I Am the Traitor, page 12
“You’ll forgive me if I get right to business,” he says.
I relax my shoulders, allowing my body to react as if I’m unconcerned about the weapons being pointed at me.
Father says, “We’ve had reports of some unusual activity in the last twenty-four hours.”
“Could you be more specific?” I say.
“Is that necessary?”
“It is if you want me to know what you’re talking about.”
Father studies my eyes. I show him nothing.
“We had a security breach at a Program facility,” Father says.
“Are you accusing me?” I say.
“I’m asking you.”
“I’ve been standing down in Columbus for several days now. If I recall, it’s you who took me off the board in the first place. You said I needed some rest.”
“Zach, I’m trying to help you here. I need you to level with me.”
Help me with what?
I hesitate for a moment, wondering if there’s more going on than I can perceive. Perhaps I should tell Father the truth.
No. This is a game of chess. Move. Countermove.
“Here’s the truth,” I say. “I was in Columbus. Mother called and asked me to join her for a birthday celebration. I would have brought party favors, but time was a little tight.”
“That’s all you have to say?”
“That’s all there is.”
“You don’t know anything about these issues I mentioned?”
“And you would tell me if you did.”
“What choice would I have?”
Father smiles. “All right, then. That’s all I needed to know.”
He taps a button on his shoulder and speaks into a throat microphone. I can’t hear what he says, but a moment later the helicopter banks left and gains altitude.
“We’re on our way,” he says.
I relax, settling back into my seat. Father does the same in the seat across from me.
“Can you tell me where we’re headed?” I say.
“We want to show you the operation now. You’ll be amazed how we’ve grown since the old days when you first came to us.”
“Old days? That was barely five years ago.”
“Things change fast,” he says. “Sit back and enjoy the ride.”
I sense movement from the soldier behind me, but before I can react to the threat, the soldier has sprayed an aerosol gas into my face from a small canister. I can taste the bitterness of the gas in the back of my throat.
I look at Father.
“It’s not poison,” he says, answering my question before I’ve asked. “It will help you relax and protect us until we’ve done a thorough evaluation.”
“Mother said we should bring you in, but I don’t think she’s aware of how far you’ve strayed. I know you’re lying to me, so I’ve decided to undertake a different protocol.”
I try to stand, only to find my legs shaky beneath me.
“Don’t fight it,” Father says.
I’m not fighting. I’m consciously slowing my breathing and my heart rate. A drug is delivered via the bloodstream, and the quicker the blood is moving, the more efficient the delivery. By slowing my heart rate, I can slow the dispersal rate of whatever it is they’ve used on me.
“Why are you doing this?” I ask.
“Three incidents in the last day. One in our holding house, another at the University of Rochester, and a third at an institute with which we are affiliated. These are not coincidences. There are no coincidences when you’re involved.”
“I told you I don’t know anything about it.”
“If that’s true, then you have nothing to worry about,” Father says. “I’ll ask you a few questions, and we’ll be done. When I’m satisfied, I’ll take you to Mother.”
The drug is entering my system. I feel my mental faculties slowing, my breathing becoming labored.
“Did you snatch that kid from the house?” Father says.
“The boy we found in your hotel room in New Hampshire.”
He’s talking about Howard.
My first option is to say nothing at all. Ride out the interrogation.
The other option is to tell the truth—let Father know I took Howard, and explain the reasons behind my actions.
For now I will make the choice that buys Howard the most time to get away.
“I don’t know anything about a kid,” I say.
“We’ll find out,” Father says. “One way or another.”
A thick nylon belt slips over my head, constricting against my chest. It’s the soldier behind me. He pulls on the belt, attempting to bind me to the seat.
Under normal circumstances, I would have sensed it coming and evaded, but the drug is slowing my reaction time.
I have to play defense. I get my forearm up between my body and the belt, exerting pressure to try to break free.
“Don’t fight it,” Father says again.
But I am fighting now, even as the drug’s effects are increasing with each passing moment.
Father tries to push me back into the seat as the soldier behind me pulls on the belt, but I resist them both, the tension in the belt growing tighter as I exert my full strength against it.
The chopper angles left, and Father stumbles and falls to the deck. I steal a look around, assessing my strategic position.
Father is on the floor across from me, his eyes wide with surprise. The soldier is still behind me, yanking on the belt. The two pilots are up front, not yet aware of any problem in the helicopter bay. The third soldier comes into view in my peripheral vision, stepping forward to help his comrade.
“Stop this, Zach,” Father says.
But I don’t stop. I fight harder, anger growing inside me. I think of how Mother wasn’t willing to bring me in after the Natick mission, then how she and Father changed my target in New York, sending me after Samara. The anger fuels me, and I make one last effort to overpower the soldier behind me. I heave forward with all my weight, and he loses his footing, flying past me across the cabin and crashing into Father.
