less than ten seconds. I tightened the rope and started.
Regret made me want to vomit, but fear pushed it down to keep climbing. I thought how ironic it was that I was trying to breathe deeper, like he had shown me, to keep all my emotions balanced. I paused for a moment, breathing deep, and then breathed out slowly, through the tiniest space between my lips.
I had messed up in every way, but none of it could stop me. I would make it right. Regret didn’t have a chance, because it evaporated.
And I climbed.
And I climbed, only focusing on the next hold, and then the next.
It was working. I could escape regret, breathe, and move forward with intention. He had taught me how to do that better. And I had just killed him—
I hadn’t realized how fast I was climbing. I was nearly at the top. He must have heard me panting.
“What are you—”
“Wait a second!” I yelled, reaching out for the last few holds. I struggled to reach over the top part of the wall that jutted out to make a ledge.
“Brie, be careful. You don’t have the rope for that!”
“Neither did you!”
My stomach burned as I quickly swung my foot out to the side, my toe barely holding its grip on the concrete of the top of the wall.
It slipped, but by then, Collin had my forearm and was pulling me up. Collin was about to ask me something, sitting next to me, but I started yelling.
“How did you plan on getting down? Did you plan on climbing down?”
I forgot all my apologies. My anger pulsed through me, only for making me so afraid for him.
“Did you plan on climbing down?” I shouted.
“Yes,” he nodded, but then paused. “Why are you here?”
“Blame Eva, not George. She found you.”
“Why would Eva be…” He looked over to the top of the wall, where he had been sitting. I could see his scarf, his hoodie, and his MCU. “She tracked me, even though I had my MCU off. Oh, I’m never going to live that down. What time is it?”
“You’re about to be late for your meeting, but I think George is covering for you,” I said, messaging George a quick message: “At the top of the wall. I have him. He’s fine.”
I looked back up at Collin, who suddenly looked like I did when I had spoken to him last.
“Did George… he promised me he’d never—”
“He didn’t tell me. But he knew Hannah had told me years ago. I put the pieces together.”
He closed his eyes, rubbing his hand through his hair and down the back of his neck.
“I was worried… that after I said that, that you’d feel…” I was stumbling over words.
“No,” Collin said, opening his eyes and looking calm again. “I mean, I did. I felt all the pain and everything I ever feared, but maybe you and her were right. I thought… of the twenty-nine lives you saved last year. And all the lives she saved. Of all the lives she would’ve saved if she had hacked the Basement. Maybe she was right.”
“Collin,” I said, pausing for a moment to make sure he would believe me. “You know that saying, that one truth, one true thing, can set you free?”
“Are you saying I should’ve told you my truth earlier?” he looked off, his blue eyes looking that strange, tortured look.
“No, I should’ve told you mine. Because I use it to justify my decision,” I said. I took a deep breath. “And maybe my secret is the truth that will set you free.”
He shook his head, “But you said it, you could leave this and you could have children, and it wouldn’t matter more than one more mission—”
I blinked, but it wasn’t fast enough. One tear had already escaped. I was determined it would be the only one he saw. I spoke louder than I wanted to, to sound stronger than I felt.
“No, Collin. That’s the lie. The truth is… if I could leave this, and go find someone who would love me, and have a baby, and live out a normal life, and build snowman and cut flowers and bake bread and teach, I would. But I can’t make the choice your mother made…” I paused, trying to swallow as I saw his expression change. “I’ll never have the chance to make the choice your mother did. Ever.”
He moved his hand from behind his head, where he had been clutching the back of his neck, reaching out for me, hesitating before placing it on the cold concrete. His voice shuddered.
“Brie, are you allergic… did you never get the Shield vaccine?”
I shook my head, unable to speak between gasping for breath and fighting back any more tears.
He reached out again, but then hesitated again.
“Are you sure?” he asked. “It’s insensitive to ask, I know, but did they ever check to—”
I breathed out quickly. “Dr. Swanson checked. There’s no chance. None.”
“Everything about you just became so insanely clear,” he said. “All the anger, all the pain, all the fear, all the devotion, all the love.”
“Love?” I said, wondering if he was making the mistake of trying to attribute his feelings onto me.
He looked at me, the normal knowing, sure sense back into his facial expression. “You’re not revengeful. Everyone thinks you are, but you’re not. You’re trying to love them, the Unnecessaries and the Vessels, because you know their pain. You have the same enemy. You love them too much to fail them. Too much to give up.”
I shook my head, thinking he must be crazy. But as I was climbing the wall, I realized that was very close to what I had been thinking. He was more poetic about it. I hated words.
“Collin, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I’m sorry because… I spoke your worst fear. And you had to hear it.”
“Honestly, it’s okay. It was almost therapeutic, in the end. I will never understand what she did, but I also didn’t know what was at stake. I’m starting to find out.”
“But she did love you. She did.”
He looked at me for a moment, like he didn’t quite believe me.
“You don’t know that, Brie. And neither do I. My mother was the one who said, ‘the adventure of life was finding something worth dying for, and then living for it.’ Hearing you say that you struggled… with the truth and the lie, makes me wonder if she did, too. Maybe her lie was that she could be happy with me and a family, and her truth was that she needed to be on a mission to feel like she mattered. Maybe her lie was that she needed to be on mission, and her truth was that she loved me and missed me. But I’ll never know which one was the lie, and which one was the truth.”
“Maybe they’re both true,” I whispered, now looking in his eyes. “She might have gone on that mission, and still loved you. Can you believe that? And maybe both of those truths can set you free.”
He closed his eyes. “I’ll try,” he said, his tears finally escaping. He wiped them quickly on his sleeve and taking a deep breath. “And seriously, this was strangely therapeutic.”
“Same here,” I said, but then my worry rose again. “But if it was, why didn’t you grab the carabiner and the belt?”
He looked at me, now shocked, and then moved his hand off his head to rest on his knee.
“You didn’t think I’d jump?”
“For a moment I did, I was terrified, and —”
“Oi!” George yelled from the bottom of the wall. “The meeting is about to start. Thank goodness there was a delay, or you’d be late.”
“Why was there a delay?” Collin yelled down.
“The Hand had a minor job of resetting all the security systems in the Academy because a student tried to break into the archives.”
I sighed. “Eva,” I said, looking at Collin. “She bought you time.”
“I definitely owe her a cake now,” he said, shifting slightly, his feet now dangling over the wall. “And to answer your question, I never take the belt up.
I looked at him, he moved to put his hoodie on and grabbed a loop of about 10 feet of rope. He leaned on one foothold, moving to the next while looping the rope around the foothold next to him. He continued to lasso the rope around footholds as he moved. He repelled with ease, using the rope as a backup if he lost his footing, which he didn’t do.
George called up, “Brie, you can be impressed later. We have more important things to do. Repel down.”
I listened on impulse. I repelled down next to Collin, just to spot him.
But I ignored George’s order: I would always be impressed by Collin, because he fought back against the fear, against the evil of the Republic, without ruining his soul.
I hadn’t yet.
And he had just told me I could.
I just didn’t know if it was the truth or the lie.