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Unwind, p.29

Unwind, page 29

 part  #1 of  Unwind Dystology Series


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Page 29


  "Youll do fine. Youre a natural," the senior medic, who is all of seventeen, tells her. Hes right. Once she gets used to the idea, handling first aid, standard illnesses, and even suturing simple wounds becomes as familiar to her as playing the piano. The days begin to pass quickly, and before she realizes it, shes been there a month. Each day that goes by adds to her sense of security. The Admiral was an odd bird, but hed done something no one else had been able to do for her since shed left StaHo. Hed given her back her right to exist.

  34 Connor

  Like Risa, Connor finds his niche by accident. Connor never considered himself mechanically capable, but there are few things he can stand less than a bunch of morons standing around looking at something that doesnt work and wondering whos going to fix it. During that first week, while Risas off learning how to be an exceptionally good fake doctor, Connor decides to figure out the workings of a fried air-conditioning unit, then find replacement parts from one of the junk piles and get it working again.

  He soon comes to realize its the same way with every other broken thing he comes across. Sure, it began with trial and error, but the errors become fewer and fewer as the days go by. There are plenty of other kids who claim to be mechanics, and are really good at explaining why things wont work. Connor, on the other hand, actually fixes them.

  It quickly gets him reassigned from trash duty to the repair crew, and since there are endless things to repair, it keeps his mind off of other things . . . such as how little he gets to see Risa in the Admirals tightly structured world . . . and how quickly Roland is advancing through the social ranks of the place.

  Roland has managed to get himself one of the best assignments in the Graveyard. By working the angles and applying plenty of flattery, hes been taken on as the pilots assistant. Mostly, he just keeps the helicopter cleaned and fueled, but the assignment reeks of an apprenticeship.

  "Hes teaching me how to fly it," he overhears Roland tell a bunch of other kids one day. Connor shudders to think of Roland behind the controls of a helicopter, but many kids are impressed by Roland. His age gives him seniority, and his manipulations gain him either fear or respect from a surprising number of others. Roland draws his negative energy from the kids around him, and there are a lot of kids here for him to draw from.

  Social manipulation is not one of Connors strengths. Even among his own team, hes a bit of a mystery. Kids know not to tread on him, because he has a low tolerance for irritation and idiocy. But theres no one theyd rather have on their side than Connor.

  "People like you because youve got integrity," Hayden tells him. "Even when youre being an ass. "

  Connor has to laugh at that. Him? Integrity? There have been plenty of people in Connors life who would think differently. But on the other hand, hes changing. Hes been getting into fewer fights. Maybe its because theres more room to breathe here than in the warehouse. Or maybe hes been working out his brain enough for it to successfully muscle his impulses into line. A lot of that has to do with Risa, because every time he forces himself to think before acting, its her voice in his head telling him to slow down. He wants to tell her, but shes always so busy in the medical jet—and you dont just go to somebody and say, "Im a better person because youre in my head. "

  Shes also still in Rolands head, and that worries Connor. At first Risa had been a tool to provoke Connor into a fight, but now Roland sees her as a prize. Now, instead of using brute strength against her he tries to charm her at every turn.

  "Youre not actually falling for him, are you?" he asks her one day, on one of the rare occasions he can get her alone.

  "Ill pretend you didnt just ask that," she tells him in disgust. Rut Connor has reasons to wonder.

  "On that first night here, he offered you his blanket, and you accepted it," he points out.

  "Only because I knew it would make him cold. "

  "And when he offers you his food, you take it. "

  "Because it means he goes hungry. "

  Its coolly logical. Connor finds it amazing that she can put her emotions aside and be as calculating as Roland, beating him at his own game. Another reason for Connor to admire her.

  * * *

  "Work call!"

  It happens about once a week beneath the meeting canopy—the only structure in the entire graveyard that isnt part of a plane, and the only place large enough to gather all 423 kids. Work call. A chance to get out into the real world. A chance to have a life. Sort of.

  The Admiral never attends, but there are video feeds from the meeting canopy, just as there are feeds all over the yard, so everyone knows hes watching. Whether or not every camera is constantly monitored, no one knows, but the potential for being seen is always there. Connor did not care for the Admiral the first day he met him. The sight of all those video cameras shortly thereafter made Connor like him even less. It seems each day theres something to add to his general feeling of disgust with the man.

  Amp leads the work call meeting with his megaphone and clipboard. "A man in Oregon needs a team of five to clear cut a few acres of forest," Amp announces. "Youll be given room and board, and taught to use the tools of the trade. The job should take a few months, and at the end youll get new identities. Eighteen-year-old identities. "

  Amp doesnt let them know the salary, because there is none. The Admiral gets paid, though. He gets paid a purchase price.

  "Any takers?"

  There are always takers. Sure enough, more than a dozen hands go up. Sixteen-year-olds, mostly. Seventeens are too close to eighteen to make it worth their while, and younger kids are too intimidated by the prospect.