That’s when the operative in my peripheral vision brings up his weapon to fire.
“No,” Father shouts, but the command is lost in the roar of the chopper blades as the soldier pulls the trigger.
I kick out at the gun, my heel making contact with the inside of the soldier’s wrist.
Instead of letting go, he hangs on and depresses the trigger. Three shots spray out. The flash of the muzzle is temporarily blinding in the dark of the helicopter bay.
The soldier leaps forward to tackle me, and suddenly the helicopter angles to the side, hard. I glance forward and see the pilot slumped over in his seat, his brain splattered against the front windscreen, the electronics sparking in the instrument panel.
The pilot is dead, and the copilot is fighting to regain control.
Suddenly the cargo bay door slides open, wind buffeting the inside of the helicopter.
It’s the soldier who was behind me. Maybe he’s planning to push me outside, get rid of the problem once and for all.
I grab some rope dangling above my head and kick out at him. The soldier goes through the open door instead of me, his arms windmilling as he flies out into the darkness.
I try to locate Father and see he’s been thrown all the way to the back of the helicopter, where he’s tangled up in cargo netting. He’s fighting to get free, but the helicopter is rolling on its side now, flinging the other soldier head over limb through the cabin. I grab at a wall handle to prevent myself from joining him. If I can claw my way to the pilot’s seat, I might have a chance to stabilize—
It’s too late.
The helicopter passes the critical angle where the rotor loses its grip on the air, and we turn like a ship keeling over in the water, rolling until we are upside down and falling out of the s
The open door is below me. I can jump and take my chances, or I can ride the bird to the ground. It’s almost always better to stay in a vehicle during a crash. The metal structure absorbs the bulk of the impact much better than human flesh. Usually. Not always.
The helicopter is still spinning and falling, the floor briefly under my feet rather than over my head. The open door is in front of me.
Stay or go? I have to decide before gravity decides for me.
I look back at Father. He’s scrambling to buckle himself into a crash seat. He shouts for me to do the same, pointing to the seat next to him. I can barely hear him over the sound of the warning alarms.
Join Father or jump?
I leap for the open door, spreading my arms to create some wind resistance as the helicopter spins down and away from me.
I relax my body as I fall. I try to flow with the impact, curling into a ball and letting inertia carry me, keeping my limbs tucked and hoping to limit the damage to my frame.
I feel myself hit and roll down the hill, my skin tearing from friction, my body moving so fast that it feels like it will never stop.
I finally come to rest in the tall grass on the banks of a river.
A hundred yards behind me, I hear the sickening crunch of metal as the helicopter smashes into the ground.
I press my face into the earth, making myself as small a target as possible. Shards of metal whiz by above my head as the helicopter rotors break up on impact. Chunks of earth fall around me.
Eventually the noise stops, replaced by the sound of the river flowing in front of me. I crawl forward and bring my lips to the water.
The drug is coursing through my system now, mitigated only by the intense adrenaline rush of the crash and fall. I dunk my head in the water, trying to stay awake, but already I am fading, the drug carrying me out of this world and into unconsciousness.
I slap at my face, forcing my eyes open. I sit up, wincing from the pain, and look behind me. The wrecked carcass of the helicopter is pressed into the side of a hill, smoke drifting in thick trails above it. The once open door is crumpled and half the roof is torn off. I can barely see the outline of bodies inside.
I stand on unsteady legs and stumble toward the wreckage, trying to make out images through the smoke. One soldier lies across the ground with his chest torn open, blood and flesh spilling out. The copilot’s torso has been forced through the shattered windscreen, his body wrecked.
I move closer still.
Inside the helicopter bay, I see a dangling arm attached to a limp body.
He’s buckled into his seat, but the helicopter is on its side, and the seat is high up in the air.
His arm moves. He is alive.
The acrid smell of aviation fuel fills my nose.
A fire has started on the other side of the helicopter. It spreads from the ground where the earth is soaked through with fuel. With a whooshing sound, the area around the helicopter catches flame.
I look to Father, his arm moving more frantically now.
He is struggling in his seat, fighting to unlatch his belt and get himself out of the wreckage. But an interior brace has fallen and covered his body, pinning him back into the seat. He cannot reach the latch.
I stumble toward him.
There is a loud popping sound and the flames rise up the sides of the helicopter.
I try to speed up, but the drug is hitting me hard. My vision grays out at the edges. My feet seem to belong to someone else.
I get within twenty feet of the helicopter, but the flames are licking up the sides and rolling along the top, engulfing the entire craft, moving toward the fuel tank. I know what’s going to happen, but I’m powerless to stop it, unable to get there in time.
Father knows what’s about to happen, too, because his clawing motion stops. His body grows still.
I look in and see his face lit by flames.
He is awake and looking back at me.
