Chapter 1: Sev CHAPTER 1 Sev
THEY SAY TO FIND A hero you can’t look to the past. Heroes from stories aren’t real anyway, and that’s what the past is, right? A story told by whoever had the biggest gun. Instead, we’re supposed to find heroes around us.
I have nowhere to look, though, because my body won’t look. It’s made of ashes and wind and dead things, nothing but an echo of a heartbeat left inside me. My life has turned into a dream, every moment I’m Asleep making it harder to remember what it was like to be awake. If there was a hero next to me I wouldn’t know, because all I can see is the dark side of my eyelids, feel the grainy sheet on the bed underneath me. The only things that change are sounds. Temperature. Right now I’m cold. I can hear the steady plink, plink, plink of fluid dripping to my IV.
The door hinge squeaks, and cool air washes over me from the hallway like a breeze from the ocean, vast as a year and deep as the sky. If my body could tense, it would, but instead I’m curled up inside my mind, waiting for whoever it is to poke or prod me. To pick up my dead weight and throw me in a burn pile, mutter ugly things into my dead ears, or touch my dead body because I can’t stop them. Whoever it is stays quiet, lurking near my bed.
You are alive, not dead. It’s a whisper at the back of my mind, crumpled like a wet sheet of paper. Just like the princess in our story. Asleep until someone kisses you awake.
I wish I could grimace, because that’s not the only ending I’ve heard to the sleeping princess’s story. Also, I don’t want anyone in Dr. Yang’s base to kiss me, thank you very much.
The person prowling in my room sits in what I think must be a chair, the legs squeaking under their weight. I hear quick, nervous breaths that are free of a gas mask’s rusty tang. The bit of me that’s still awake braces for violence or worse. No mask means SS now, and SS is a beast that I don’t have the muscles to fight anymore.
“We’ve done everything you asked.” A muffled voice filters through the closed door. Helix, my brain supplies. The Menghu who killed June’s father. The person invading my room bolts up from the chair, footsteps padding to the far side of my bed away from the door. “There isn’t enough Mantis to last us much longer.” Helix’s voice grows louder, though it’s still attempting a respectful tone. “You promised—”
“Don’t argue with me, Captain Lan.” That’s Dr. Yang. The door opens again, his footsteps tapping in, probably here for my weekly checkup. I think it’s weekly. Maybe it’s daily, and I’ve only been lying here for two days. I can’t tell.
He pauses inside the room. “Aren’t you supposed to be sending orders to Dazhai?” Not speaking to me, because he knows I cannot answer.
The intruder by my bed doesn’t move for a good thirty seconds. But then the sound of army boots on concrete rings out as they leave my side and walk out the door.
Eight years my mother survived this. Eight years she listened, keeping her mind awake so she’d be able to pass on the possibility of curing SS. I’m like her, I guess. Dr. Yang put me to Sleep for knowing the truth too. That the note Mother left me in the device we found at Dazhai wasn’t gibberish. It was a clue telling me where to find the cure.
“Medicine is an exact science.” The doctor is speaking again, vague amusement at my unauthorized visitor melting away to leave only clinical precision. “You’ll have to trust me, Helix. I promised you a cure, but you and your soldiers will have to be patient.”
He can’t get the cure. Not unless I tell him where Mother hid it. The tiny living part inside me raises her head, listening to Helix’s silence. It’s heavy. A waiting silence that could end in death or destruction or maybe a cup of tea. It’s hard to tell. All I know is Helix doesn’t ask any more questions.