  "Report to the Admiral after this meeting. Hell make the final decision as to who goes. "

  Work call infuriates Connor. He never puts his hand up, even if its something he might actually want to do. "The Admirals using us," he says to the kids around him. "Dont you see that?"

  Most of the kids just shrug, but Haydens there, and he never misses an opportunity to add his peculiar wisdom to a situation. "Id rather be used whole than in pieces," Hayden says.

  Amp looks at his clipboard and holds up the megaphone again. "Housecleaning services," he says. "Three are needed, female preferred. No false IDs, but the location is secure and remote—which means youll be safe from the Juvey-cops until you turn eighteen. "

  Connor wont even look. "Please tell me no one raised their hand. "

  "About six girls—all seventeen years old, it looks like," says Hayden. "I guess no one wants to be a house-girl for more than a year. "

  "This place isnt a refuge, its a slave market. Why doesnt anyone see that?"

  "Who says they dont sec it? Its just that unwinding makes slavery look good. Its always the lesser of two evils. "

  "I dont see why there have to be any evils at all. "

  As the meeting breaks up, Connor feels a hand on his shoulder. He thinks it must be a friend, but its not. Its Roland. Its such a surprise, it takes Connor a moment before he reacts. He shakes Rolands hand off. "Something you want?"

  "Just to talk. "

  "Dont you have a helicopter to wash?"

  Roland smiles at that. "Less washing, more flying. Cleaver made me his unofficial copilot. "

  "Cleaver must have a death wish. " Connor doesnt know who hes more disgusted with: Roland, or the pilot for being suckered in by him.

  Roland looks around at the thinning crowd. "The Admirals got some racket going here, doesnt he?" he says. "Most of the losers here dont care. But it bothers you, doesnt it?"

  "Your point?"

  "Just that youre not the only one who thinks the Admiral needs some . . . retraining. "

  Connor doesnt like where this is going. "What I think of the Admiral is my business. "

  "Of course it is. Have you seen his teeth, by the way?"

  "What about them?"

  "Pretty obvious that theyre not his. I hear he keeps a picture of the kid he got them from in his office. An Unwind
like us, who, thanks to him, never made it to eighteen. Makes you wonder how much more of him comes from us. Makes you wonder if theres anything left of the original Admiral at all. "

  This is too much information to process here and now— and considering the source, Connor doesnt want to process it at all. But he knows he will.

  "Roland, let me make this as clear to you as I can. I dont trust you. I dont like you. I dont want to have anything to do with you. "

  "I cant stand you, either," Roland says, then he points to the Admirals jet. "But right now, weve got the same enemy. "

  Roland strolls off before anyone else can take notice of their conversation, leaving Connor with a heaviness in his stomach. The very idea that he and Roland could in any way be on the same side makes him feel like he swallowed something rancid.

  * * *

  For a week the seed that Roland planted in Connors brain grows. Its fertile ground, because Connor already distrusted the Admiral. Now, every time he sees the man, Connor notices something. His teeth are perfect. Theyre not the teeth of an aging war veteran. The way he looks at people—looking into their eyes—its as if he were sizing those eyes up, looking for a pair that might suit him. And those kids that disappear on work calls—since they never come back, whos to know where they really go? Whos to say they dont all get sent off to be unwound? The Admiral says his goal is to save Unwinds, but what if hes got an entirely different agenda? These thoughts keep Connor awake at night, but he wont share them with anyone, because once he does, it aligns him with Roland. And thats an alliance he never wants to make.

  * * *

  During their fourth week in the Graveyard, while Connor is still building his case against the Admiral in his own mind, a plane arrives. Its the first one since the old FedEx jet that brought them here, and like that jet, this one is packed full of live cargo. While the five Goldens march the new arrivals from their jet, Connor works on a faulty generator. He watches them with mild interest as they pass, wondering if any of them would be more mechanically skilled than him and bump him into a less enviable position.

  Then, toward the back of the line of kids is a face he thinks he recognizes. Someone from home? No. Someone else. All at once it comes to him who this is. Its the boy he was sure had been unwound weeks ago. Its the kid he kidnapped for his own good. Its Lev!

  Connor drops his wrench and runs toward him, but gains control before he gets there, burying his mixed flood of feelings beneath a calm saunter. This is the kid who betrayed him. This is the kid he once swore hed never forgive. And yet the thought of him unwound had been too much to bear. But Lev hasnt been unwound—hes right here, marching off to the supply jet. Connor is thrilled. Connor is furious.

  Lev doesnt see him yet—and thats fine, because it gives Connor some time to take in what he sees. This is no longer the clean-cut tithe he pulled out of his parents car more than two months before. This kid has long, unkempt hair and a hardened look about him. This kid isnt in tithing whites but wears torn jeans and a dirty red T-shirt. Connor wants to let him pass, just so he can have time to process this new image, but Lev sees him, and gives him a grin right away. This is also different—because during that brief time they knew each other, Lev had never been pleased by Connors presence.

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