I was trained to call this man Father, but he was never my father. He was my commander. If we had gotten to our destination, he would have become my interrogator.
He has been other things as well. My savior. My mentor.
Much has passed between us, good and bad. My feelings about him are complex, but I would save him now if I could.
Maybe he knows this. Our eyes meet, and he appears to be smiling at me.
It’s a generous smile, almost like forgiveness.
Then the helicopter explodes, blowing me to the ground and pulling me into an inky blackness that is not sleep, not death, but something in between.
MY EYES ARE OPEN.
But I do not remember opening them.
The moon is bright above me. I am moving slowly across the grass, but not under my own power.
How is that possible?
It takes me a few moments to put it together.
I’m being dragged, my arms above my head, Howard grasping my wrists as he pulls me away from the crash.
I try to speak, but my mouth does not work. I cannot control the muscles of my lips.
I gasp for air. I feel my eyes roll into the back of my head.
“Something’s wrong,” I hear Howard say.
Who is he talking to?
I cannot feel my body, but I sense something bad is happening. The oxygen is not flowing to my brain.
I must have stopped breathing. I should be afraid, but I am not. Is my neurosuppressor so effective in its design that I can watch myself die without fear?
“What do we do?” I hear Howard say.
His voice has the panicked edge that my own thoughts do not.
“Can you hear me, Zach?” Tanya’s voice now.
My body stops moving as her face appears above mine.
What is Tanya doing here?
“Zach?” she says.
I cannot answer her. I can only look at her eyes, noting how beautiful they are. The fact surprises me, as if I’ve never really looked at her before.
She kneels next to me. She slaps at my face, but there is no pain.
“Stay with me,” she says.
I want to. I can’t.
She slaps again.
I think of Samara on the ground in Central Park, looking up at me after I injected her with poison.
It doesn’t hurt, she said.
“Zach,” Tanya shouts again, her voice upset.
It doesn’t hurt, I try to tell her, but I cannot form the words.
Tanya’s face comes close to mine. I remember a lesson from my training: It is dangerous to let people get too close to you. They can harm you when they are close.
Tanya presses her lips to mine.
Why is she kissing me?
The light of the moon grows brighter. The hazy thoughts gain focus.
Tanya lifts her head, takes a breath, and kisses me again.
That’s when I understand that she isn’t kissing me. She’s performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
The realization is funny to me, but I cannot laugh.
I can only lie there, unmoving, while her lips bring me back to life.
I DO NOT DREAM.
I float in darkness for an undetermined amount of time. Eventually a light in my eyes awakens me. Only then do I realize I’ve been sleeping.
I’m looking at a painted white ceiling above my head, a light fixture with a ceiling fan slowly whirring. It’s a decorative fan, one you’d find in someone’s home.
What am I doing in a home?
I look to the side of the bed.
Tanya is there, holding my hand. Or so it seems for a second until I realize she’s checking my pulse. She glances up at me, startled to find me awake.
“You’re back,” she says.
“How long was I out?” I try to sit up, but the room spins.
“Easy,” she says, propping up pillows behind me.
“All night. It’s morning now.”
I look out th
“Where are we?” I say.
“A house. It was empty. We broke in.”
“Howard checked. We’ve been here all night without a problem.”
“You’re awake,” Howard says, appearing in the doorway. I’m surprised by how much of a relief it is to see him.
“Are you feeling okay?” I say.
“I’m good,” he says, “but I’m not the one who survived a helicopter crash.”
The crash. It comes back to me in a series of flashes. The struggle inside the helicopter, the violence of impact, followed by the flames. I see a man smiling at me.
“Did anyone else make it?” I ask.
Howard shakes his head. “No,” he says. “Only you.”
“We have to get out of here,” I say, trying to sit up.
Again, Tanya puts out a hand to stop me. “Slow down,” she says.
“You don’t understand,” I say.
“I understand very well,” she says. “I was there, Zach.”
“I followed you through the woods to the pickup point.”
“We drove to the pickup point. It was five miles.”
“You haven’t seen me run yet,” she says. “You don’t know how fast I am.”
“You saw the crash?”
“And I saw Father,” she says.
“Who?” Howard says.
“One of the men who died. We call him Father,” Tanya says. “He is second in command of The Program. Was, I should say.”
I monitor her face, trying to understand her reaction. Our commander was killed because of me. What is she going to do about it?
“They’ll be looking for us now,” I say.
“They’ve been looking all along,” Tanya says.
“Not like they will now. You know what I mean.”
“We’re far away from the crash,” Howard says.
“Twenty miles,” Tanya says.
“You dragged me for twenty miles?”
“We got a ride.”
“It was a trucker,” Howard says. “Big rig. Tanya told him you were drunk and we needed a ride. He drove us, dropped us off nearby, then kept going.”
“They’ll find the trucker,” I say.
ALLEN ZADOFF SERIES:
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